top of page

Pocket Optical Compendia, ca. 1700-1750

Between the late 17th to the first half of the 18th century, pocket-sized optical compendia became popular. At their beginning, towards the end of the 17th century, they comprised a small Galilean telescope, often made of a bovine metatarsal bone and sometimes of wood. Items of this kind, which were found in archaeological excavations, all date to the 17th century and were found in mid-17th to early 18th century contexts, being all Dutch or English. Many of them are related to ships or other maritime contexts. Five were found in archaeological excavations near the port of Amsterdam. Others were found in the following shipwrecks: the Swedish ship Kronan (sunk: 1676); the British ship HMS Stirling Castle (sunk: 1703); the East India Company ship Hollandia (sunk in England in 1743) and Amsterdam, another East India Company ship (sunk in England in 1749). Another telescope of this kind is reported from the mid-18th century context at Notley Hall (18ST75), St. Mary’s County, Maryland, now kept in the Jefferson Patterson Museum.
These all point to some maritime context of these instruments. Because they were obviously not used for navigation, they must have been part of the private belongings of naval officers or merchants, used to satisfy their curiosity and interest in natural history during their journeys. Such interest must have been fueled by the emergence of maritime voyages involving some study of natural history, such as the travels of Willian Dampier (1651-1715) and the popularity of his memoirs. It can be also seen as a significant step in the rise of popular science.
All these finds only provide terminus ante quem for the production of these telescopes up to the second half of the 17th century, and may theoretically point to some maritime use. Because they were obviously not used for navigation, they must have been part of the private belongings of naval officers or merchants, used to satisfy their interest in natural history during their journeys. Such curiosity must have been fueled by the emergence of maritime voyages involving some study of natural history, such as the travels of William Dampier (1651-1715) and the popularity of his memoirs and a step in the rise of popular science.

Such items (referred to as "Little Perspectives") are advertised in John Yarwell's trade card of 1683, together with larger telescopes and optical compendia.

These pocket telescopes developed towards the end of the 18th century into such optical compendia, combining the telescope, a "fleaglass" microscope and/or a livebox, and in more complex forms also a polyprism, compass, sundial, and a screw-barrel microscope, were intended for amusement, not for true research, but their small size and versatility made them handy for seamen along their journeys. However, the telescope function was useful for short distances (hence functioning as a Long Working Distance {LWD} microscope), or even as a seeing aid for the shortsighted. In the caricatures of the period, King George III is often seen using his pocket telescope to view a speaker.

Part of an Ivory Optical Compendium, Perhaps by Edmund Culpeper, ca. 1700

Inv. YG-21-010

This is a part of a very early 18th-century optical compendium, containing a compass and a perpetual calendar. It is made of ivory and it is most likely part of an optical / timekeeping compendium, of the kind that was produced by Edmund Culpeper (Talbot 2011). It cannot be attributed directly to Culpeper, but it almost undoubtedly dates to the very beginning of the 18th century, when such compendia were popular. Towards the 1710-20s, the timekeeping component was avoided in these sets.


Ivory Optical Compendium, ca. 1750

Inv. YG-21-007

This type of handheld microscope compendium (sometimes referred to as "Acorn Microscope"), was popular among naturalists during the second half of the 18th century. They were made of ivory, ebony or brass, and roughly looked like acorns, hence their popular name. The domed cap is covering the higher magnification "flea glass", as in the other compendia shown here. When the dome and the lower covers are removed, a lower magnification loupe is revealed. Inside the loupe a "live box" microscope is stored, having a compartment with a glass front to store small fauna or flora and a mid-range magnification loupe to view it.

These microscopes are often dated to the 18th century, though G.L'E Turner (1989) suggested that they may very well continue into the beginning of the 19th century. However, this view ignores issues such as terminus ante/post quem and in reality, there is no evidence for the production of these compendia after the 2nd half of the 18th century. Obviously, some of these were further used by some into the early 19th century or retailed by traders, but their production seemingly ended with the introduction of Adams' botanical microscope around the 1780s and perhaps even earlier, with the rise in popularity of the compass microscope. They are always unsigned by their makers but looking at the specimens shown in the literature, there seems to be some variation in shapes though the overall design is conservative.


© Microscope History all rights reserved

Brass Optical Compendium, ca. 1770

Inv. YG-22-013

The successful development of the early 18th-century optical compendium for the "Acorn microscope", while giving up the Galilean telescope (which was of poor quality anyway) and the polyprism (a toy that has since been replaced by a kaleidoscope), while expanding the microscopic possibilities of the compendium will make it Very also on a more professional level. Thus it is no wonder that later in the century when scientific optical instrumentation shifted from the production of wood, ivory, pasteboard and other organic materials to brass, this category also underwent a similar process. Here is a beautiful example of the 18th century "Optical Pocket Compendium" in its latest edition. Although G. E. Turner claims in his book The Great Age of the Microscope that the production of these items continued well into the 19th century, in my opinion, this is due to a lack of understanding of the principles of cultural chronology such as terminus post quem. It is quite possible that such a compendium survived in someone's home or use into the 19th century, but in fact we do not find them at all in agents' sales catalogs (showing other late 18th century developments, such as the Withering microscope). In fact, brass acorn microscopes are quite rare and do not commonly appear at auctions or e-commerce sites. Since they are made of a material that is not easily degradable (brass), it can be deduced that from the beginning their production was in relatively small numbers. This is in contrast, for example, to a screw-barrel צicroscope that is very common on the net.

The microscope in this collection is a good example of the final development of the pocket compendium concept. Unlike some of the earlier examples, one of which is presented here (Inv. YG-21-019), the idea of ​​a scaled-down screw barrel microscope has been transformed into the more compact type of livebox microscope with the only (and rather high) magnification. In any case, in a small pocket microscope the observation of transparent samples in slides is not very practical and therefore, the solution of the livebox is the most logical because it allows both situations (transparent and opaque) without creating a slide in unsuitable conditions. The use of sustainable material (brass) makes the device a very useful pocket aid and various magnifications, from a standard magnifier with a magnification of about X10 to the livebox and fleaglass at higher magnifications. It allows observations of a large variety of fauna, flora, minerals, etc. I would even say that it is a pity that such a compendium is not produced today. I would no doubt have purchased one for the field work.


Our microscope is missing the tiny eyepiece on the rod and spike at the top (like the ones seen in the other compendia shown on this page), but other than that it is complete.


© Microscope History all rights reserved

References: Talbot, S. 2011. Culpeper's Cylinders: his Optical Compendia circa 1700-35. SIS Bulletin 110: 23-27; Greenwich: NAV1555; NAV1663, NAV1492 (wood), SML: A35405, 1918-91, 1918-272, 1690-1710, 1938-740 (wood); MHS: 53609 (Culpeper compendium); Billings: P. 197, Fig. 379, AFIP 518853-66-6274; Lentz Col.;.


© Microscope History all rights reserved

Ivory Optical Compendium, ca. 1710-1720

Inv. YG-21-010

The instrument seen here is a combination of two instruments. It comprises two hollow bone cylinders having screw threads allowing them to be joined together. When combined, they form a fixed focus Galilean telescope (magnification: about 4X). When separated, a single microscope is exposed comprising a high magnification lens installed in a small housing, facing a steel pin to which a flower or an insect could be speared for inspection (thus the term "flea glass", an English translation of the Latin name vitrum pulicarium). The low magnification is obtained by a magnifier integrated with one of the vertebrae, and the complex is complemented by a polyprism which is an earlier version of the kaleidoscope. Later into the 18th century, more elaborate variations of this concept were made by Edmund Culpeper and perhaps some other English makers including, besides the telescope and "fleaglass" microscope, also a compass, a screw-barrel microscope with sliders, and a polyprism (an early form of kaleidoscope). The raw materials seem to have changed from bones to ivory and imported wood (lignum vitae or ebony).

© Microscope History all rights reserved

bottom of page