Seeing closer: the birth of microscopy

Meet masters of the microscope and see their tools of the trade in this tale of discovery of new worlds in miniature.

By The Royal Society

Title page of Micrographia (1665) by Robert Hooke (1635-1703)The Royal Society

Master of magnification: Robert Hooke 

Micrographia, written by Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and published by the Royal Society in 1665, was the first major book to examine the microscopic world.

Hooke’s sumptuously illustrated volume went on to become a scientific bestseller, capturing the imagination of a wide audience.

Micrographia was the second book ever to be published by the Royal Society.

Its vivid plate illustrations helped to make it Hooke’s most influential work.

Though Hooke was the Royal Society's first ever Curator of Experiments, there are famously no known portraits of him, but his masterpiece provides a fascinating window onto his world and work.

Microscopic views of man-made objects (1665) by Robert Hooke (1635-1703)The Royal Society

In this illustration, Hooke highlights the imperfections in man-made objects revealed under the microscope.

Here he illustrates the point of a needle...

...a surprisingly furry printed full-stop...

...and the edge of a razor.

Ice-crystals in urine (1665) by Robert Hooke (1635-1703)The Royal Society

Hooke also studied the forms of ice crystals in frozen water, in snow, and even in frozen urine.

These hand-drawn illustrations from the Royal Society collection were later reproduced in Micrographia and are some of the few surviving originals from the book.

Microscopic view of a flea (1665) by Robert Hooke (1635-1703)The Royal Society

Hailed by Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) as 'the most ingenious book that I ever read', Micrographia inspired a generation of natural philosophers. It included fellow microscopists Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) and Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694).

Portrait of Nehemiah Grew (1800) by James Newton (1748-1808)The Royal Society

Nehemiah Grew: plant pioneer

Known as the father of plant anatomy, Grew mastered the microscope to reveal and record plant structures, from root to flower. Grew was an early Curator of the Royal Society Repository, as was known the collection of scientific instruments, natural history specimens and   paintings accumulated by the Fellows.

Botanical studies of a gooseberry, grape, cherry and filbert (1682) by Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712)The Royal Society

In this study of berries under the microscope for his Anatomy of plants, Grew illustrates the complex structures within fruits.

He also described pollen grains and the likeness of pollen from plants of the same species.

Studies of a mosquito (1669) by Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680)The Royal Society

Jan Swammerdam: the life of insects

  Dutch anatomist, physician and biologist Swammerdam continued Hooke’s microscopic observations of insects in more systematic research which employed a single lens microscope. From the late 1660s, he dissected and studied the development of these creatures, noting their internal organs and methods of reproduction – he concluded that insects were not the product of spontaneous generation.

Portrait of Marcello Malpighi by AnonymousThe Royal Society

Artful master of anatomy: Marcello Malpighi

  The Italian physician Marcello Malpighi is known as the father of microscopical anatomy, histology, physiology and embryology. The Royal Society holds a rich collection of his letters and drawings, retracing his anatomical experiments, observations and theories. When Malpighi lost his microscopes in a fire, the Royal Society sent him lenses to allow him to pursue his work.

Developmental stages of a chicken embryo (1673) by Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694)The Royal Society

Malpighi produced these fine drawings for his Anatomes plantarum (1675-1679) published by the Royal Society.

Through the arrangement and careful notation, you can follow the growth of the chicken from embryo to hatching.

Under the Microscope - Objectivity #102 (2017-01-17) by James Hennessy and Brady HaranThe Royal Society

Portrait of Antoni van LeeuwenhoekThe Royal Society

Microscope pioneer: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek 

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek conducted forty years of microscope research from his home in Delft. His precision improved the level of magnification and clarity of single lense microscopes significantly. Most of his observations were translated and published by the Royal Society.

His list of observations and achievements is astonishing, including the first sighting of bacteria, in 1676.

Leeuwenhoek made near-spherical single lenses, which he embedded in simple metal frames.

In this portrait, the microscope he is holding over the sketch is one he manufactured.

Leeuwenhoek microscope (20th century replica)The Royal Society

This twentieth century replica of Leeuwenhoek's microscope shows how beautifully simple it was.

Its particular strength resided in the quality of the lens.

Specimens of the optic nerve of a cow. (1674-12-04) by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632 - 1723)The Royal Society

The Dutch pioneer of the microscope sent his written observations to the Royal Society, often with illustrations.

As additional evidence, he would attach packets of specimens to his letters so that Fellows might repeat his observations.

Observations of the whitish matter on Leeuwenhoek's tongue (1707) by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)The Royal Society

Leeuwenhoek used his own body as a source for his science. Some of the first sightings of bacteria came from his own dental plaque.

In the letter to the Royal Society that accompanies this illustration, he gave an intimate portrait of the 'boughs and branches' - surface scrapings from his tongue.

Compound microscope (1827/1831) by Giovanni Battista AmiciMuseo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza

Tools of the Trade

Highly skilled tradesmen and scientists themselves were responsible for the fabrication of the early microscopes. Compound microscopes were first experimented with by Hans and Zacharias Jansen, two Dutch spectacle-makers in the 1590s. Compound microscopes have two optical components: an objective lens which focuses on the object; and an eyepiece which further magnifies and projects the image onto the retina of the eye.

Portrait engraving of Henry Baker by William Nutter (b.1754)The Royal Society

This engraved portrait of naturalist Henry Baker (1698-1774) shows one of his microscopes in the background.

Baker collaborated with instrument-maker John Cuff (1708-1772) on designing such new instruments.

Illustration of a Double Reflecting Miscroscope (1742) by Henry Baker (1698-1774)The Royal Society

Baker wrote instructional microscope guides for beginners.

In this plate he shows the tripod-mounted instrument designed by Edmund Culpeper (c.1670-1738) that was popular during the 1730s.

Universal compound microscope (1759) by Benjamin Martin (1705-1782)The Royal Society

In this appendix to the Philosophia Britannica (1759), the instrument maker Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) illustrates the latest improvements in compound and solar microscopes.

He described the former as 'universal’ and boasted of an additional 'between-lens' for improved resolution.

Field microscope (1750/1820)The Royal Society

William Cary (1759-1825), a London-based cartographer and instrument maker produced and marketed this boxed naturalist’s microscope.

The accompanying slides include, inevitably, a flea, in homage to Hooke’s famous Micrographia illustration.

Binocular microscope system (c. 1913) by Ernst Leitz (1843-1920)The Royal Society

The later nineteenth century saw the commencement of the new science of germ theory, which placed the microscope at the forefront of medical research.

The development of binocular optics by the Leitz company (often associated with the Leica camera) was of primary importance to scientists.

Microscope slides (1909/1920) by John Scott Haldane (1860-1936)The Royal Society

As well as experimenting with new instruments, scientists used different methods for preparing samples to observe reactions.

These samples include lung sections taken from goats during compressed air experiments by Commander Guybon Chesney Castell Damant (1881-1963) and the physiologist John Scott Haldane (1860-1936).

Damant, Haldane and Arthur Edwin Boycott (1877-1938) collaborated on a paper that made the case for staged decompression of divers and modern dive tables.

Freaky Micrographia - Objectivity #43 by James Hennessy and Brady HaranThe Royal Society

Rachel Carson (1962-09-24) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Looking closer, seeing further

Observing the infinitely small is always an inspiring journey. From her microscopic observations, the American marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) brought environmental concerns related to the ocean to the attention of generations. Let's be inspired and consider how the smallest things often contain the keys to understanding larger issues. 

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