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Early Tripod (or Culpeper) Microscope ~1730

 

Between 1725 and 1730, British microscope designer and maker Edmund Culpeper produced what was to become a very popular microscope type. His design had a double tripod base; the lower level had a mirror to illuminate specimens on the upper level. He marketed it as the "Double Reflecting Microscope." Numerous makers quickly copied the design and enjoyed immense popularity throughout the 18th century.

The unsigned Culpeper-style tripod microscope seen here is commonly attributed to Matthew Loft (1697–1747) of London. Loft was an apprentice of Thomas Gay between 1711 and 1720. In 1720 he established his workshop at the Golden Spectacles on Threadneedle Street, near the Royal Exchange. Loft made microscopes, telescopes, drawing instruments, and slide rules. Of particular interest is a brass tripod microscope he made for Dr. Demainbray, tutor to George III.

This version of the tripod microscope had three single-piece bowed legs screwed to diamond-shaped plates on an octagonal dyed oak base, as opposed to Culpeper's original design and Scarlett's somewhat later form. According to Clay and Court (1932), an earlier type with ornamental ridges and a later type lacks them. Therefore, the microscope in this collection is of the first type. Clay and Court based the attribution of this version of the Culpeper microscope to Loft on several examples of this model having in their accessory drawers printed labels stating: "Matthew Loft Maker at the Golden Spectacles, the Northside of the Royal Exchange, LONDON." A good example is MHS No. 54074. But other identical microscopes often have other makers' names. Good examples are SML 1993-1107, signed by John Cuff and A233310, signed by Thomas Wright. In reality, it is clear today that none of these makers did produce their microscopes entirely. Like many 18th-century manufacturers, they probably acquired them by outsourcing their parts to numerous workshops and then retailing them under their name (which only appeared as trade cards glued to the inner parts of their pyramidal cases). Therefore, Clay and Court's assignment of this type to Loft seems groundless, as indeed claimed by Turner (1989). Consequently, we should refer to these names as the retailers rather than the makers.

In some ways, the Culpeper microscope was a step back in microscope design. The upright aspect was difficult to use and illuminate, and their optical performance was mediocre at best. However, the Culpeper-type microscope was simple to construct and not exceptionally costly. Therefore, it opened up the world of microscopy to a larger audience.

References: MHS 39924, 38777, 52953

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