History of the Microscope – Summary, Invention and Evolution

We explain the history of the microscope, the first attempts to create it and the various advances in recent centuries.

history of the microscope
In the 18th century, the stability and ease of use of the microscope was improved.

The microscope

A microscope is an optical instrument used to magnify images of very small objects. Thus, it allows us to observe what, due to its minuscule dimensions, ordinarily escapes our gaze.

For this, it uses two or more lenses, accompanied by different types of technology, to obtain such important results that they forever revolutionized the scientific world since its appearance in the seventeenth century.

The antecedents of optics and microscopy can be traced back to ancient times, although ancient philosophers and naturalists never had any idea of ​​the variety of the microscopic world, not even for the simple fact that it caused them disease. For example, for many thinkers and storytellers like Aesop, the smallest conceivable animal was the flea.

Nevertheless, the first attempts to use glasses to see what is inaccessible to the eyes were on the part of Euclid and Ptolemy, although they focused rather on observing the distant: the stars, or in any case correcting sight defects, such as myopia.

Much later Leonardo Davinci insisted in the 16th century on the virtues of observing tiny objects with special lenses, for example, to study the smallest insects.

Although there is much debate as to who carried out the construction of the first microscope, it is known that it took place between the 16th and 17th centuries. Some versions point to the Dutch lens maker Zacharias Jansen (1583-1638), who is also credited with inventing the first telescope.

If this is true, the first microscope appeared in 1590. It became so popular in the following decades among thinkers and philosophers that it did not take long for the first and revolutionary experiences of observing the formerly invisible to appear:

  • In 1665 the English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) published his studies on blood circulation from the observation of blood capillaries under a microscope.
  • Robert Hooke published Micrographia, a book in which images taken under a microscope were reproduced for the first time, such as observations of the cork and of what from then on was called a cell.
  • Years later, the Italian anatomist Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) observed living cells for the first time, observing living tissues under the microscope.

The Dutchman Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) perfected the construction of the available microscopes and was able to observe bacteria, protozoa, sperm and red blood cells for the first time, starting microbiology and revolutionizing biology and medicine. However, his discoveries were not published in his lifetime, and it took until 1723 for his secrets and microscopic material to come to light.

Thanks to the invention of the microscope, the eighteenth century was lavish in discoveries and improvements to the optical system that allowed us to see the world of the minute. Much progress was made in its stability and ease of use.

Nevertheless, improvements in his magnifying power came in the 19th century thanks to the efforts of HM Hall and John Dollond. On the other hand, the studies of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), opened the doors to the discovery of refraction and reflection.

Thus, in 1877, when the German Ernst Abbe (1840-1905) published his theory of the microscope, the technique of microscopy took an immense leap forward. Simply changing the water for cedar oil, for example, achieved a much higher increase.

In the first third of the 20th century it was estimated that the maximum possible magnification of optical microscopes had been reached: 500X or 1000X. However, that was still insufficient to observe intracellular structures such as the nucleus or mitochondria, the understanding of which was vital for medicine and biology.

It was thus that the studies of particle physics came allowed between 1925 and 1932 the invention of the first electron microscope, which instead of projecting light, uses a flow of electrons to achieve magnifications of up to 100,000X. A new era for scientific observation was just beginning, whose impacts on human knowledge were as revolutionary as van Leeuwenhoek’s observations were.