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Since the microscope was invented, just before 1600, people have been fascinated by the new world it allowed us to view. This section explains how people have interacted with that world. The Whipple Museum has a collection of over 400 microscopes and accessories, dating from the late 17th century to the present. Some of the most important microscopes in the collection were owned and used by famous scientists, such as Charles Darwin.

The articles in this section explain various aspects of the history of microscopy. Some of the most interesting stories concern the people who actually made and used microscopes. These 'associations' are emphasised throughout. Browse the articles using the links below or on the menu to the left of the page.

A microscope compendium containing many different parts in a portable case; microscopes are shown assembled in the foreground.

A Brief History of the Microscope

Although we think of the microscope as being an important part of biological and medical research, its role was not always so clear. Here you can get an overview of the microscope's history.

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Detail of a collapsible single-lens microscope showing lens and slide

Parts of the Microscope

Microscopes haven't always looked the way they do now. There have been countless different designs, many of which were proposed in the 18th century. Here the most important parts are identified, and some of the more unusual designs illustrated.

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Detail (stage and objective lens) from Darwin's microscope

Charles Darwin's Microscopes

Darwin owned a number of different microscopes, one of which is is now in the collections of the Whipple (Image 1). This microscope was used for examining barnacles and plants, both of which occupied Darwin later in his career.

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Glass fish plate, inscribed around the edge with "This Glasse is to Lay a Fish on to See ye Circulation of ye Blood, ye Animalcula in Liquids or any Transparent objects etc."

Fish-plates and Frog-plates: Live Examination Under the Microscope

One of the major discoveries of the 17th century was that blood circulated through small vessels called capillaries. With new microscope accessories a fish or frog could be strapped down and the capillaries observed through its semi-transparent body.

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Detail of side-pillar microscope

Three Microscope Makers

The important role of instrument makers in the history of science is increasingly being acknowledged. Their practical knowledge is no longer seen as 'inferior' to theoretical knowledge, and in many cases the false distinctions between scientist and artisan have been removed. But instrument makers in the 18th-century had...

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Detail of an advertisement for a microscope demonstration by John Cuff

Public Microscope Shows in the 18th Century

One important trend in 18th-century microscopy was in making natural philosophy available to the public. Some microscopes were designed to allow more than one person to view the image at once, and microscope demonstrations were held alongside lectures and other entertainments.

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Faraday's slide, bearing the inscription "Faraday's gold given to me himself after his lecture at the RI".

Michael Faraday's Microscope Slide

This slide was used by Faraday in a lecture on "gold sols", given at the Royal Institution in 1858. Faraday was one of the most important English scientists of the 19th century, and his lectures were famous for their highly choreographed experiments.

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The Earliest Measurements of Microscopic Objects

Perhaps one of the most important issues regarding the use of microscopes in the 18th century was micrometry: measuring tiny objects. There were a number of different methods proposed, one of which was a fine lattice of silver wire.

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Painting of van Leeuwenhoek by Johannes Vermeer: "The Geographer".

A Dutch Pioneer: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek captured his own specimens to look at under the microscope. One of the most famous and impressive early 'microscopists', Leeuwenhoek examined mosquitoes, blood and even material that he had picked out of his teeth. Three articles explain his importance, and some later reproductions of his unusual microscopes.

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Detail showing the stage and objective lens of the 1730s microscope used to take the image of a flea, shown below.

The Problems with Lenses, and the 19th-century Solution

Until about 1830 two major problems had affected lens manufacture: chromatic aberration G and spherical aberration. G These problems were solved by J. J. Lister, and the microscope made by his colleague William Tulley is one of the most significant instruments of the period.

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Reflecting microscope

Amici Microscopes and Thomas Romney Robinson

Giovanni Battista Amici was an Italian professor who developed a type of microscope that used mirrors instead of lenses. One Amici microscope in the collections of the Whipple was owned by Thomas Romney Robinson, an Irish astronomer with an interest in scientific instrumentation.

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Botanical teaching poster showing various diagrams of the plant genus Anthoceros

The Henslows: two generations of Cambridge botanists

John Stevens Henslow and his son, George, both held the post of professor of botany at the University of Cambridge in the 19th century. A number of items relating to their work survive, including a microscope and accessories.

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Two of Dancer's microphotographs: The Ten Commandments and St Paul's Cathedral


John Benjamin Dancer was a Manchester-based instrument maker and inventor, and was the first to take 'microphotographs' - photographs only visible though a microscope.

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Elcock's archive of microscope slides and preparatory materials, displayed in portable wooden cases

The Foraminifera Slides and Working Tools of Microscope Slide Maker Charles Elcock

Charles Elcock was a naturalist, museum curator, and professional microscope slide maker. His remarkable personal archive of slides and mounting materials provide a rare insight into the often overlooked world of nineteenth century microscope slide manufacture.

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