Naturalists' Simple Microscopes of the Early 18th Century

Early 18th Century "Livebox" Microscope, ca. 1710

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Inv. YG-21-017

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The lignum vitae and glass insectoscope, seen here, is known from a few examples from several collections, both in museums and private. They all present the same materials: turned lignum vitae and rather crude glass (with air bubbles and uneven mold-blowing). All these features are typically early 18th century, perhaps even a bit earlier, but there seems to be a diversity of opinions in the literature. An example from the SML (A35408) was assigned by Bracegirdle (2005)  to the half of the 19th century. Giordano (2012: #33) dates it to the 18th century and refers to Denecke (1757: Pl. 47, 1-2), who presents similar designs. Weber-Unger and Mappes (2008: #22) date it to ca. 1850, presumably after Bracegirdle.

However, this rare type of microscope shows clear characteristics of the first half of the 18th century and certainly not of the 19th century. This is reflected in the use of lignum vitae, which was already completely replaced by the use of brass in the middle of the 18th century, in the early glass that no longer appears in devices from the beginning of the 19th century and even before, and in the fact that the late 18th and certainly 19th-century Livebox microscope represented in several examples also in our collection, whose design is completely different and shows all the features listed here. Hence, I have no doubt that this is a much earlier design.

Indeed, microscopes of almost identical designs appear in the literature of the early 18th century. Louis Joblot's book (1645-1723) (discussed here in the context of another microscope from our collection attributed to it) contains microscopes one of which is identical to the model shown here. I, therefore, tend to see this macroscope as a prototype for a popular design that was later copied into thinner brass and modern glass and cheaper manufacturing methods (rolling a thin metal plate into a cylinder instead of turning in a precious wood lathe that came from afar) as a kind of popular science instrument designed for amateurs. In Joblot's book, this microscope appears as an instrument used by the naturalist for low-magnification observations of small organisms without killing them, but not with the thought of popular science in mind. This is because the term "science" and its popularization are phenomena that began only in a later period, in the late 18th century and into the next century.


From Joblot 1718

The beginning of the 18th century is the period when the microscope came out of the realms of use by individual figures such as Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, Jan Swammerdam, Louis Joblot and their contemporaries. With the advent of the scientific publication of microscopic observations, the roots of which can be found in the works of these researchers and also in Robert Hook's seminal publication, the microscope is also beginning to receive a kind of standardization such as microscopes made for some of these naturalists by Johan Joosten van Musschenbroek.

Duch "Economy Glass", ca. 1710

Inv. YG-21-001

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Bracegirdle, B., 2005, Catalogue of the Microscopy Collections at the Science Museum, London, CD.

Giordano 2006, Giordano, R., 2006, Singular Beauty: Simple Microscopes from the Giordano Collection. Boston.

Giordano 2012, Giordano, R., 2012, The Discoverers' Lens: A Photographic History of the Simple Microscope 1680 - 1880. Tallmadge, Ohio.

Joblot, L. 1718. Descriptions et usages de plusieurs nouveaux microscopes tant simples que composez, avec de nouvelles observations faites sur une multitude innombrable d'insectes et d'autres animaux de diverses espèces qui naissent dans les liqueurs préparées et dans celles qui ne le sont point. Paris

Weber-Unger, S. and Mappes, T. 2008. Bedeutende Mikroskope 1680 bis 1860: Important Microscopes. Karlsruhe.