Hugh Powell (1799–1883) made microscope components under his own name. In 1841 the Microscopical Society of London, founded in 1839 (to become in 1866 the Royal Microscopical Society or RMS), ordered from the three leading British makers: Powell, Andrew Ross and James Smith, the forerunners of their future microscope designs. Powell joined forces with his brother-in-law Peter H. Lealand, and on Dec. 22, 1841, Powell & Lealand delivered their first microscope to the RMS. Their new instrument was an overly massive model, which was made in small numbers. It should be noted that during the following years, both Powell and Ross abandoned their primary constructions in favor of the the bar action or bar-limb design, introduced by Ross in 1843. Powell and Lealand's first bar-limb model remained their basic instrument model for over 60 years (later to be referred to as their No. 3). A larger "Improved Large First Class Microscope" was introduced somewhat later, and while not referred to as the 'Number 2', it was clearly the prototype for that later instrument. The No. 1 was introduced in 1869.  A so-called "No. 4" was a portable folding model.

Inventory: YG-043

Powell and Lealand No.1 binocular microscope, 1875


Considered the most renowned microscope of all times and perceived as the holy grail by collectors of historical microscopes, no doubt that the Powell and Lealand No. 1 is a work of art sculptured in brass and glass. Historians of microscopy, such as Turner (1989), hailed it as  "the most famous of all microscopes, the aristocrat of the Victorian period" and a trademark of perfection. As Hogg (1898) stated, it was "the result of sixty years' steady devotion to secure perfection...". But aristocracy aside and with the price tag of £187 (the equivalent of today's £20,238) when equipped with the Wenham binocular setting (as the one seen here), was it really so much superior to other microscopes of its over half century of existence?

Powell & Lealand's No. 1 is a large, brass compound microscope, on a massive tripod base. When the tripod-base design was introduced, The London Physiological Journal of Nov. 1843 described it as being "...the first instance of a Microscope hanging in a tripod in the same way that a kettle hangs from a tripod of sticks in a gipsy's (sic) encampment... The base supports trunnions attached to the main support tube and coarse focusing mechanism. This allows the instrument to be tilted from vertical to fully horizontal position. Coarse focusing is by rack and pinion. Fine focusing is done via the "long lever" mechanism. It is signed on the body tube support arm: Powell & Lealand, 170 Euston Road, London, 1875. Powell & Lealand's No. 3 was somewhat smaller and lighter but still it was an imposing instrument of very high quality.

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Sir Ronald Ross (1857–1932) with his Powell and Lealand No. 1 microscope (above), and the microscope today (below). Source:  Wellcome Images by the Wellcome Trust 

The company never had more than 5 employees and so their microscopes were not made in large quantities; probably not more than 600 No. 1 stands were made and there was a 12-month waiting list. After the death of Hugh Powell, his son Thomas Powell continued the firm with Peter Lealand, creating microscopes, and increasingly high-quality objectives. According to Hartley (1993: 24-40), the decline of English microscopy as the leader from the 1870's and on was the result of a process, best represented by the history of this company from its initial years into the first two decades of the 20th century. Acting mainly as wealthy gentleman's clubs, the English microscopical societies (including the RMS) took an idiosyncratic turn into an area of optical effects totally unrelated to any practical application of microscopy, together with extreme fetishism of the instrument per se. With an obsessive emphasis on the ability of optical systems to resolve Norbert's rulings and by encouraging prestigious "boutique industries" of overly expensive instruments, the result was a kind of microscopical aesthete having no interest in science or biology as such.  The outcome was a dichotomy between microscopy by professionals, who normally used workaday microscopes of Continental manufacture better suited for general service and equipped with excellent optics, and a snobbish attitude preferring the finest products of the high-end British artists with no true relation with the purpose of microscopical work. As consequence, Powell and Lealand felt that no development was required in their No. 1 stand for the five decades to follow, apart of some minor changes that they were slow to adopt (Hartley 1993: 44-5). The firm attempted to maintain its reputation for immaculate perfection, heiled by several eminent writers, particularly Edward Milles Nelson (1851 ~ 1938), a famous British microscopist and former President of the Royal Microscopical Society. Everything was hand-made in the workshop where the five to ten staff had no power tools. Yet towards the beginning of the 20th century it could not compete anymore with the new wave of modernized, mass producing companies such as Carl Zeiss, Ernst Leitz, Swift & Son and Watson. At the same time, the clientele had become extinct along with the mystique. Thomas Powell died in poverty in 1924. (For more details see Molecular Expressions).


The microscope in this collection came with an array of accessories: objectives, parabolic reflector, diaphragm, darkfield condensers, Nicol prism polarizer, selenites, Wenham prisms, stage forceps, dark well holder, etc. Some of the accessories are later (late 19th or early 20th century) additions: a fitted Abbe condenser and the immersion oil, both of which Powell and Lealand were very slow to adopt.

Such accessory boxes, sometimes overly equipped, were a common trait of English Victorian microscopes. While German or French microscopes reflect pure functionality, and their accessories, even when abundant, were task-specified and limited to the necessary, high-end Victorian instruments often came with expensive sets of accessories for every possible task. It may be assumed that many of these were never used. 

The set shown here seems to include a more limited choice of peripherals, hence it may have been adopted for some specific tasks by a professional microscopist rather than by a dilettante wealthy gentleman.

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