Taking A Closer Look: The Minds Behind The Microscope

by Tyler DeWacht


The microscope, like the telescope, has had much influence. While the telescope and microscope have often crossed historical paths, they evolved into different devices entirely. Thanks to the telescope, we’re able to see into the stars. With the microscope though, we can study the smallest of organisms, the basic building blocks of life, and even the foundation of matter itself. Surely, though, this device couldn’t have come out of nowhere? Who came up with it? Let’s take a closer look.

Making things seem larger isn’t a new concept; it’s been done for several millennia. Citizens of Ancient Greece, Egypt, and other early civilizations observed that water droplets make objects and images appear larger than they actually are. Not many people back then really thought of using glass for magnification purposes though, as it was a relatively rare resource. Those who could afford glass mainly used it for tools or aesthetic purposes. The Romans played around with glass and magnification, and magnifying glasses were invented sometime around the 13th century, but it wouldn’t be until much later that we see something actually resembling a microscope.

You may recall Hans Lippershey, Jacob Metius, and Zacharias Janssen, the telescope pioneers. Johannes Zachariassen, son of the latter, had a rather dubious claim that his father was the original telescope inventor. Hans Lippershey still has a claim to the microscope design, but in an interesting twist of fate, it is now Lippershey’s claim that is dubious. Jacob Metius, by the way, has no known involvement with the microscope.

The spotlight instead falls on Zacharias Janssen along with his father, Hans Marten. They experimented in the 1590s with lenses in tubes, hence why it’s possible that they could’ve also been the inventors of the first telescope. Their main finding was that images appeared larger (albeit somewhat blurry) when they looked through the lenses in the tube in a certain configuration. While no original copies of their microscope survived, there are written accounts which describe its appearance.

Galileo Galilei receives an encore as well with a new and improved design. He hears about it, makes his own, shows it off, and gets praised. It’s basically the same story as last time, but swap the telescope with the microscope, skip ahead about 16 years, and remove the space element. In 1624, Galileo named it the occhiolino (little eye). In 1625, the German doctor Giovanni Faber used the Greek words mikron (small) and skopein (to look or see) to name it the microscope as a nod to the telescope. The latter name is what caught on, and that’s how the microscope got its current name.

Now let’s introduce a new person. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch scientist and tradesman, found out about the microscope sometime before 1668. Other microscopes at the time could only reach around 50x magnification; most were lucky to even reach 30x. Using a new technique of lens-making, Leeuwenhoek designed a microscope that could achieve 270x magnification. This was a huge leap forward. So huge, in fact, that he even discovered the existence of single-celled organisms.

Leeuwenhoek’s observations were further expanded upon by one last recurring figure. No, not Isaac Newton; he had almost nothing to do with the microscope. It’s his rival, Robert Hooke, who takes the glory this time around. As Hooke looked through his microscope, he took notes on what he saw and made extremely well-detailed illustrations down to the smallest pores and tiniest hairs. He also examined corks and discovered plant cells though he didn’t know that at the time. Micrographia, his most famous work published in 1665, contained all of his research on the subject. Together, the observations of Leeuwenhoek and Hooke would revolutionize science.

Again, I can’t go over every single mind behind the microscope,because it would take too much space. There’s just too much history behind it, and I don’t trust myself when it comes to properly explaining complicated science. So, here’s an abridgement of the next couple hundred years: microscopes get stronger, new versions are designed, and microbiology advances. Bacteria and viruses are studied, medicine improves, and millions of lives are saved. New stuff is learned; plants are alive, cells divide, mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell…you get the idea.

All of these things were discovered thanks to light, and the average microscope can’t function without a light source. However, even light has limits. At a certain point, the sheer scale of magnification required surpasses light itself, which effectively renders optical microscopes useless. So how can we go even deeper? Let’s harness the power of electrons. A projected beam of them will map out the object and render an image of it. That way, we can see miniscule things in great detail. It doesn’t really work with living things since the conditions required to operate the electron microscope make it inhospitable for almost all life, but it’s a small price to pay. Two German scientists, Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska, were the first to design an electron microscope in 1931.

Other versions soon followed and greater degrees of magnification became possible. In the United Kingdom, the SuperSTEM Laboratory run by the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) has an electron microscope powerful enough to view objects a million times smaller than a single strand of human hair, which can accurately identify individual atoms. It’s mainly used to study how certain materials tend to behave on an atomic level. This isn’t even the farthest we could potentially go in the future; there’s still the subatomic level to explore, so who knows when we’ll reach an absolute limit?

So, shall we give thanks to those individuals who’ve made contributions to the history of the microscope? To Zacharias Janssen and Hans Marten, the pioneers of optical microscopy. To Galileo Galilei, the influential observer, and to Giovanni Faber, who gave it the name we use today. To Anton van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke, who presented revolutionary observations. To Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska, the pioneers of electron microscopy. To the scientists at SuperSTEM, the observers of Ancient Egypt, and everyone in between, thank you all for your contributions.

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