The year 2020 will likely see a lot of introspection, as 20/20 is also the term for perfect vision. And many people can only see 20/20 today due to a Czech invention – the soft contact lens.
The invention of the soft contact lens is a somewhat tragic tale with roots in World War II and the communist era. Inventor Otto Wichterle, born in the Moravian town of Prostějov in 1913, was blown around like a character in a Victorian picaresque novel by a series of political upheavals. A few brief moments of calm were always followed by years of turmoil. But nothing stopped him in his chemical research.
He received little but grief and a few hundred dollars for his revolutionary contribution to better vision. In the 1960s the state barely supported his research, and he had to work at home with laboratory equipment made from a children’s toy. But when it was successful, the government reaped all the benefits.
Not only was Wichterle swindled out of any monetary benefit, but his political activism in the Normalisation era landed him on the blacklist until the Velvet Revolution came.
He was no stranger to politics getting in the way of his passion for plastic. In 1939, the occupying Nazi forces banned him from further academic study, and he was even jailed briefly in 1942.
Wichterle found refuge in the research department of Czech shoemaker Baťa in Zlín, where in 1940 he invented silon, a synthetic fiber similar to nylon which was invented at roughly the same time in the United States.
His luck improved a little after World War II ended. In 1952 he became dean of the Institute of Chemical Technology, which is now known as the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, one of the best technical universities in Europe.
He started looking into creating a water-permeable gel for contact lenses, and applied for an initial chemical patent in 1953, but the substance was still too crude. Further breakthroughs followed, along with contributions from another scientist named Drahoslav Lím, until 1958, when there was another academic purge. Wichterle and others at the Institute of Chemical Technology were forced out.
The communist government, which was always looking for a way to get hard cash from the West, did see the value in chemical patents, as they could be licensed. The government let him continue his research at the new Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry, but the institute at first was just an idea, not a building.
Wichterle was forced to work at home, with little support, on a contraption he built from a children’s toy called Merkur, a type of erector set with metal slats, rods, and wheels that can be connected with screws.
Using the erector set, a motor from his son’s bicycle, and other spare parts, he made a centrifuge to shape this new “hydrogel,” as it was called, into lenses. Success came on Christmas Day in 1961, when he made the first soft contact lens prototypes on his kitchen table with the help of his wife, Linda.
After filling out the patent application, he made larger machines using a more powerful motor from a record player. Soon he was making over 1,000 lenses per month.
His lenses offered many advantages compared to those which had preceded his invention. Hard lenses, the earliest type, could injure the cornea by robbing it of oxygen. For this reason, they could only be worn for a short time, and they were incredibly uncomfortable.
These were followed by rigid lenses, which did let oxygen through, but were still uncomfortable and prone to breaking. Like new shoes, it took users a while to get used to the rigid lenses.
The soft lenses Wichterle invented were more comfortable right from the start, fitting easily around the cornea and letting in sufficient oxygen so they could be worn for longer periods. And they could be rolled or even folded without breaking.
The National Patent Development Corporation (NPDC) bought the US rights to the lens process in 1965, though they were not approved for use there until 1971. Optical equipment giant Bausch + Lomb sublicensed the rights to make the lenses from NPDC. The soft lenses quickly became more popular than their rigid counterparts. Hundreds of millions of people have used them worldwide.
Scientists and workers were, in theory, the backbone of the socialist society. Wichterle, who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, should have been the poster boy for the Czechoslovak spirit. But by the time the lenses were approved for use internationally, Wichterle had once again fallen out of the regime’s good graces.
He had signed “The Two Thousand Words to Workers, Farmers, Officials, Scientists, Artists, and Everyone,” a manifesto calling for the Czechoslovak people to hold the Communist Party responsible for the lack of openness in society, the workers’ powerlessness, and the generally poor moral and economic climate.
Despite holding over 100 valuable patents and authoring many scientific papers, he lost his academic standing again and was ejected from his prestigious institutional positions. This cut him off from international scientific circles and even domestic career opportunities. Teaching and research became more difficult.
Finally, the storm clouds in his life lifted in 1989, but he was 76 years old by then. He had a few more years in the spotlight as president of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, and then honorary president of the Czech Academy of Sciences after Czechoslovakia split in 1993. He passed away in 1998.
Wichterle belatedly became a member of many international scientific groups and received numerous awards, degrees, and accolades. An asteroid was named after him in 1993, and a high school in 2006.
Czech inventions that have changed the world are a great source of local pride, and there is even a saying, “Golden Czech hands and clever Czech heads” (zlaté české ručičky a chytré české hlavičky). People sometimes use the slang word “Czechnology” for clever solutions to difficult problems.
The list of inventions and discoveries is rather long. Many items are taken for granted, but each has its own tale to tell. Aside from soft contact lenses, the list contains the sugar cube, cloth-mesh bag, fingerprints, biological cell theory, the concept of genetics, blood types, the arc lamp, the screw propeller, and the explosive Semtex – and that barely scratches the surface.