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John Cuff's New Constructed Double Microscope, London, ca. 1745


The Cuff microscope is named after John Cuff (1708?-1772?), a microscope maker who worked closely with the natural philosopher Henry Baker (1698-1774). Cuff and Baker teamed up to transform microscope design. At that time, the market was dominated by the Culpeper-type double tripod microscope. This microscope type posed a challenge for natural philosopher Henry Baker, as its legs obstructed his examination of the daily configurations of saline substances. The microscope body's jerky movements made it difficult to fix the focus precisely. Moreover, there was no suitable mechanism for observing opaque objects. Baker shared these challenges with microscope specialist John Cuff, who designed a new double microscope that became a popular model within a year. 

After expressing dissatisfaction with the Culpeper microscope, Baker convinced Cuff in 1744 to design a new pattern, affording improved accessibility for hand manipulation of the specimen by the microscopist. "Mr. Cuff's new-constructed Double Microscope" quickly became the most popular model of the main part of the 18th century, being copied by many makers in England and across Europe in Italy, Holland, and France. However, one main drawback of its design was the inability to incline the stand for convenient observation.


Despite Baker's unwavering support and the new design's popularity, Cuff declared bankruptcy in 1750. Benjamin Martin's shop, next door to Cuff's on Fleet Street, added to the competition. Martin's shrewd business sense and knowledge of contemporary natural philosophy, including Newtonian physics, enabled him to solve technical and instrumental problems. In contrast, Cuff relied on Baker for new directions in instrument-making, suggesting a trend away from specialized instrument-making workshops in the 18th century. As a result of bankruptcy and competition, Cuff was compelled to sell his entire stock.

This is an early instrument, still made by John Cuff under his name, and signed on the stage: "J. Cuff Londini Inv. & Fecit". Cuff was declared bankrupt in 1750, in spite of Baker's continual support and the popularity of the new design, after which his microscopes were probably retailed by Dollond under his name. It was probably the increased competition with Benjamin Martin, who set his shop next door to Cuff on Fleet Street, that was one of the main reasons for Cuff's failure to maintain his business.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)

Engraving by Jacques de Sève showing Buffon using a Cuff microscope during experiments in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris in 1748.

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Henry Baker with the Cuff microscope

The Cuff microscope was tested not long after its introduction by a distinguished group of naturalists headed by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), in an event described by the German naturalist Martin Frobenius Ledermüller (1719 - 1769). Together with Jacques de Sève (fl. 1742 - 1788),  John Turberville Needham  (1713-1781), Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800), Philippe Guéneau de Montbeillard (1720-1785) and Thomas-François Dalibard (1709-1799), Buffon headed experiments in the between March and May 1748, during which they tested the qualities of a "double microscope" for studies in the Royal Botanical Gardens (Jardin des Plantes) in Paris. In an engraving made by de Sève and presented in Ledermüller's book, Buffon is seen using a Cuff microscope. These experiments gave rise to the criticisms of Ledermüller, also voiced by Needham and Buffon, about the unclear views seen under the microscope. Undoubtedly, these compound microscopes suffered from severe chromatic and spherical aberrations and their magnifications were inferior as compared with the single microscope, also made by Cuff for the Swiss naturalist Abraham Trembley (1710-1784), that  Needham and others used for routine work.


The history of the Cuff microscope, therefore, represents the social and scientific innovations of the Enlightenment. This was a period of intellectual independence, where individuals relied on their own reason and experience to gain knowledge and make progress. Kant, in his answer to the question 'What is Enlightenment?' (1784), wrote "Sapere aude! (Dare to know!) 'Have the courage to use your own understanding' is...the motto of the enlightenment." This desire for knowledge through one's own efforts was coupled with an empirical scientific spirit, where people observed nature with their own eyes. It is no wonder that this period saw an accelerated development of instruments that allowed people to look farther and closer at the world, such as telescopes and microscopes.

The 18th century saw a mechanical development and improvement of microscopes. The Cuff microscope, which was made entirely of brass and replaced the pasteboard and wood of earlier microscopes, was an important step forward. The development process of this microscope model resulted from a dialogue between the scientist and the manufacturer, with emphasis on functionality and quality. It was a significant improvement from the stage where microscopes were used for entertainment by those who could afford them or had the talent to make them.

At the same time, the beginnings of systematic scientific research can be seen in the appearance of peer review. A professional and international committee consisting of expert scientists would test the ability of the new device to meet contemporary scientific standards. Thus, the story of Cuff's microscope captures the essence of the emergence of standardized science during the Enlightenment.

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Cuff's New Constructed Double Microscope by Peter Dollond London, ca. 1760-70


This particular item from the collection was signed and sold by Peter Dollond (1730-1820) most likely between 1760 and 1770. It closely follows the original design by John Cuff, although some sources suggest that some of the Cuff type microscopes that bear Dollond's signature were actually made by John Cuff himself, after he was declared bankrupt in 1750. The Science Museum in London also has an identical instrument that is dated 1761.

ReferencesBaker, H. 1785. Employment for the Microscope. London: 422; Wissner; Skinner 2011; SML: A62993, 1925-144, A601261, A159502; Molecular Expressions.

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