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After its invention in the 1620s, the microscope had its first high point in the second half of the 17th century.

Robert Hooke's influence

Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703) was the curator of experiments at the Royal Society in London and in charge of scientific demonstrations for their weekly meetings.

A big contribution to the 'microscope frenzy' was Hooke’s groundbreaking book called Micrographia, published in 1665. It was famous for being the first recorded use of a microscope in natural philosophy and its beautiful illustrations.

Robert Hooke was a talented artist and worked on the illustrations for his book Micrographia for several years.

Plate XVIII 'Of the Seeds of Tyme' from Micrographia by Robert Hooke (1665)

Plate XVIII 'Of the Seeds of Tyme' from Micrographia by Robert Hooke (1665). © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library 

Importance of illustrations

Due to the flaws of early microscopes and scientific practice, there was a divide in the intellectual community about the role of the microscope for the understanding of nature. 

The question was whether the ‘proper way’ to learn about nature was through philosophical reasoning or through observation (with the help of tools such as the microscope).

Drawings, sketches and engravings were important in the spread of microscopic discoveries and knowledge. These illustrations extended the reach of observations beyond the experiment and together with descriptions increased the credibility of a discovery.

It was also easier and quicker to post the drawings of observations than send the very fragile preserved specimens.

Plate XI - 'Texture of Cork' - from Micrographia by Robert Hooke, (1665) 
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek

The success of using illustrations depended on the artistic skill of the microscopist. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), one of the great microscopists of the 17th century, had to employ an artist to help with drawings and engravings. 

Leeuwenhoek was a businessman and local official in Delft, who was a close contact of the Royal Society. In a series of letters, he describes the 'little animals' observed with the simple microscopes he built.

Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes were small, with a basic finish, but their lenses made them superior to many microscopes up until the 19th century.

Illustrations of duckweed and freshwater microorganisms (‘animalcules’) attached to it, included in a letter from Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 25 December 1702 © The Royal Society

Recording observations

The technique of photographing microscopic images was only invented in the 19th century. Before this time, the microscopist had the following methods available to record observations: looking then drawing, drawing while looking, drawing from a projected image (after the invention of the solar microscope mid-18th century), and drawing with the help of a camera lucida.

Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek with his microscope and wife Cornelia Swalmius at his shoulder. Oil painting by Ernest Board (c.1912) Wellcome Collection.CC BY

Early microscopes in National Museums Scotland's collection

Side stand microscope

Marshall's microscope with a walnut body and brass stand, late 17th century. Museum reference T.1937.131

This wooden side stand microscope looks like those illustrated in Robert Hooke’s book Micrographia. Most microscopes at his time had a middle mount and Hooke was probably the first person to devise a side-pillar compound microscope. This was important as it made looking at the specimen easier, without bits of the microscope stand getting in the way

This microscope was possibly made for the Royal household, as it has the Royal Coat of Arms on the leather cover, predating the accession of William and Mary in 1689.

Handheld microscope

Hand microscope in brass, in a mahogany box, late 17th century. Museum reference: T.1925.11.1

This is a hand microscope, fitted with a rotating wheel that holds four lenses of varying strength of magnification. The way this microscope was used and its size are similar to Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope.

Header image: Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek with his microscope and wife Cornelia Swalmius at his shoulder. Oil painting by Ernest Board (c.1912) Wellcome Collection.CC BY

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