Article written by Raymond Johnston and originally published by Oko! Magazine, an official partner of Kafkadesk.
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 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 in 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…