Nuremberg-type microscopes, ca.1800.

The tripod type of compound microscope seen here is one of several types of instruments, all made of wood and decorated cardboard, manufactured in the toy district of Bavaria, Germany (near Nuremberg)
between the late 18th through the early 19th Century.
The main styles included the 'Tripod' (AKA 'Culpeper') type seen here, a 'Sentry box' type and a Side Pillar-type. These microscopes were all mass-produced in the same style with only minor variations in the decorations, apparently for some decades. This microscope is signed by "iM" (Junker, Magdeburg) within a circle, one of mainly two known signatures often appearing on these instruments.
The "Tripod" type is clearly a rather crude copy of the tripod (commonly called Culpeper) type microscope of the 18th century. These microscopes, like the original tripod microscopes, were produced for the middle class public having an interest in natural philosophy but without truly scientific aspirations or the means for purchasing costly "true" microscopes. They represent an important aspect in the history of science - the emergence of popular science towards the end of the 18th century.


  • Chvátal, A. 2017. Jan Evangelista Purkyně (1787-1869) and his Instruments for microscopic research in the field of neuroscience. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 26, 238–256.

  • Ehrenberg, C. G. 1837. On the origin of organic matter from simple perceptible matter, and on organic molecules and atoms; together with some remarks on the power of vision of the human eye. Scientific Memoirs, 1, 555–583.

  • Jardine, B. 2009. Between the Beagle and the barnacle: Darwin’s microscopy, 1837–1854. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 40, 382–395.

However, as strange as it may be, in several cases these Nurremberg microscopes, especially of the type seen here, had their fair share in the advance of scientific research. Despite their rustic design and very elementary optical performance, in some cases they turned to become useful in the hands of some prominent scientists in the early stages of their career. A Nuremberg Tripod microscope is known to be used by Jan Evangelista Purkyně (1787-1869) in his early studies of the large neurons found in the cerebellum, called after him (Purkinje cells), the Purkinje fibres (the fibrous tissue that conducts electrical impulses from the atrioventricular node to all parts of the ventricles of the heart), and other discoveries (Chvátal 2017). A similar microscope is recorded as being used by Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg (1795-1876), the German naturalist, zoologist, comparative anatomist, geologist, and microscopist, in his work on infusoria for which he is primarily remembered. Ehrenberg began this work just after he returned from a voyage to Siberia with Alexander von Humboldt, on which he had gathered a large collection of zoological and botanical specimens. In his memoirs he refers to "only a very incomplete thirty-shilling wooden compound microscope from Nuremberg" with which he began his work (Ehrenberg 1837; Jardine 2009).

The famous Nuremberg wooden or cardboard microscopes were manufactured towards the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. These instruments represent a special feature in the history of the microscope. The devices, often referred to as toy microscopes, could be produced inexpensively in large numbers and were successfully sold locally and abroad. As a microscope, however, they were awkward to use and, due to their poor optical properties, hardly suitable for serious microscopic examinations.
Nuremberg had a tradition of precision engineering going back centuries. Known in the 16th century as the city of "compass makers" who made portable sundials, Nuremberg was in the 18th century and later a center of toy and glasses manufacture in Germany. Microscopes were offered as an additional product. Of course, these simply built and inexpensive microscopes could not stand up to any serious comparison with the brass devices of the time, either in terms of mechanics or optics.
Today, three types of Nuremberg microscopes can be identified: a small model based on the early drum microscopes by Benjamin Martin with a wooden box as a stand base and an insertable tube. This device is sometimes also referred to as a "sentry box microscope". Another model is based on the Culpepper type with a round wooden base and 3 turned legs. The third model is based on the cuff type, in which the stand consists of a wooden pole standing on a box as a foot. The design is the same for all 3 models. The devices are made of soft wood, while the pull-out tubes are made of cardboard, which is covered with colorfully decorated paper. In addition to the wooden microscope slides, there were usually no other accessories. A case for the microscopes is extremely rare.
It is difficult to date precisely the Nuremberg microscopes. Documents from relevant companies or other unambiguous sources are not known and do not appear to exist anywhere. Only assumptions can be made. Turner assumes that these simply built microscopes may have been made mainly in the first half of the 19th century (cf. 10, p. 46). On the other hand, Petri states in his book "The Microscope" (1896), that the Nuremberg microscopes (drum microscope type) can still be bought cheaply from opticians in Nuremberg (see 9, p. 151, footnote). This information is not only astonishing, but also dubious, because towards the end of the 19th century there were enough inexpensive microscopes that were far superior to the Nuremberg model in terms of mechanics and optics.
According to van Heurck, microscopes made of wood and cardboard were still sold by an optician in Antwerp in his childhood (cf. 5, p. 297). That should have been around 1840. Furthermore, van Heurck reports on a Nuremberg microscope of the cuff type, which verifiably belonged to a doctor from Antwerp who died in 1764 (cf. 5, p. 297).
In summary, it can be assumed that the Nuremberg cardboard microscopes were made between 1750 and 1830. the focus of production may have been around 1800.
The Nuremberg microscopes known so far do not have the usual manufacturer engravings, but rather brand marks, i.e., letter combinations burned into the wood - mostly on the underside of the foot. Only a few brands are known to date, although it is not possible to assign them to specific manufacturers. It is not possible to clarify with certainty whether this is actually the manufacturer in question. After his own investigations, Turner came to the conclusion that the microscopes bear brand marks from the dealers who sold them (cf. 10, p. 46).
One of the absolutely rare devices that bears a manufacturer name is signed "W. Burucker". In this snare drum type microscope, the "signature" also consists of a brand mark. The following brand marks can be found in the 3 types of Nuremberg microscopes that were identified and evaluated:

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