A Brief History of the Light Microscope


How old is the light microscope? It may be older than you think. For centuries, philosophers and researchers have tried to find a way to discover the hidden world that surrounds us each day. It surrounds us, but we can’t see it because it’s too small to view from the naked eye. This changed once the lens was discovered. Once this happened (the Nimrud lens dates back three thousand years to ancient Assyria) man has tried to magnify the world around him.

The first real attempt at a microscope happened in 1590. This was nearly a hundred years before the pilgrims and right around the time Shakespeare was writing his best work. Two Dutch spectacle makers, Zaccharias and Hans Jannsen used a lens and tube to magnify objects nearby. Galileo expanded on this design and came up with his compound microscope in 1625. He called it his little eye but Giovanni Faber, the famous doctor and botanist, called it a microscope and the name has stuck ever since.

Throughout the years, researchers like Anton van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke used microscopes to make discoveries about the existence of tiny organisms. In doing so, they improved on the design and performance of the microscope. The first microscopes used light rays to enlarge real objects. In the late 1800s, August Kohler used sample illumination to further enhance the capabilities of the light microscope.
However, light microscopes were restrictive because you couldn’t see things smaller than the wavelength of light. If you wanted to see smaller objects, you would have to find another source. This would come in the 1930s with the electron microscope and would continue with the scanning probe microscope in the 1980s. Still, the light microscope is a widely utilized microscope because it enables researchers to see living organisms. Recent developments like fluorescent microscopy have made sure that light microscopes have as rich of a future as they do a past.