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The History of the Microscope

We marvel at the many things we discover under the microscope. This instrument has paved way to the creation of other important things such as medicines which has greatly changed our way of life in several aspects. But, did you ever wonder how microscopes evolved to the ones that we are more familiar with today?

As with any invention, everything started out with curiosity. When glass was invented in the 1st century AD, the Romans were checking out various types of glass including those that are somewhat thicker at the center and thinner on the edges. They then discovered that if you hold the glass over an object, the latter will look bigger. It was also during this time when it was discovered that glass can be used to start a fire, with the aid of the sun’s rays. That’s why in the early days, the words magnifiers and burning glasses were used to describe glasses of this kind.

The term “lens” was influenced by lentil beans, due to the similarity on their shapes. However, further discoveries of the use of lenses did not prosper until the late 13th century when spectacle makers began creating glasses to improve people’s eyesight especially when looking at miniature objects. These cannot be compared to the modern day microscopes though as these are actually just magnifying glasses able to enlarge an object to only about 6-10 times. But it did help people become interested in the study of fleas and other smaller insects, giving birth to the term “flea glasses.”

In the year 1590, a 10-year old Dutch boy, Zaccharias Janssen made further experiments on these lenses. Together with his father, they discovered that when you place several lenses together in a tube, it will produce much larger images, way larger than those made by common magnifying glasses. And so, the compound microscope was invented.

Galileo Galilei, the father of physics, heard of these experiments leading him to study the principles behind lenses and light rays, thereby improving the microscope and telescope. But of course, his focus was on the discovery on what lies beyond our atmosphere.

In the 1600s, Anthony Leeuwenhoek of Holland who was at the time working at a dry goods store became very interested with magnifying lenses which he used to count the threads on woven clothing materials. His curiosity led him to create small lenses with a much defined curve and which can magnify things up to 270 times larger. His discovery paved way to other discoveries such as the presence of yeast and bacteria, earning him the title of “Father of Microscopy.” His English counterpart, Robert Hooke, was equally fascinated with microscopes making him spend many years improving their design and capabilities.

There were no further developments made on microscopes until the 1900s, when manufacturers such as the German company Zeiss and another American company started producing finer optical items. Our present microscopes however, mostly come from Germany, China and Japan, as there are no more US companies producing microscopes. And of course you have new types of microscopes, like electron microscopes.

Indeed the evolution of microscopes have gone a long way, and with it is the improvement of our quality of life as well, one of the nice effects of a person’s curiosity.

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