Articles on microscopes and related instruments in the Whipple's collections

The articles in this section explain various aspects of the history of microscopy. Some of the most interesting stories concern the people who actually made and used microscopes. These 'associations' are emphasised throughout. Browse the articles using the links below or on the menu to the left of the page.

Darwin's microscope
Image 1 Charles Darwin's achromatic microscope, made by James Smith; XR  1846. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.3788).

A brief history of the microscope. Although we think of the microscope as being an important part of biological and medical research, its role was not always so clear. Here you can get an overview of the microscope's history.

Parts of the microscope. Microscopes haven't always looked the way they do now. There have been countless different designs, many of which were proposed in the 18th century. Here the most important parts are identified, and some of the more unusual designs illustrated.

Charles Darwin's microscope. Darwin owned a number of different microscopes, one of which is is now in the collections of the Whipple (Image 1). This microscope was used for examining barnacles and plants, both of which occupied Darwin later in his career.

Fish and frogs under the microscope. One of the major discoveries of the 17th century was that blood circulated through small vessels called capillaries. With new microscope accessories a fish or frog could be strapped down and the capillaries observed through its semi-transparent body.

Three microscope makers. Most of the microscopes in the Whipple's collections are signed by their makers, or are very similar to signed instruments. A good deal of information is known about these artisans, but their role in the history of science has generally been neglected. Three articles explain the significance of Benjamin Martin, John Cuff, and John Lindsay, all 18th-century instrument makers.

Public shows. One important trend in 18th-century microscopy was in making natural philosophy available to the public. Some microscopes were designed to allow more than one person to view the image at once, and microscope demonstrations were held alongside lectures and other entertainments.

Michael Faraday's microscope slide. This slide was used by Faraday in a lecture on "gold sols", given at the Royal Institution in 1858. Faraday was one of the most important English scientists of the 19th century, and his lectures were famous for their highly choreographed experiments.

Measuring the microscopic. Perhaps one of the most important issues regarding the use of microscopes in the 18th century was micrometry: measuring tiny objects. There were a number of different methods proposed, one of which was a fine lattice of silver wire.

A Dutch pioneer. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek captured his own specimens to look at under the microscope. One of the most famous and impressive early 'microscopists', Leeuwenhoek examined mosquitoes, blood and even material that he had picked out of his teeth. Three articles explain his importance, and some later reproductions of his unusual microscopes.

The problems with lenses. Until about 1830 two major problems had affected lens manufacture: chromatic aberration G  and spherical aberration. G  These problems were solved by J. J. Lister, and the microscope made by his colleague William Tulley is one of the most significant instruments of the period.

Amici microscopes and Thomas Romney Robinson. Giovanni Battista Amici was an Italian professor who developed a type of microscope that used mirrors instead of lenses. One Amici microscope in the collections of the Whipple was owned by Thomas Romney Robinson, an Irish astronomer with an interest in scientific instrumentation.

Two generations of Cambridge botanists. John Stevens Henslow and his son, George, both held the post of professor of botany at the University of Cambridge in the 19th century. A number of items relating to their work survive, including a microscope and accessories.

Early microphotographs. John Benjamin Dancer was a Manchester-based instrument maker and inventor, and was the first to take 'microphotographs' - photographs only visible though a microscope.

Elcock: scientist or craftsman? Charles Elcock was a naturalist, museum curator, and professional microscope slide maker. His remarkable personal archive of slides and mounting materials provide a rare insight into the often overlooked world of nineteenth century microscope slide manufacture.

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