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Bone Optical Compendium, ~1700


Between the late 17th to the first half of the 18th century, pocket-sized optical compendia such as this one 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 late 17th to early 18th century, being all Dutch or English. Most of them are related with ships or other maritime contexts. Few were found in archaeological excavations near the port of Amsterdam. Other 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). 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.

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 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). 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).

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.;.

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