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The History of the Microscope

We chart the history of the microscope. From humble beginnings to modern day computer wizardry, today we tell its story.

scientist-holding-test-tube

Without the microscope, many monumental discoveries by mankind would have remained unfound.

So, how did we come to own such a valuable instrument that has become staple furniture in high-tech labs? Who invented the first microscope? How did it evolve over time? What techniques have emerged?

These are some of the big questions we will be delving into and answering here.

Who Invented the First Microscope?

When it comes to inventions, it’s usually pretty cut and dry who invented them. However, the invention of the first microscope is a bit of a mystery.

As the beginning of the 17th century approached, two of the most uttered names in the same breath of the invention of the microscope were Zacharias Janssen and Hans Lippershey.

To add to the mystery of what really went down, both men were living in the same Dutch town of Middelburg. At that time, the Netherlands was enjoying a golden age of innovations in the arts and in the sciences.

 

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Lippershey was a part of the movement and made binoculars, telescopes, and spectacles. Similarly, Janssen was also in this trade and made spectacles. Due to them both having the knowledge and skills which would be needed to invent a microscope, it is very difficult to really know who invented the microscope.

Old-microscope

The exact maker may never be known, but some historians side with Janssen. They do this because a Dutch diplomat, by the name of William Boreel, wrote a letter to a renowned physician in France telling him about Janssen and a microscope.

Unfortunately for historians, there are some other names connected to the invention of the first microscope. A man by the name of Cornelis Drebbel has also been said to be its inventor. His name is also mentioned because he had his own version of the microscope in London some years later.

The jury is still out on the mystery that surrounds the inventor of the first microscope as we know it today. There is a chance that we will never know this magnificent instrument’s true inventor.

vintage-microscope

The History of Microscopes

Even though we talk about the microscope being discovered in the 16th century, the history of the microscope goes further back. This is because there was a steady progression in the evolution of optical equipment which brought us to the microscope. Here is a clear illustration of the big moments before and after its invention:

1. The Romans and Egyptians

We can trace the invention of the microscope to those Romans and pyramid-dwelling folk. These civilizations looked into glass and how it could make objects appear bigger. The Romans even looked into light and how it “bent” under water.

2. The Invention of the Eye Glass

The history of the microscope is resumed in Italy in the 13th century. Salvino D’Armato degli Armati invented a wearable eyeglass in the birthplace of the European Renaissance, Florence.

His main discovery was that he found that convex glass was able to magnify objects. From this discovery, he was able to make the eyeglass for the benefit of poor Italians who could not see the beautiful works of their master painters and sculptors.

3. The First Microscope

From the earlier develops and especially the work of Salvino D’Armato degli Armati, the stage was set for the invention of the first microscope. Albeit just over 250 years later. The story here has already been told above so we will move on…

4. 17th Century Developments

The 17th century was host to some of the most significant microscope advancements. Galileo Galilei turned his telescope into a microscope and used two lenses to do so. This is one of the reasons why Galileo Galilei is incorrectly also given the title as the inventor of the first microscope.

 

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A couple of decades later, Galileo then added a third lens to his microscope. The result was Galileo had developed a microscope with magnifying capabilities up to 30 times the naked eye.

Galileo

This was only to be outdone by a Dutch scientist called Anton van Leeuwnhoek. He was able to develop the microscope to an impressive magnifying degree up to 270 times the naked eye. This was the first microscope that could let you see bacteria.

5. 19th Century Discovery

An English scientist and wine merchant then made developments that gave a whole new official use to it. He developed lenses so that they would not blur when magnified excessively. The results were outstanding and his microscope now became used in medical practices.

6. The 20th Century And The Present

Since the microscope became used in medicine, its developments rocketed. Not only did tweaks make it even better, but new techniques also emerged to make using these developed microscopes even more effective. Here is a snapshot of the most significant developments to the microscope in the recent past:

  • The transmission microscope: this was made by Max Knoll in 1931. Instead of light, it used electrons
  • Phase contrast microphone: developed in 1932 by Frits Zernike, this microscope was made to investigate specimen
  • CAT scanner: just like the microscope was invented from a previous invention, the microscope helped develop an invention itself. Its invention was a step towards the development of a CAT scanner
  • Quantitative technology: developments were added to instruments so substances being examined could be given immediate quantitative data
  • Laser microscope: Christopher and Thomas Cremer made a microscope that used a laser beam
  • Tunneling microscope: to measure the interactions of atoms, Heinrich Roher and Gerd Binnig developed a microscope to do just that in 1981

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This concludes our look into the history of microscopes. Throughout time, different civilizations and cultures have contributed to this fascinating development.

From the Egyptians to modern-day scientist, everyone has made a difference to the microscope, its uses, techniques, and capabilities. Without these developments, there is a lot of things we would not know and not have discovered.

 

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