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In the 19th century John Mayall made copies of many early microscopes, showing both a good understanding of the instruments, and a high level of craftsmanship himself. Among the small collection of these reproductions in the collections of the Whipple Museum there are two made after the design of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

Scarcity of Early Microscopes

Drawing of a 'Leeuwenhoek' microscope.
Image 1 Baker's drawing of a 'Leeuwenhoek' microscope, from Employment for the Microscope, 1753. Image © the Whipple Library.

As public interest in contemporary microscopy grew in Victorian England so did interest in the history of microscopy. This in turn led to the formation a small number of private collections. Unfortunately for collectors very few of the earliest microscopes survived.

Among the most highly prized microscopes were those made by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the famous Dutch pioneer of microscopy. After Leeuwenhoek's death in 1723, 26 of his silver microscopes were given to the Royal Society of London and were described by the Vice-President Martin Folkes. Their magnification powers were later examined in 1741 by Henry Baker, who also provides us with an illustration of their appearance in 1753 (Image 1). It is unclear when, but at some stage in the 19th century, all 26 of the microscopes were lost.

John Mayall and the 1886 replicas

Drawing of a 'Leeuwenhoek' microscope.
Image 2 Mayall's drawing of a 'Leeuwenhoek' microscope, from the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society 1886. Image © the Whipple Library.

John Mayall (Junior) was a prominent member of both the Queckett Microcsopical Club and the Royal Microscopical Society. He was a friend of the lawyer and microscopist Sir Frank Crisp and helped him to acquire microscopes for his extensive collection. Notably Mayall was involved in the acquisition by Crisp of microscopes from Kings College London, including several items which had been part of the King George III collection.

In 1886 a professor from Utrecht, while in London, paid a visit to the Royal Microscopical Society, bringing with him one of Leeuwenhoek's original microscopes belonging to the Zoological Laboratories at the University of Utrecht. He allowed Mayall, then a secretary to the Society, to "make careful drawings and models of the instrument" (Images 2 & 3).(1)

Lost microscopes

Replica 'Leeuwenhoek' microscope
Image 3 Replica 'Leeuwenhoek' microscope, made by John Mayall; 1886 (Wh.1817).

No illustrations were made of the Royal Society's Leeuwenhoek microscopes until 1753 and Mayall reports that even then "they do not give a clear idea of the construction of the instruments".(2) As one of the earliest 'microscopists', Leeuwenhoek was seen as a heroic figure and there was a history of speculation into how he was able to achieve his magnifications with such seemingly basic microscopes.

Mayall writes that "the general impression during his [Leeuwenhoek's] lifetime seems to have been that he utilized lenses consisting of spherules of blown glass", and that it was Henry Baker who in 1740 discovered that "the magnifiers were not spherules of blown-glass, but bi-convex lenses".(3)

Mayall is critical of Folkes' earlier report and claims it to have been done "somewhat vaguely" and appeared "not to have directed his attention minutely to their construction". Interestingly he misses that it was Folkes, not Baker, that first noticed Leeuwenhoek's lenses were bi-convex:

"For the construction of these Instruments, it is the same in them all, and the Apparatus is very simple and convenient: They are all single Microscopes, consisting each of a very small double Convex-Glass." (4)

Read more:


  1. J. Mayall, 'Leeuwenhoek's microscopes', Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society, series II vol. VI (1886), 1047-1049, p. 1048.
  2. Same reference as above, p. 1048.
  3. Same reference as above, p. 1047.
  4. M. Folkes, 'Some account of Mr. Leewenhoek's curious microscopes lately presented to the Royal Society', Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 32 (1723), 446-453, p. 449.

James Hyslop

James Hyslop, 'John Mayall and reproductions of early microscopes', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008

Next Article: The Problems with Lenses

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