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Withering's Botanical Microscopes

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Inv. YG-17-009

Withering-type botanical microscope, 1785


The “Withering-type Microscope” is named for its inventor, Dr. William Withering (1741-1799), an English physician and botanist who graduated with a degree in medicine 1766 in Edinburgh. Inspired by the taxonomic work and systematic classification of Carl Linnæus (1707-1778), Withering (1776) applied the Linnaean taxonomic system of classification to British plants in a seminal, two volume work, A Botanical arrangement of all the vegetables naturally growing in the British Isles. The earliest reference to a small botanical microscope of Withering’s design appeared in the first edition of this book. There, Withering indicated this microscope was developed for field dissections of flowers and other plant parts. While there is no surviving example of this exact design, close relatives of this type do exist, made either completely of brass or of ivory with brass pillars. These models can be tentatively dated to 1776-1785, as by 1787 a newer model with a hollowed stage in an all-brass configuration already predominated. 

The earliest reference to a small botanical microscope of Withering’s design appeared in the first edition of his Botanical Arrangement (Withering, 1776, pp. 848-852, Fig. 2). There, Withering indicated this microscope was developed for field dissections of flowers and other plant parts. The instrument was described as follows : 
The Botanical Microscope. a.a. The stage, upon which the objects to be viewed and dissected are placed. b.b. c.c. Circular brass cells, containing lenses of different magnifying powers. These lenses slide higher or lower, to adapt the focus to distinct vision. Either of the lenses may be taken out occasionally and held in the hand. In the stage a.a. are the holes to contain the instruments figured in the preceding plate. The best way to use the microscope is to set it upon a table, of such a height that the eye can be applied with ease, almost close to the lens. The elbows resting upon the table, the two hands will be steady, and at liberty to use the dissecting instruments. The microscope stands upon either end, according as you want to use the greater or the lesser magnifying power.


Despite the evolution Withering’s microscope underwent, it seems that the original inventor was not very happy with his own design. In the second edition of his Botanical Arrangement, published in 1792, the same figure of the microscope as that in the initial edition appears, but with a different caption, stating as follows (Withering, 1792, Pl. XII): 
The microscope figured in this plate having been found to occupy too much space in the pocket, to stand too unsteady when in use, and to have the handles of the instruments too short; another instrument is now sold by the publisher, and may be had from the different booksellers, price 10s. 6d. in which all these inconveniencies are obviated. The separate glass in the ivory cell is intended to be used as a hand magnifier. The fixed glass at the top of the instrument is to be turned round until its focus be properly adjusted to the object laid upon the stage, and a distinct vision obtained; and then if a dissection is requisite, it may be done with great steadiness and exactness….

Inv. YG-22-030

While this description is unaccompanied by any illustration of the new model, it perfectly describes the type of folding or book-form microscope presented here, in which the microscope would spring up when the case was opened. Because a form of this entirely new folding design is recorded in a later edition of Withering’s Botanical Arrangement, this type can be securely related to the description in the second edition. 

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In that context, we should remember that the second edition of Withering’s Botanical Arrangement appeared after the Birmingham riots forced its author to leave England for Portugal. Possibly some few microscopes of that type were manufactured and traded for a brief period of time before those events, but it may also be assumed that while away from England, Withering was obviously out of contact with the publisher; a possible explanation for the lack of an illustration of the newly designed microscope and the very brief description of it. 
Available data clearly indicate that some design changes from the original blueprint for Withering’s folding model were implemented in later versions. In the third edition of A Botanical Arrangement (Withering, 1796), when Withering was again in Birmingham, the publisher advertised the new design for 15s. It used the first paragraph of the microscope’s description from the second edition, but no illustration accompanied the advertisement. Only in the fourth edition (Withering, 1801, Pl. XII) was an illustration of the microscope added. Notably, William Withering died in 1799, and this first illustration of the new type appeared only nine years after its original description was published and two years after the inventor’s death. However, the microscope in the 1801 illustration is not the first three-pillar folding model but a later type known today from dozens of examples found in different collections. They have single pillars, with draw focus or screw focus of the stage and chains or rods supporting their pillars. Removing two pillars was apparently intended to ease access to the stage during dissection but did render the stage less stable. In a simulated dissection of flowers by the present author on two such microscopes from his own collection, it became evident they were barely practical for the task. As Ford (1985, p. 119) has noted, one may wonder whether Withering performed any of his own dissections on such an instrument.


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It should be noted that Withering’s second folding design was strongly linked with another, albeit entirely unrelated, invention whose manufacture flourished in his hometown. Towards the beginning of the 1780s, Anthony Wilkinson of Kirby near Liverpool (later to work in Ormskirk) invented the folding gold balance to help meet a need for accurate weighing owing to a new governmental proclamation issued by the Solicitor of the Mint regarding the official and allowed weight of gold Guinea. Because of the common habit of “clipping” the edges of those gold coins and the abundance of counterfeits, gold coins had to be weighed during every transaction. Wilkinson’s balance provided an efficient means of doing so. The new balance for gold, housed in an elongated rectangular folding mahogany case, was designed so that the brass instrument would spring into position when the lid of the case was opened, at the same time exposing a sheet of paper with printed instructions usually glued to the inner face of the lid. The case was typically cut from a solid block of wood, with an attached, fitted wooden lid that pivoted into place. All those external features also characterize Withering’s folding type of botanical pocket microscope. The popularity of Wilkinson’s balances rocketed, and very quickly, his invention was plagiarized by several competitors, especially by a group of manufacturers working under a single roof in Birmingham. 
The similarity between Withering’s folding type of botanical microscope and the Wilkinson-type gold balances was clearly anything but coincidental. It may be assumed with considerable certainty that the same workshops constructed Withering-type Microscopes; their cases were made exactly by the same method. The microscopes also share a degree of crudeness that characterises the Birmingham-produced balances. 

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