Wichterle's Contact Lenses Machine from MERKUR
Mr. Otto Wichterle was born in Prostejov, where his grandfather founded a company that made agricultural machines. After graduating on a high school he wanted to study mechanical engineering, but eventually went in 1931 at the University of Chemical Technology. One of the motivations for studying chemistry was an effort to erase negative impression of Professor Quadrat, when Wichterle in one of the first lessons didn’t know the formula of potassium dichromate. He wrote his thesis with Professor Votočka in 1935 and in 1936 received his doctorate in technical sciences. Then he worked for Professor Votočka as an assistant until the closing of universities on 17. 11. 1939. Since 1940 he was employed at Baa research institute in Zlin, where he led a group of employees dealing with polyamides.He developed technology for caprolactam production and in 1941 he prepared a polyamide fibers which could be spun. After a series of complications related with the German occupation and then with the problems of post-war industry, the production of these polyamides named SILON didn’t start for ten more years.
In 1945 Wichterle returned to the University of Chemical Technology, where he completed his habilitation in organic chemistry, which was interrupted by the closing of universities in 1939. Then he began to teach general and inorganic chemistry. He wrote a textbook of inorganic chemistry, which was ahead of its time and even wrote German and Czech textbook of organic chemistry. In 1949 he expanded his habilitation towards the field of plastic technology and fully devoted himself to the establishment of the department of technology of plastics. In the same year he became the first professor and chairman of this department.
Since 1952 he began to deal with the synthesis of crosslinked hydrophilic gels which swell with water, with the aim of finding a suitable material for ocular implants. He succeeded to manufacture poly-hydroxyethyl methacrylate gel, which absorbed 40 percent of water, had appropriate mechanical properties and was transparent. After a political purge in 1958 by the Communist leadership of the University of Chemical Technology, Professor Wichterle along with many other excellent teachers was fired from school.
At Christmas 1961 he made his first prototype of centrifugal casting equipment from MERKUR construction kit. It was powered by the dynamo of a bicycle connected to the bell transformer. With it he made the first four very regular lenses that didn’t irritate the eye.
The dream about a correction of eye disorder was first described in 1508 by Leonardo da Vinci and eventually realized by Professor Otto Wichterle. Today there are about 100 million people on our planet that use contact lenses which can be quickly and easily applied. In 1990 Professor Otto Wichterle - member of international society, holder of numerous international awards and honorary doctorates from universities around the world - was elected for chairman of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, a post he held until the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993.