The Early Modern Microscope

The Early Modern Microscope

            The invention of the microscope is shrouded in mystery and contention; often overshadowed by its more celebrated colleague the telescope, microscopy was slow to catch on and quick to die off in the seventeenth century (although it would be revived again in the nineteenth-century biological world). In their brief time in the scientific limelight, however, microscopes extended human knowledge in the direction of the miniscule and at the same time contributed to the downfall of the Aristotelian worldview. They provided access to a swarming, active world of “animalcules” that had previously been invisible, and the implications of this admission would be major for the natural sciences for years to come.

Since the Hellenistic era, humans had been using various materials to magnify their world, oftentimes to aid those with poor eyesight. Seneca, in the first century AD, described using water globes to magnify the lettering in texts, and Pliny chronicles Emperor Nero’s use of a concave emerald to enhance his view of gladiator contests. Florentines in the thirteenth-century were using eyeglasses.[1] Because of these examples of early magnification, it is difficult for the historian to distinguish a certain development as representative of the “invention” of a “microscope.” Some attribute its development to the Dutch father and son duo Hans and Zacharias Jansen, and some claim Hans Lippershey deserves the title; either way, it was the lens crafters of Middelburg, Netherlands in the last decade of the sixteenth-century that were the first to produce a new, distinct instrument of magnification potentially worthy of being classified as an early microscope.

Men engaged in the study of the natural world had, up to the seventeenth-century, not put much thought into what might be too small for their senses to glean. C. H. Lüthy describes why in his article on the early microscope’s relation to the telescope; Aristotle was an anti-atomist, believing that “when several elements combine to form further compounds… they lose their individual forms or qualities in favor of one single and homogeneous new form.”[2] With this assumption, magnifying matter would be rather useless and uninformative. It would take peering into the realm of minutia to debunk this belief and return to the atomist, or corpuscularian, theories of antiquity. At a time when many scientists were already questioning Aristotle’s philosophy, microscopic observations provided yet another nail in the coffin.

One such observer was Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a relatively poor Dutch draper with excellent eyesight. His accomplishments to a modern student of biology seem fantastic — he is credited as the first observer of protozoa, algae, yeast, bacteria, and human sperm — and he used very simple, single-lens microscopes that he ground and created himself. Each microscope was created for a single specimen, and at his death, several hundred microscopes with specimens still mounted were among his possessions.[3] Though he spoke only Dutch, he interacted regularly with the Royal Society in London, ensuring his work’s dissemination among the European scientific community.[4]

Although the microscope was not an invention bred of a passionate curiosity to uncover the mysteries of the minute, its rise coincided and reinforced the fall of Aristotle’s dominion over natural philosophy. After the initial discoveries, it quickly fell out of the scientific landscape until its revival in the nineteenth-century, in large part due to the lack of practical applicability it offered medical and natural philosophical men. But its contributions were important and would become moreso in the centuries to come.

[1] William J. Croft, Under the Microscope: A Brief History of Microscopy (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Pte. Ltd, 2006), 4-5.

[2] C. H. Lüthy, “Atomism, Lynceus, and the Fate of Seventeenth-Century Microscopy,” Early Science and Medicine 1, no. 1 (1996): 12.

[3] A. D. S. Khattab, “Dances with microscopes: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723),” Cytopathology 6, no. 4 (1995): 216.

[4] Ibid.


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