The Microscope

[Click on image to enlarge] The microscope, like the telescope, dates from about 1600. One popular story says that two children, playing in the shop of a Dutch spectacle-maker, put together two lenses, one concave and the other convex, and looking through them, saw that the weathervane of the town church was amazingly magnified. The early telescope was sometimes turned on tiny things as well. Through his tube, Galileo saw "flies which look as big as lambs." But by 1625 a more efficient device, the microscope, had been crafted and named.

[Click on image to enlarge] Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665) proved that this device could reveal minute new worlds. Curator of experiments at the Royal Society, Hooke (1635–1703) made unprecedented and accurate drawings of the diminutive creatures he had discovered. He also created a new taste for appreciating unheeded wonders of nature, from the endlessly varied patterns of snowflakes to the strength and beauty of the flea or the life cycles of mites. Other spectacular advances in seeing and understanding the world under the microscope were made by the Dutch scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), who first observed bacteria and spermatozoa. When Alexander Pope considered "the Nature and State of Man," in Epistle 1 of An Essay on Man (NAEL 8, 1.2541), the questions he asked were inspired by these new ways of looking at mites or the eye of a fly.


Robert Hooke, from Micrographia


Exposing a piece of black Cloth, or a black Hatt to the falling Snow, I have often with great pleasure, observ'd such an infinite variety of curiously figur'd Snow, that it would be as impossible to draw the Figure and shape of every one of them, as to imitate exactly the curious and Geometrical Mechanisme of Nature in any one.

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[The Flea]

[Click on image to enlarge] The strength and beauty of this small creature, had it no other relation at all to man, would deserve a description * * * As for the beauty of it, the Microscope manifests it to be all over adorn'd with a curiously polish'd suit of sable Armour, neatly jointed, and beset with multitudes of sharp pinns, shap'd almost like Porcupine's Quills, or bright conical Steel-bodkins; the head is on either side beautify'd with a quick and round black eye K, behind each of which also appears a small cavity, L, in which he seems to move to and fro a certain thin film beset with many small transparent hairs, which probably may be his ears.


Antony van Leeuwenhoek, from a journal

[The Eye of a Fly]

In the month of August I saw, sitting on a glass, at the backside of my house, a Fly almost as large as a bee * * * I dissected the tunica cornea of both eyes of this Fly, and, on examination, I found them to be covered with a great number of wonderfully minute hairs, which did not cover the organs of sight but were placed in the intermediate spaces between them * * * Upon repeatedly, and more carefully, examining this spectacle, I was, to a certainty, assured that every one of that great quantity of particles like threads which presented themselves to my sight, were no other than optic nerves * * * And who knows, whether that part in which the optic nerves so terminate, may not be the brain itself, not yet discovered?

van Leeuwenhoek
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