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 on April 24th, 1934. 

Yosef was born in Saarbrücken on April 24, 1921 to his parents Dorithea (Donia) and Sigmund Leschner. Sigmund was a senior engineer at a mining company. After the referendum in which the inhabitants of the Saar decided to join Germany, he realized that this would not be a good place for Jews. In 1936 he immigrated with his parents to Palestine (then under British mandate), to escape Nazi Germany. 

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Yosef Leschner, 1921-2004

Sigmund Lescner was an important citizen of his city, and when they boarded the train, they were accompanied by many residents of the city, and the fire brigade orchestra played. As they arrived in Jaffa, then in Palestine under British mandate, he was employed by the Palestine Potash Company and later by the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa. They lived for a short time in Jerusalem and then moved to Haifa, where their son Yosef studied in the first year of Basmat School. For ideological reasons and to the dismay of his parents, he did not finish high school and, at the age of 17, joined his friends in a commune of workers and for about a year and a half worked as a laborer in the port of Haifa. In 1940, he and his friends joined the nucleus of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, where he lived until he died in 2004.

During Israel's War of Independence, Yosef joined the Fifth Regiment of the Hare'l Brigade and participated in the battles of Jerusalem and the Negev. He graduated from an officers' course in 1949 and was later discharged from the army. 

The microscope with the homemade 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.

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.

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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 begged 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 have not 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