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Prelude: The Microscope and Popular Science 

One of the most important developments that the Enlightenment era and the Age of Exploration brought to the science discipline was its popularization. An increasingly literate population seeking knowledge and education in both the arts and the sciences drove the expansion of print culture and the dissemination of scientific learning. In Britain, this new popular side of science was reflected in the establishment of such organizations as the Royal Institution (founded in 1799 and still in existence) whose stated purpose was: “diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.” As public interest in natural philosophy grew, hobbyists expressed keen interest in the world around them, with insects, microscopic fauna and flora, and fossils or mineral crystals receiving their fair share of attention. While wealthy amateurs could afford the costly compound microscopes of the time, simpler microscopes, such as some seen here, were in use by the less professional or well-to-do amateurs. However, these rather modest microscopes had their fair share in satisfying curiosity and spreading the notion of natural history amongst the public well into the 20th century.

Solar Microscope by Edward Nairne, London, ca. 1760-70


Edward Nairne was born in Sandwich, England and apprenticed with ophthalmologist Matthew Loft in 1741. After Loft's death in 1748, he established his own business at 20 Cornhill in London. In 1774, he took on his apprentice Thomas Blunt's partnership, which lasted until 1793 when Blunt opened his own shop in 22 Cornhill. Edward Nairne made patent of several electrical machines, including an electrostatic generator consisting of a glass cylinder mounted on glass insulators, or a device capable of supplying positive or negative electricity intended for medicinal use. In the first edition of the instruction manual for this device, it was stated that "electricity is a specificity in some disorders and deserves to be rated in the highest regard for its effectiveness in many others." This device is recommended for use for nervous disorders, bruises, burns, scales, red eyes, toothache, sciatica, epilepsy, hysteria, fever, and so on.

He also made improvements to the Cuff microscope, transforming it into a portable and using thorax microscope. In 1770, Edward Nairne constructed the first successful maritime barometer by opening the glass tube between the tank and the record plate. The instrument was suspended from gimbals mounted within a separate structure to provide additional stability. Nairne's first maritime barometer was sent on James Cook's second voyage to the South Pacific.

Edward Nairne was a regular contributor to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and was an elected member of the institution in 1776. He enjoyed an extensive international reputation and was in correspondence with Benjamin Franklin to create a set of images and a telescope around 1758. In 1770, he was an elected member of the American Philosophical Society, founded by Franklin. Also on Franklin's recommendation, he was asked to provide instruments for the damaged collection of Harvard University. Edward Nairne died on September 1, 1806, in London, England. 

A Brass Solar Microscope With Screwbarrel Objective Edward Nairne 1750-60 is a notable instrument that he created during the 18th century.

The microscopes were created to display the image of the object being observed onto a screen. They are often seen as an evolution of the camera obscura and magic lantern. To use them, one had to place them in a dark room with a small opening in the wall. The light that entered would be reflected off the mirror to illuminate the opposite wall.

The microscope is made up of a brass projection tube with two parts of different diameters. The outer part is wider, while the inner one houses a simple screw-barrel microscope with an eyepiece, lens, and samples. The upper tube can be adjusted by sliding it inside the lower one, using a rack system controlled by a screw for focusing. The entire tube fits into a quadrangular base, which has a rotating round platform at its center. The platform has a rectangular mirror on its lower side, along with a gear system. This allows the mirror to rotate and reflect sunlight more effectively.


The Solar microscope was invented by Johann Nathanael Lieberküen, a German scientist, in the year 1743. The device comprises a brass tube that has a plano-convex lens and a stage on one end to hold the specimen to be observed. To focus the image, the stage is moved along a section of the tube using a screw. On the other end of the tube, a divergent lens and a mirror are inserted, which can be adjusted to focus the solar rays into the device. The instrument is attached to the wall of a dark room, with the mirror placed outside, and the specimen is projected and enlarged up to several hundred times. Small objects or animals, usually insects, are often used. A screw is used to rotate the mirror around the tube’s axis, while a small rod is used to change the angle of the mirror.

This microscope doubles as a projector that can enlarge tiny images and project them onto a wall or screen using sunlight. Back in the days before electric light and other bright sources of illumination, sunlight was the only option to properly illuminate microscope preparations. To direct the sunlight into the microscope barrel, an adjustable mirror was mounted on the windowsill or hatch. Once the light was reflected onto the microscope preparation, it was magnified and projected onto the wall, revealing things that were too small to be seen by the naked eye. Known as the solar microscope, this instrument was invented in the seventeenth century and was widely used in schools and universities until the mid-nineteenth century when other light sources became available.

© Microscope History all rights reserved

© Microscope History all rights reserved

© Microscope History all rights reserved

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Benjamin Martin's Optical Cabinet, London, 1770-80


Benjamin Martin


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