20th Century toy microscopes tell their stories

Kleines Mikroskop ATCO, 1934 

Bar Mitzvah Gift to Yosef Leschner, Saarbrücken, 24/4/1934.

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August Töpfer & Co. (ATCO GmbH) was founded in 1912 by August Toepfer in Erfurt, Germany, as a wholesaler of imported commodities. After the death of the founder in 1918 the company was taken over by a group of five shareholders. After Word War II the company gave up the former headquarters in East Germany and relocated to the still existing branch office in Hamburg.

The little microscope seen here has one linear magnification of 70x. It was the Bar Mitzvah gift to Yosef (Joseph) Leschner of Saarbrücken, Zeeland (then capital of the autonomous Saar territory), given to him by his parents in April 24th, 1934. 

Yosef was born in Saarbrücken on April 24, 1921. In 1936 he immigrated with his parents to Palestine (then under British mandate), to escape Nazi Germany. During Israel's War of Independence he joined the Fifth Regiment of the Harel Brigade and participated in the battles of Jerusalem and the Negev. He graduated an officers' course in 1949 and later discharged from the army. Yosef Leshner was a member of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek and perished on 7 May 2004.

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The microscope with the home-made slides of apple skin, hair, onion epidermis, spider web and live onion, was contributed to this collection by Yosef's daughter Hagar Leschner, now retired Collection Manager of The Herbarium of The National Natural History Collections at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. As a child, Hagar received this microscope from her father, together with the Hebrew captioned slides that were made for her by her father.

Yosef Leschner, 1921-2004

Olympus, Tokyo, MIC, 1970 

a personal account

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These days, in most cases toy microscopes are nearly worthless plastic instruments with low quality optics, kept in colorful cardboard and Styrofoam boxes together with cheap botanical needles, plastic scalpels and some inferior prepared microscope slides. Normally, I would recommend parents to buy their children of over ~12 years old a true student-class microscope for only about $100 or so. However, in the past there were several instances when child microscopes could offer true quality but with the simplicity and "chick" that would appeal to a kid. The best of these comes rather surprisingly from Olympus, a company that in my opinion has a long tradition of over-conservatism and low innovation when it comes to its student and research grade microscopes. The MIC was introduced in 1958 and was marketed with only some minor cosmetic changes well into the early 1970's. It offered a solid aluminum alloy body, excellent optics and an ingenious objective system that was apparently inspired by the revolving objectives of the Nikon H. It comes with a neat and functional thick and solid plastic carrying case. I wish they would make them today too.

This microscope brings some personal memories to me. When I was about ten or eleven years old, I walked one day with my father Zvi (1922-1993) in the main street of the old city of Beer Sheva, the rather provincial desert town where I grew up. In the window of a local optician (later to become a large holding company with many branches), I saw the MIC microscope. I bagged my father to buy it for me. My father, the most generous person I've ever known, asked me to stay out and entered the shop. From the window I could see him communicating with the seller. Then he came out and told me that as much as he wanted to buy it, we couldn't afford it. For my birthday my parents bought me a small single magnification microscope.

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When I started my studies in petrography for my MA thesis, I was looking for a small, portable but efficient microscope that I could equip with polarizers and use at home. Two of my friends had MICs, which they kept since childhood but never used for many years. I asked them to sell me one of them. They both apologized but refused. Years passed, I finished successfully my MA and PhD and worked for years with several research-grade microscopes. When I became an associate professor, my friends prepared for me a big surprise party in a local good fish and seafood restaurant. One of the MIC owners, who became a professional photographer, made for me a framed photo of his MIC with a dedication inscription reminding me of this microscope and congratulating me for succeeding to advance without it.

In 2014 I was almost ashamed to buy myself this mint condition MIC on eBay for merely £11. I wish my father could see it and recall the story.

Zvi Goren, 1922-1993