The History of The Microscope

Microscopes are an important invention that is still relied heavily upon today across many different industries. The history of the microscope spans hundreds of years, and the famous device has gone through many variations as it evolved. While ancient civilizations such as the Romans were experimenting with the light-bending properties of glass lenses, the microscope’s invention history begins in the late 16th century.

The First Microscope

During the 1590s, two Dutch spectacle makers, Hans and Zacharias Janssen, began experimenting with glass magnifying lenses. Before this point, the world only knew of magnifying glasses with a maximum power of 6-10x magnification.

The two spectacle makers put several magnifying lenses inside of a tube and discovered that objects viewed through the tube were greatly enlarged, much larger than any normal magnifying glass could achieve. Thus the first microscope was born.

However, the first microscopes were more of a novelty that was not used for any sort of scientific purpose, as the image produced by the microscope was blurry. It wasn’t until the 17th century that this changed.

Historians are able to date the invention to the early 1590s thanks to Dutch diplomat William Boreel, a longtime family friend of the Janssens who wrote a letter to the French king in the 1650s detailing the origins of the microscope. He described a device that rose vertically from a brass tripod almost two and a half feet long. The main tube was an inch or two in diameter and contained an ebony disk at its base, with a concave lens at one end and a convex lens at the other; the combination of lenses enabled the instrument to bend light and enlarge images between three and nine times the size of the original specimen.

No early models of Janssen microscopes have survived, but a Middleburg museum has a microscope dated from 1595, bearing the Janssen name. The design is somewhat different, consisting of three tubes, two of which are draw tubes that can slide into the third, which acts as an outer casing. The microscope is handheld and can be focused by sliding the draw tube in or out while observing the sample, and is capable of magnifying images up to ten times their original size when extended to the maximum.1

Single Lens Microscope

Micrographia, published in 1665, is a historic book written by Robert Hooke documenting his observations through different lenses. He was among the first to make significant improvements to the basic design.

Hooke’s microscope shared common features with early telescopes: an eyecup to maintain the correct distance between the eye and eyepiece, separate draw tubes for focusing, and a ball and socket joint for inclining the body. For the optics, Hooke used a bi-convex objective lens placed in the snout, combined with an eyepiece lens and a tube or field lens. Unfortunately, the combination caused the lenses to suffer from significant chromatic and spherical aberration, yielding very poor images. He attempted to correct the aberrations by placing a small diaphragm into the optical pathway to reduce peripheral light rays and sharpen the image, but this only resulted in very dark samples. So he passed light generated from an oil lamp through a glass filled with water to diffuse the light and illuminate his specimens. But the images remained blurred.1 Micrographia is the first scientific best seller and is credited for coining the term cell.

In 1674, a Dutch draper and scientist by the name of Antony Van Leeuwenhoek became the first person to make and use a microscope for a scientific purpose.

By grinding and polishing a small glass ball, Leeuwenhoek was able to make a lens that could achieve 270x magnification, a feat unheard of at the time. With his microscope, he was able to discover the presence of bacteria, blood cells, yeast, and other microscopic creatures.

Microscopes in the 18th and 19th Century

During the 18th century, the history of the microscope was filled with technical innovations which enabled the further production and improvements on microscopes. Microscopy became very popular among scientists.

In 1830, the prototype for the Compound Microscope was created when Joseph Jackson Lister created a way to reduce spherical aberration, known as the chromatic effect, by combining multiple weak lenses without blurring the image, as opposed to lenses with higher magnifications.

In 1872, the research director of the Zeiss Optical Works, Ernst Abbe, developed the Abbe Sine Condition, a mathematical formula that allows for maximum resolution in a microscope.

Modern Microscopes of the 20th Century and Beyond

The 1900’s brought the introduction of instruments allowing the image to remain in focus when the microscope changed magnification. 1903 marked the year Richard Zsigmondy invented a microscope, the ultramicroscope, which could study objects below the wavelength of light.

Thanks to the greatly improved resolution, contrast-enhancing techniques, digital imaging, fluorescent staining and much more have revolutionized such fields as chemistry, physics, biology, and microelectronics.

In 1925, Zsigmondy won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

By 1931, the electron microscope was invented. Whereas the microscopes previously invented used light to view objects, the electron microscope uses electrons which have a wavelength that is 100,000th that of light.

In 1932, the phase contrast microscope was invented by Frits Zernike. The phase contrast microscope enables colorless and transparent biological materials to be studied.

In 1953, Zernike won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In1982, Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig invented the scanning tunneling microscope. This microscope enables the viewer to see 3D images of objects. This is the strongest microscope ever created.

In 1986, Rohrer and Binnig won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Today, it is possible to perform real-time fluorescence microscopy of living cells in their natural environment, while in 1999 Intel and Mattel collaborated on producing the $100 Intel Play QX3 Computer Microscope (since discontinued), bringing the instrument into the consumer marketplace. And, in the spirit of the early pioneers of microscopic research, scientists at Florida State University have brought the field full circle, turning their advanced instruments on common everyday objects like that All-American staple, burgers and fries, detailing thin sections of wheat kernel, onion tissue, starch granules in potato tissue, and crystallized cheese proteins.1

Learn More

The history of the microscope has seen many advances over the years. If you are interested in learning more about microscopes or wish to obtain one, view our large selection of microscopes by application.