skip to content

John Cuff, an instrument maker, and Henry Baker, a prominent natural philosopher, worked together and drew on each other's skills to change microscope design decisively in the mid-18th century. These changes are represented in five Cuff instruments held at the Whipple.

Microscope designs

Culpeper-type microscope
Image 1: Culpeper-type microscope; made circa 1730 (Wh.0857).

Two types of microscope had dominated the market in the first half of the 18th century: the pocket microscope first described in 1702 by James Wilson, and the Culpeper-type microscope (Image 2). Of the latter the natural philosopher Henry Baker (1698-1774) wrote the following:

"when examining daily the Configurations of Saline Substances, the Legs were continual Impediments to my turning about the Slips of Glass; and indeed I had found them frequently so on other Occasions. Pulling the body of the Instrument up and down was likewise subject to Jerks, which caused a Difficulty in fixing it exactly at the Focus: there was also no good Contrivance for viewing opake Objects." (1)

A 'new-constructed' microscope

Baker told John Cuff (1708?-1772?), a specialist microscope maker, of these complaints and within a year "Mr. Cuff's new-constructed Double Microscope" (Image 2) had been designed, and quickly became the most popular model available. (The Culpeper-type microscope did not die out immediately; two of the microscopes made by Cuff held at the Whipple are of this type, which continued to be made well into the 19th century.)

Cuff was declared bankrupt in 1750, in spite of Baker's continual support and the popularity of the new design. This misfortune was followed by increased competition, which occurred when Benjamin Martin took the shop next door to Cuff on Fleet Street. Baker described the situation in a letter of 1757:

"one Martin (a Man unknown to me), took a House adjoining to his [Cuff's], and by advertising, and puffing, and by the Mistakes of many who took one Shop for the other, did him [Cuff] much Disservice" (2)

Competition for business

Side-pillar microscope
Image 2: Side-pillar microscope, made by John Cuff to his own design, circa 1745. Cuff's design became extremely popular, as it proved stable and easy to use (Wh.0885).

It seems that Martin, with his "advertising" and "puffing", was more astute in matters of business. Cuff was a specialist who made his own limited range of instruments. Martin advertised all kinds of instruments, and often put his name on instruments which were constructed from parts made by other workmen. Perhaps most telling is the comparative education of the two men. Cuff was strictly an artisan, but Martin was educated in the contemporary natural philosophy, and published books on a wide variety of subjects, most notably Newtonian physics. He was able to rely on his own knowledge to solve the technical and instrumental problems of experiment, whereas Cuff relied on Baker for new directions in instrument making. This difference is indicative of a trend away from specialised instrument-making workshops during the 18th-century. As one historian has put it "The era of the individual craftsman/shopkeeper was fast drawing to a close".(3)

Sadly for Cuff (who also failed to become a member of the Royal Society), after the difficulties of bankruptcy and Martin's competition he was forced to sell his entire stock.


  1. H. Baker, Employment for the Microscope (London, 1785), p. 422.
  2. J. R. Millburn, Benjamin Martin: Author, Instrument-Maker, and Country Showman (Leyden: Noordhoff International Pub., 1976), p. 108.
  3. J. R. Millburn, Benjamin Martin: Author, Instrument-Maker, and Country Showman (Leyden: Noordhoff International Pub., 1976), p. 101.

Boris Jardine

Boris Jardine, 'John Cuff and the 'new-constructed' microscope', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2006.

Next Article: George Lindsay's Royal Microscope

Opening Times

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

And now open the third Saturday of every month!

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

Selected Saturdays 10.00 - 16.00

We hope to see you soon!