Projecting the Wonder of Life: Displaying frog images to the public.

Expert microscopists and instrument makers like George Adams Sr. and Johann Nathanael Lieberkühn presided over the public's fascination with microscopes and the worlds they revealed. Frogs proved useful in technological and biological appeals to the public's sense of wonder, and experts developed technological and rhetorical tools to manage those public perceptions.

Micrographia Illustrata
Image 1 from G. Adams, Micrographia Illustrata. Image © the Whipple Library.
Micrographia Illustrata
Image 2 from G. Adams, Micrographia Illustrata. Image © the Whipple Library.

In 1746, Adams released a guide to the use of his own products entitled Micrographia Illustrata, a copy of which we hold in the Whipple Collection. It includes several prints representing the frog-plate's use (Image 1 and 2). Adams' prints gruesomely depict the ensemble of hooks and wires that strip apart and isolate the layers of the frog's skin.

Instrument makers like Adams navigated shifting social divisions by publishing catalogues that doubled as philosophical treatises. Adams' Micrographia Illustrata serves as an advertisement for his wares, an instruction manual for their use, an illustration of the truths they reveal, and a theological defence of their propriety. Publishing was one of many ways that scientists and instrument makers could communicate with the public and advertise their products.

Adams claimed that many of his micrographic illustrations were produced by tracing an image cast through a solar microscope, which could project microscopic images onto a screen. One example is seen here (Image 2): the frog's skin has been peeled back, and a vivid image of its circulating blood is projected onto a screen. There, the image's outlines are traced and then rendered into a copperplate engraving for inclusion in Adams' book. His describes the majestic beauty of the image produced by this instrumental ensemble: when arranged with Adams' skill, "no words can describe the wonderful scene which will then be presented to your sight," he promised his readers. Frogs were Adams' organism of choice in such attempts to demonstrate both the visual wonders of the living body and the microscopes that reveal it.

For more about public displays of microscopy, see Public Microscope Shows in the 18th Century.

For more about the history of this ambiguous but powerful boundary between scientists and craftsmen, see Ziegler's Frog Embryos.

For more about frogs' importance to later instrument makers, see CSIC and Early Cambridge Physiology.

Henry Schmidt

Henry Schmidt, 'Projecting the Wonder of Life: Displaying frog images to the public.', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, [http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/frogs/frogplates/projectingthewonderoflife/, accessed 25 November 2017]

 
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