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Giovanni Maga - My antique microscope collection


My interest in antique microscopes, started when I had the chance of restoring a Leitz Ortholux instrument, destined for dumping after having been discarded by my Institute. It is not really antique, just vintage (1960), but it revived my passion for microscopes and gave me the feeling of restoring an old instrument. It is now displayed in my office and perfectly functioning with all its original parts. 

My Leitz Ortholux (1960), restored and fully refurbished with a pair of original 10X Leitz eyepieces and five Leitz objectives (10X, 25X, 40X, 50X fluorite, 100X oil imm.).

Little later, I found a Leitz microscope dating 1893 on sale at a very reasonable price. It was not in mint condition, but a closer look told me that it was probably possible to restore it. I bought it and spent a couple of months polishing and repairing it (I was right, no major damages). It then took me six additional months to find (on ebay) all the missing parts and accessories (original Leitz and of the same age), but in the end I had a fully functioning, perfect example of a first-class German research microscope of the XIX century. The rest is history, the inner fire was burning and I became absolutely fascinated by the antique microscopes of the Victorian age.



The microscope in the Victorian age 

        The development of the microscope has revolutionized the study of biology, as much as the invention of the telescope has determined the birth of modern astronomy. People generally believe that this revolution started in the XVII century, with Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. However, it must be remembered that, while the simple microscopes used by Hooke and Leeuwenhoek certainly started the era of microscopic investigations, the microscope became an instrument capable of preforming scientifically serious histological examinations only after the invention of the compound microscope. The difference between a simple and a compound microscope, is that the former is composed of only one lens (basically it works with the same principle of a magnifying glass), while the latter is composed of two optical systems, each made up by multiple lenses: the ocular (or eyepiece) and the objective. The advantage of the compound microscope resides in both its superior power of magnification and of resolution, making it possible to resolve the tiny details of complex microscopical specimen such as tissues and cells.

The era of the compound microscope had its dawn in the XVIII century, but it was only in the XIX century that optical and mechanical advancements were made, capable of rendering the microscope a true scientific instrument for the investigation of the fine structures of the living matter (for a detailed history of early microscopy see: W. B. Carpenter, The microscope and its revelations. Eight ed. 1901, Churchill London).

Many excellent makers were acting in the early XIX century in Germany (Zeiss, Leitz), France (Chevalier, Nachet, Hartnack) and Italy (Amici, Koristka). However, it has been in England, particularly in the Victorian age, that the microscope became not only an instrument for scientists, but a popular gadget, highly sought after by the general public and also made available to students.

A testimony of such a diffusion of the microscope among the general public is found in the introduction of the classic book of popular microscopy, "The microscope and its revelations", published for the first time in 1856, with eight subsequent editions until 1901, by William Carpenter. When stating the purposes of his book, in the 1875 edition the author wrote: "...it may be well now to address ourselves to that large and increasing number, who are disposed to apply themselves to a microscopic research as amateurs...as a means of wholesome recreation to their own minds...".

In the 1875 edition of his book, W. Carpenter says: "There is something in the extreme minuteness, which is no less wonderful – might it not almost be said, no less majestic? – than the extreme of vastness. If the mind loses itself in the contemplation of the immeasurable depths of space ... it is equally lost in wonder and admiration, when the eye is turned to those countless multitudes of living beings which a single drop of water may contain..." Such was the enthusiasm for microscopy studies in the Victorian age.


Frontispiece and last page of the Introduction of the 5th Ed. of Carpenters' book, 1875

It must be noted that the term "popular" in this context does not refer to the low-income working class of that age, which was generally illiterate and rather poor. We are speaking about the middle/upper-class, but still, that meant thousands of customers. It was a rather unique phenomenon, which caused the appearance (and often fast disappearance for bankruptcy) of hundreds of small optician shops manufacturing and selling microscopes. Also, a vast literature consisting of books explaining the theory and practice of microscopy to the general public, contributed to popularize the use of this instrument. The first edition of the classic book "The microscope and its history, construction and developments", published for the first time in 1854 by Jabez Hogg, sold 5,000 copies in one year and had fifteen subsequent editions!

Of course, the high demand of microscopes also carried along an equally large craving for objects to be observed. Thus, very often either skilled amateurs or professional instrument makers, set up shop preparing and selling microscope slides of every conceivable subject, from the wings of butterflies to various animal organs or fossil diatoms. The most prolific microscope slides preparers (such as the professional organist and music professor Arthur Cole of Liverpool, who signed his slides with the trade name "Cole Deum") had in stock some 8,000 to 10,000 different subjects to choose from!

Opticians such as Ross, Watson, Powell & Lealand, Crouch, Browning, Baker, Beck, produced some of the finest microscopes of the XIX century. They were real masterpieces, from an aesthetical, technical and optical point of view. But also instruments produced by less famous less skilled artisans, mostly by hand and realized in brass, were optically and mechanically very good and also very often aesthetically magnificent.

A clear dichotomy could be seen between the continental (i.e. French, German, Austrian, Italian) and the English style, which also reflected a different philosophy. Continental microscopes of the XIX century were being built mainly for professional use as scientific instruments. They were solid, essential and easy-to-use instruments, specifically realized for routine lab work. The English microscopes were being made also for the pleasure of the eye and the satisfaction of ever more demanding customers, being equipped with every sort of accessories (sometimes too many and often of no real practical use), so that first-class English microscopes were as technically perfect as they were difficult to use.

They, however, are the testimony of the hunger for discovering and understanding the world, which was consuming scholars such as Darwin, or explorers such as Scott in the Victorian age.


My collection

I own twelve microscopes dating between 1855 and 1925, with several accessories and all perfectly functioning. In addition, I have about 200 English microscope slides dating from 1833 to 1940's, mostly of animal histology or pathology subjects, with some botanical and zoological specimens. I also own three books on general microscopy dating 1855, 1882 and 1901, respectively. The microscopes will be described in details below.




My collection of antique microscopes


Microscope by Gardiner (Bristol) c.a. 1863-67


The Watson "Histology" model, 1891


Large Microscope stand Ib by Leitz (Wetzlar), 1893


Student/Travel microscope model V by Leitz (Wetzlar) 1895


Hartnack & Prazmowsky (Bezu & Haussier Suc.rs) model IIIA , Paris 1885-1896


J. Swift & son "Discovery" model, c.a. 1905


William Ladd chain driven large microscope 1850-60


Klonne & Muller Arbeitsmikroskop fur Apotheker (1880's)


C. Baker's "Diagnostic" field microscope, London (1920's)


Leitz research microscope "Universal mikroskop stativ A" (Wetzlar, 1905)


Microscope Nachet "petit modèle inclinable" (Paris, 1863-1872)


Laboratory Microscope, Vérick (Paris, 1880's)




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