skip to content

These two 'microscope compendia' were both probably made by Benjamin Martin (circa 1705-1784), around 1775. They contain complete sets of microscopical apparatus: one microscope for general observations, one portable, one for demonstrations, and the equipment for a 'megalascope' - a microscope for 'larger' objects.

Martin's catalogue

A microscope compendium containing many different parts in a portable case; microscopes are shown assembled in the foreground.
Image 1: Microscope compendium, probably made by Benjamin Martin; circa 1775. Two different types of microscope have been constructed, and the many accessories are also shown (Wh.1795).

A catalogue of instruments, prints, and books offered for sale by Benjamin Martin in 1762 included the following, under the category of Instruments invented or improved, by B. Martin:

"A compleat Apparatus of Optical Instruments in Brass, consisting of a new universal compound Microscope, a Solar Microscope of the latest Improvements; with a Megalascope, and Stand for [James] Wilson's Microscope. The Whole is furnished with every thing necessary for the nicest Observations with the Microscope."

The 'megalascope'

Though both unsigned, these two compendia (Images 1 & 2) were almost certainly sold by Martin, and they contain all of the apparatus listed. The "universal compound Microscope", "Solar Microscope", and "Wilson's Microscope" were all standard designs of the mid-18th century, but the "Megalascope" was Martin's own invention. Martin himself described the instrument, in a pamphlet of 1738:

"By a MEGALASCOPE is understood an Instrument which gives a magnified View of all the larger Sort of small Objects, and is sometimes called a Fossil-Microscope, Cloth Microscope, &c ... the Objects are so much magnified, and their Parts so separate and distinct, that we scarcely know them in this new Point of View, or can reconcile them to the Ideas they impress on the Mind by the natural Appearance."

Martin here suggests that customers should purchase and use the megalascope because it showed objects to be completely different from their appearance to the naked eye. He was using the unfamiliar nature of the microscopical world as a selling-point. In this context the microscope can be seen as a curiosity, able to engage and fascinate an audience, by showing familar objects in a new way.

Parody of an instrument

A microscope compendium, with all parts disassembled and packed away in a case.
Image 2: Another compendium, again unsigned but probably made by Benjamin Martin; circa 1775. Here all of the parts are neatly packed away (Wh.0206).

The megalascope existed in various forms in the 18th century. In spite of Martin's advocacy of the instrument, later notoriety came from a parody by Lewis Carroll in the following century:

"'But we've seen Elephants before,' the Emperor grumbled.

'Yes, but not through a Megaloscope!' the Professor eagerly replied, 'You know you ca'n't see a Flea, properly, without a magnifying-glass - what we call a Microscope. Well, just in the same way, you ca'n't see an Elephant, properly, without a minimifying-glass. There's one in each of these little tubes. And this is a Megaloscope! The Gardener will now bring in the next Specimen. Please open both curtains, down at the end there, and make way for the Elephant!'" (1)


  1. L. Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (London: Macmillan, 1893), p. 334.

Boris Jardine

Boris Jardine, 'Benjamin Martin and microscope compendia', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2006.

Next Article: Public Shows

Opening Times

Please note that we are closed for Bank Holiday Monday, 27th May

We are open five days a week, 12.30 - 16:30.

Monday 12.30 - 16:30

Tuesday 12.30 - 16:30

Wednesday 12.30 - 16:30

Thursday 12.30 - 16:30

Friday 12.30 - 16:30

We hope to see you soon!