top of page

Prelude: Microscopy in the seventeenth century

By the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding… By this the Earth it self, which lyes so neer us, under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter, we now behold almost as great a variety of Creatures, as we were able before to reckon up in the whole Universe it self.” 
These words are from the preface to Robert Hooke’s (1635-1703) best-selling book "
Micrographia: or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses, " published in 1665 by the Royal Society. It was one of the very first works published by the Society and the very first book containing illustrations of the world revealed by the microscope. The quotation above comes in the context of a discussion on the limitations of the senses and the necessity of extending their reach utilizing instruments such as the microscope. In this sense, it is a key statement of what has become one of the hallmarks of modern science, namely, the necessity of instruments to aid our observation of the world. The book also marks the beginning of the microscopical observations of the Age of Enlightenment: it ushered a period of tremendous interest and enthusiasm for the microscope in England, the Dutch Republic, Italy and France, lasting through the end of the seventeenth century. 

Early English Tripod Microscope, ca. 1680

This microscope is the earliest in the collection and represents a compound microscope design used in England, Italy, and France during the second half of the 17th century. To focus the microscope, the user needed to screw the long threaded nosepiece of the body tube in and out of the wooden collar. The collar is supported by a tripod attached to the turned wooden base. The microscope has three lenses: a small objective lens in the snout at the front of the nosepiece, an internal field lens set in a pasteboard cylinder that slides into the inner tube, and an eye lens housed in an ivory ocular. Precious woods such as lignum vitae, ebony, or rosewood (as in this case) were used to construct these microscopes, giving them a deep, rich wooden texture. The instrument consists of an inner and outer body tube made of pasteboard. The outer tube is decorated with gold-tooled leather. In this particular instrument, some wooden parts were replaced with ivory for added strength and prestige. To use the instrument, the examined object was placed over the circular ivory disc in the center of the wooden base, and then the optical tube was rotated up or down the thread in the collar until focus was achieved.

24-001 g.jpg
24-001 i.jpg

The earliest compound microscopes that have survived to this day were crafted by Italian makers such as Campani and Divini in the mid-17th century. The origin and makers of later microscopes, like the specimen shown here, are uncertain as they are often unsigned. However, the typology of these instruments and their high-quality production suggest that this microscope was made by one of the leading English makers, Yarwell or Marshall, around 1680. The oldest microscopes that serious collectors possess date back to the eighteenth century, while microscopes from Marshall or Yarwell, and their contemporaries, can only be found in museums or very few private collections. This collection is priviledged to have some of these.

During the seventeenth century, the invention of the telescope and microscope sparked widespread fascination, extending beyond academia. These instruments unveiled new worlds, both faraway and minuscule. However, early versions of these optical instruments faced significant challenges. The glass quality and lens accuracy available at the time significantly hindered their performance. As the century drew to a close, the Royal Society of London prioritized the advancement of lens-grinding techniques, while optical instrument makers fiercely competed for business.

24-001 d.jpg

John Yarwell (?1648-1712) and his rival, John Marshall (?1659-1723) were the leading London optical instrument makers in the later decades of the seventeenth century. Yarwell, who had his premises at the sign of Archimedes & Three pair of Golden Spectacles in St Paul's Churchyard, was twice Master of the Spectacle Makers' Company, and had a royal appointment to King William III. Marshall was free of the Turner's Company, and never became a Spectacle Maker. He was an ambitious and energetic man of business, cultivating acquaintance with the leading scientific figures of his time. His relationship with Yarwell was not improved by his adding the name of Archimedes, already appropriated by Yarwell, to his own shop sign.

Marshall's first major success was to persuade the Royal Society formally to confirm the effectiveness of his method of grinding spherical lenses (Bryden & Simms, 1993). Edmund Halley FRS reported to the Society that "he [Marshall] is enabled to make a great many Optick Glasses at one time, all exactly alike". The examination, by Robert Hooke and Halley, of Marshall's method, and their approval of it, were reported to Marshall in a formal letter from the Royal Society. He lost no time in putting this accolade to good use in advertisements, despite the fact that the Spectacle Maker's Company had formally queried whether Marshall's method was either new or his own invention.

There followed an advertising war that continued well into the new century, and involved not only Yarwell and Marshall, but also younger practitioners, Ralph Sterrop, George Willdey and Timothy Brandreth all, at one time or another, claiming that they had Royal Society approval. The positive effect was that all the leading optical instrument makers were striving to improve their lens-making skills, with considerable success. The optics of the microscope had to wait until the early nineteenth century for the final solution to the problems of chromatic and spherical aberration, but the use of finer glass, more accurate lens-grinding, and the construction of increasingly stable and versatile stands made the compound microscope ever more effective.

BRYDEN, D.J., and SIMMS, D.L., "Spectacles Improved to Perfection and Approved of by the Royal Society". Annals of Science, 50 (1993), 1-32
CHRISTIE'S South Kensington, Fine Scientific Instruments, 4 October 1995, Lot 159
CLIFTON, G., Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers 1550-1851 (London: Zwemmer and National Maritime Museum, 1995)

Denecke C.L. Vollstaendinges Lehrgebaude der ganzen Optik …. Altona, 1737, Tab.LIX, Fig.4, p. 424,
TURNER, G. L'E., "Decorative Tooling on 17th and 18th Century Microscopes and Telescopes", Physis: Rivista internazionale di Storia della Scienza, 8 (1966), 99-128.
--, Essays on the History of the Microscope (Oxford: Senecio, 1980), ch.4, reprint of "Decorative Tooling"
--, Collecting Microscopes (London: Studio Vista, 1981) ch.4.

This microscope dates back to the late 17th century and has a case that was added to it in the early 18th century, probably from an early form of Culpeper double tripod microscope from the 1820s. The original case, made of vellum-coated pasteboard and inner felt, was most likely lost during the ~40 years of use. 

This high-quality microscope is standing 30-41cm tall, base diameter is 14,5cm, the main tube diameter is 51mm, and it has three lenses. The field lens and objective lens are positive and have some impurities in the glass, which is common for 17th-century optics. The eyepiece and field lenses are stored inside cardboard inner tubes, with wooden threaded rings and covered with floral blue and cream paper. Focusing is achieved by both the long threaded ivory objective holder into its collar and the sliding of the inner tube inside the outer. 

The inner cardboard tube is vellum-covered with lines for stop focusing, while the outer tube is brown leather-covered with toolings featuring pomegranate designs. A Rosewood (“bois de violette”) base and three twisted columns support the screwed ivory objective collar to allow fine focusing.

yarwell trade card.jpg

On John Yarwell's trade card, there is a microscope appearing on the left side. However, by closely examining it, it can also be compared to the one illustrated in Denecke's book from 1737 (Tab. LIX, Fig.4, p. 424), which has a convex-glass attached to it. While it is most likely an English microscope, due to the lack of exact parallels, other possibilities cannot be ruled out.

Anchor 1

Italian Compound Microscope, ca. 1680

Originally sold in an auction as an 18th-century Italian fixed-focus telescope, this is the optical tube of an as-yet unparalleled compound microscope. With its combination of materials and very high workmanship, it must have been produced by a master maker. However, the lack of a signature or any known parallel leaves the question of the maker's identity open for further research. By its style, construction, and some design details, it is most likely an Italian product dating to the turn of the 17th or the very early 18th century.


The optical tube is made entirely of wood, unlike the typical use of pasteboard in other of the period's microscopes (as in Museo Galileo 1309, 32473797; Boerhaave V28600; Golub 276, etc.). It is lined with rings made of ivory, lignum vitae for the ring above the objective and ebony for the inner housings of the eyepiece and objective). The tube is coated with dark tan vellum with rich tooled gilding. The vellum on the lower part of the tube is undecorated. It was probably intended to be held by a brass ring attached to a side pillar, similar to some other early Italian and French microscopes (e.g., Museo Galileo 3206 and the Box Microscope in this collection. Externally, some features are similar but not identical to those appearing on a microscope from Museo Galileo (Inv. 3248) attributed by Turner (1991) to Pietro Patroni (1676/7-1744) of Milano. The ocular capping and housing resemble some of Patroni's telescopes (Coll. Willach). However, the decorated vellum and other details of this microscope are untypical of Patroni's instruments. Also, this microscope lacks the draw tubes that the few surviving microscopes by Patroni have. Moreover, this microscope has only one fixed objective, an earlier feature again not practised by Patroni and other post-1700 makers. 

This microscope is now subjected to intensive scientific research to disclose more details about its date, origin, and possible maker, as well as its performance and intended users.


The microscope has three lenses: an eye lens, a field lens and an object lens. The lenses are held within two special housings, screwed into the wooden optical tube. The lens housings are both made of ebony combined with turned elephant ivory, representing a very high degree of workmanship. The eye lens is covered by a protective ivory cup.


© Microscope History all rights reserved


The lenses

The three lenses (eye, field and object) are biconvex. They are made of clear glass (the field lens) and greenish glass (the eye lens and the object lens).  Their dimensions are as follows:

Eye lens: Ø 18.4 mm, thickness: 3.06 mm, greenish glass containing air bubbles.

Field lens: Ø 22.4 mm, thickness: 3.1 mm, transparent glass devoid of air bubbles.

Object lens: Ø 7.6 mm, thickness: 2.0 mm., greenish glass containing air bubbles.

The eye and object lenses are original. The field lens is a later replacement.

bottom of page