Microscopes on the Block

Microscopes on the Block

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.

A tall, barrel-shaped instrument stood on a table near a south-facing window before members of the British Royal Society.  The group gathered in London in April 1663 waiting to see a demonstration by Robert Hooke, Curator of Experiments and member of the Royal Society.

Operating rooms ultimately shifted from butcher shops to sterile rooms. 

Hooke told the group the instrument before them was a microscope designed by noted London instrument maker Christopher Cook.  Looking through the eyepiece each person could see a thin piece of oak cork impaled on a pin.  Hooke explained how his microscope magnified objects as much as 50 times larger than if they were viewed with the eye alone.

The instrument could be used to understand the properties of cork; its lightness, ability to float and compressibility.

Hooke’s microscope turned out to be one of the most useful of its time.  He was the author and illustrator of the first picture book of science called Micrographia (small things) published in 1665.  The book pictures his early microscope.

Hooke opened up a new, tiny world for people to see and explore through his microscope. 

With the invention he helped establish the link between healing, medicine and science.  Galileo actually designed a microscope that included a focusing knob.  Like the telescope Galileo used, the microscope made it possible to increase the range of observations scientists could make.  

One surgeon called operating rooms butcher shops in 1900.  The idea that germs no one could see caused disease had been around since the ancient Greeks.  But no one had been able to prove their existence or say what they were.  The “little animals” hadn’t been studied until compound microscopes made them easier to see in the 1930s.

Operating rooms ultimately shifted from butcher shops to sterile rooms.  Surgeons started using sterilized linen gowns, face masks and rubber gloves as a way to keep microbes on their bodies from entering patients’ wounds.  By the end of the 19th century nearly everyone understood microorganisms caused illnesses especially those infecting larger numbers of people at the same time.   

The microscope also helped scientists solve the puzzle of blood circulation.  It allowed them to see arteries were linked with veins by tiny capillaries. 

“By the help of a glass I saw not scattered points but vessels joined together in a ring-like fashion…Thus it was clear that the blood did not empty into spaces,” said scientist Marcello Malpighi in 1661.  He witnessed the capillaries by viewing the lungs of a frog.

Because of the microscope scientists were able to study any living thing they wanted. That led to new methods of prevention and treatment which in turn led to a reduction in people dying from epidemic diseases. Enlightenment thinkers believed the key to future progress in the world was science.  The microscope played an important part in that evolution.

Today microscopes continue to get stronger bringing into focus tiny unseen worlds unavailable to the human eye.

On July 16, Skinner Auctioneers in Marlborough, Mass., featured a selection of antique microscopes in its Science, Technology & Clocks auction.  


W. Watson & Sons Binocular Microscope and R. & J. Beck Microscope Lamp; London; 19th century; scope 19 inches high; lamp 11 inches high;  $1,659.

Slides; over 1100 mostly labeled Microscopy slides; 19th and early-20th century; housed in mahogany cabinet;  $4,740.

Horizontal Microscope; Charles Spencer; Canastota, New York; circa 1850; 11 ¾ inches high;  $5,925.  

Cuff-type Microscope; retailed by Dollond, London; possibly made by John Cuff; circa 1761; 17 ½ inches high;  $9,480.

Culpeper-type Compound Monocular Microscope; attributed to Mathew Loft; circa 1750; 16 inches high;  $14,220.   

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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