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Judging by the materials involved (brass rather than a nickel), this microscope was probably the forerunner of Moreau's more famous, and more common (13 copies are reported to be known), "Monkey Microscope". Several copies in good condition are preserved, for example: in the Mappes collection. Designed as a seated ape supporting a miniature microscope (similar to the one seen here), but with a face having some human features, it was commonly interpreted as an allegorical comment on Darwin and evolution. It may have been related to Darwin's The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871. However, there is no evidence to support this anecdotal urban tale.

Both the Monkey Microscope and the presumably earlier version seen here share many characteristics. The statuette is cast by the lost wax (cire perdue) method and connected to the base with screws. The tiny microscope has but one magnification and the frame and sleeve holding it are similar in both models. So is also the stage and the mirror's forked holder.

Figurative miniature microscope by Gustave Moreau, Paris, ca. 1850


The microscope has a circular base, supporting a limb in the form of a bronze statuette of a frock-coated gentleman. He has attached to his outstretched arm a small stage, from which descend two clips carrying the gimbal of the plane mirror. Above the stage rises a pillar carrying an arm in which is set a sleeve, sliding in which is the tiny body tube. The functional microscope performs an estimated 50-fold linear magnification with a single lens and a screw-eyepiece with a field lens in the tube.

So far, the only two other examples are known to us to this little microscope. One is the incomplete SML A6832 now deposited at the Science Museum in London, and the other was sold in an auction in 1999*.

When this microscope was received in this collection, it was coated with modern metallic acrylic gold paint. After careful cleaning of the modern paint, the original colors were exposed with remnants of the green paint coating the base, the brown patination of the statuette, and the lacquered brass of the two supports of the hinged substage mirror. The restoration of the original surface also revealed a tiny, millimeter-sized stamped signature underneath the coat of the gentlemen, reading: MOREAU / PARIS. This is the final proof of the attribution of this microscope to this Parisian maker.


Dino-Lite® digital microscope view of the signature under the gentleman's robe.

© Microscope History all rights reserved


© Microscope History all rights reserved

Previous interpreters of these microscopes did not refer to the identity of this Moreau of Paris. First and foremost, it should be noted that the reference to an "M. Moreau" appears only in the caption of Fig. 86 of The Billings Microscope Collection catalog. It may refer to signatures of Moreau Ingénieur opticien à Paris appearing on two ordinary French microscopes from the SMLIn reality, this is merely an interpretation, since the signatures on all of the statuette microscopes, including the Billings specimen, are either "MOREAU" or "MOREAU PARIS". The question is, whether the signature refers to the microscope part or to the statuette to which it was added, which presumably formed the main part of the creation. If the signature refers to the sculpture, it may very well be related with a member of the famous 19th-century clan of sculptures of bronze/brass statuettes. However, it seems to be related with the Parisian instrument maker Gustave Moreau (1805-1880), a manufacturer of binoculars, established at 167 rue Saint-Maur, in Paris since 1830. It was he who invented the system allowing mobile and parallel spacing of the two tubes.

These small toy microscopes reflect the role of popular science during the 19th century. This was one of the most important developments that the Enlightenment era and the Age of Exploration brought to the discipline of science - its popularization. An increasingly literate population seeking knowledge and education in both the arts and the sciences drove the expansion of print culture and the dissemination of scientific learning. In Britain, this new popular side of science reflected in the establishment of such organizations as the Royal Institution (founded in 1799 and still in existence) whose stated purpose was: "diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life". As public interest in natural philosophy grew, hobbyists expressed keen interest in the world around them, with insects, microscopic fauna and flora, and fossils or mineral crystals receiving their fair share of attention. While wealthy amateurs could afford the costly compound microscopes of the time, simpler microscopes such as the one seen here were in use by the less professional or well-to-do amateurs. However, these rather modest microscopes had their fair share in satisfying the curiosity and spreading the notion of natural history amongst the public well into the 20th century.

* I'm grateful to Dr. Joseph Zeligs for this information.


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