Louis Françoise Dellebarre, Universal Microscope 1770-1800

The microscope featured here was made by Louis-François Dellebarre (1726–1805), perhaps the most famous French optician of the latter half of the 18th century. Dellebarre was born in Abbeville, France. In 1762 he decided to immigrate to the Netherlands because of his religious beliefs. In 1766 he married in Leiden Maria Louise Francois de Lannoy (Anonymous, 1766). After setting in The Hague, he introduced in 1770 this very distinctive “Universal Microscope”, which had purportedly been inspired by Euler's theoretical work on optical aberration (Dellebarre, 1777). This microscope was manufactured with several modifications until the turn of the century. Dellebarre, who worked also in Delft and in Leiden, was persuaded at the recommendation of Jean-Étienne Montucla during his visit to the Netherlands in 1773 to return to France and establish his business there (Brewster, 1832, p. 244). He settled in 47 Rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois in Paris, where this microscope was sold for 360 Francs. Yet later he had to return to the Netherlands after failing to confront the guild corporations (Ratcliff, 2009, pp. 92-94).

The characteristic design of Dellebarre’s instruments was based on the erroneous concept, theoretically proposed by Leonhard Euler (1768), that a combination of six lenses made of flint and crown glass may provide an optically corrected microscope. Hence the microscope was devised with a five-component ocular and a single lens objective. Different magnifications are achieved by different combinations of the lenses, together with the use of a draw-tube. The lenses are marked 1-5 and parts of the draw tube are marked A-E. A big silver Lieberkühn screws to a thread around the objective holder and can be focused by turning it upwards or downwards. The instruments are signed “Dellebarre” with the production year, but unsigned examples (such as the one seen here) are seemingly very common. Yet they cannot be mistaken due to the unique and distinctive form of this instrument.

Acceptance and performance

Dellebarre’s microscopes gained much reputation, especially after in 1777 a most flattering report was presented about it to the French Académie des sciences by Montigny, Leroi and Brisson. It was also praised by Montucla (1802, pp. 475, 511-515) in his book about the history of mathematics. The prominent scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace was appointed to review the microscope for the Académie des sciences (Hahn, 2005, pp. 83-85). The report found the microscope mechanically complicated, but of superior optical quality (Bradbury, 1967, p. 171). Much less enthusiastic was Augustin Jean Fresnel who, when reporting on some early achromatic microscopes by Selligue and other makers, found that Dellebarre's was the worst in this respect, being inferior to the instruments of Adams, Amici and Selligue (Fresnel, 1824). Pieter Harting on the other hand, in his seminal review of early achromatic microscopes, asserted that Dellebarre’s were optically superior to those of Adams and Martin, but their mechanical construction was mediocre. His examination of Dellebarre’s microscopes indicated that their magnifications by all combinations of the ocular components and the draw tube ranged between 230X and ~1000X. However, this performance was obstructed by the poor resolving power as indicated by the “Norbert test plate”, where the third group could be seen only imperfectly (Harting, 1850, pp. 154-159; Clay & Court, 1932, p. 205). Mayall, who examined over twenty of Dellebarre's instruments was of the opinion that none of them was truly achromatic (Bradbury, 1967, p. 171).

Georges Cuvier with his Dellabarre microscope, painting by Mathieu Ignace Van Brée, 1798. (Source: Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris)

Notable users of this model

In 1778 Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794) purchased a Dellebarre microscope of the type seen here, together with an electroscope and a barometer made by Mégnié (Andrieu, 1937; Beretta, 2014; Musée des arts et métiers, n.d.). This microscope was later used for the examination of crystals of several minerals.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, critic, and amateur artist, owned a few microscopes, one of which was a Dellaberre of the type seen here (Otto, 1976).

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), the French naturalist and zoologist, sometimes referred to as the "father of paleontology", owned a Dellebarre microscope of the same model. Cuvier was responsible for the theory of catastrophism and a new way of organizing life based on comparative anatomy. Couvier is depicted with his microscope in an oil painting by Mathieu Ignace Van Brée, 1798, now kept in the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

The microscope used by Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (sourse: Musée des arts et métiers, Paris)

© Microscope History all rights reserved

© Microscope History all rights reserved

References cited

Andrieu, B. (1937).  Le microscope de Lavoisier. Bulletin de la Société Française de Microscopie, 6: pp. 16-19.

Anonymous. (1766). Church records marriages, March 1, 1766, Trouwen Gerecht M. juli 1752 - 1767. 

Beretta, M. (2014). Between the workshop and the laboratory: Lavoisier’s Network of Instrument Makers. OSIRIS, 29, pp. 197–214.

Bonhams. (2011, Apr. 19). Lot 183: A rare Louis Dellebarre compound monocular microscope in case, Dutch, dated 1799

Bradbury, S. (1967). The Evolution of the Microscope. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Brewster, D. (1832). The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia (Vol. 13). Philadelphia: Joseph and Edward Parker.

Clay, R., & Court, T. H. (1932). The History of the Microscope, Compiled from Original Instruments and Documents, Up to the Introduction of the Achromatic Microscope. London: C. Griffin.

Dellebarre, L. F. (1777). Mémoire sur les differences de la construction & des effects du microscope de MLF Dellebarre, d'avec tous ceux qu'on faits précédement (Vol. 6). la Haye.

Euler, L. (1768). De novo microscopiorum genere ex sex lentibus composito. in Novi commentarii academiae scientiarum Petropolitanae 12, (1766/7), 1768, p. 195-223.

Fresnel, J. A. (1824). Rapport sur le microscope achromatique de M. Selligue. Annales des sciences naturelles, 3, pp. 345-354.

Globos antiguos Antigüedades científicas y náutica. (n.d.). Microscopio compuesto Dellebarre XVIII

Hahn, R. (2005). Pierre Simon Laplace, 1749-1827, a Determined Scientist. Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Harting, P. (1850). Het mikroskoop, deszelfs gebruik, geschiedenis en tegenwoordige toestand. Utrecht: Van Paddenburg & Co.

MHS collections. (n.d.). Collections of the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Molecular Expressions. (n.d.). Dellebarre Monocular Brass Microscope

Montucla, J. E. (1802). Histoire Des Mathématiques Dans Laquelle on Rend Compte de Leurs Progrès Depuis Leur Origine Jusqu'à Nos Jours (Vol. 3). Paris: Henri Agasse.

Musée des arts et métiers. (n.d.). Microscope with tripod support in glass case with detachable swivel mirror of polished silver for illuminating the object from below

Museo Astronomico e Orto Botanico di Brera. (n.d.). Microscope model Dellebarre

Otto, L. (1976). Goethe's four microscopes in Weimar. Journal of Microscopy, 106(1), pp. 71–83.

Ratcliff, M. J. (2009). The Quest for the Invisible: Microscopy in the Enlightenment. London and New York: Routledge.

Science Museum London. (n.d.). Dellebarre type microscope, in red leather case, D.

Skinner. (2015, Oct. 31). Lot 374: Dellebarre-style Compound Monocular Microscope

Teylers Museum. (n.d.). Microscope after Louis Francois Dellebarre (1770)

The Golub Collection. (n.d.). Dellebarre Universal Microscope (No. 35)

Turner, G. L. (1989). The Great Age of the Microscope, the Collection of the Royal Microscopical Society through 150 Years. Bristol and New York: Adam Hilger.

Weber-Unger, S., & Mappes, T. (2008). Bedeutende Mikroskope: 1680 bis 1860. Wien: Kabinett Wiesenschaftliches. 

Wellcome Trust Library. (n.d.). Nachet collection: Dellebarre microscope 1784Nachet collection: Dellebarre microscope 1792

Copyright © 2015-2021 microscopehistory.com . All Rights Reserved.