The Early Modern Microscope

The Early Modern Microscope

            The invention of the microscope is shrouded in mystery and contention; often overshadowed by its more celebrated colleague the telescope, microscopy was slow to catch on and quick to die off in the seventeenth century (although it would be revived again in the nineteenth-century biological world). In their brief time in the scientific limelight, however, microscopes extended human knowledge in the direction of the miniscule and at the same time contributed to the downfall of the Aristotelian worldview. They provided access to a swarming, active world of “animalcules” that had previously been invisible, and the implications of this admission would be major for the natural sciences for years to come.

Since the Hellenistic era, humans had been using various materials to magnify their world, oftentimes to aid those with poor eyesight. Seneca, in the first century AD, described using water globes to magnify the lettering in texts, and Pliny chronicles Emperor Nero’s use of a concave emerald to enhance his view of gladiator contests. Florentines in the thirteenth-century were using eyeglasses.[1] Because of these examples of early magnification, it is difficult for the historian to distinguish a certain development as representative of the “invention” of a “microscope.” Some attribute its development to the Dutch father and son duo Hans and Zacharias Jansen, and some claim Hans Lippershey deserves the title; either way, it was the lens crafters of Middelburg, Netherlands in the last decade of the sixteenth-century that were the first to produce a new, distinct instrument of magnification potentially worthy of being classified as an early microscope.

Men engaged in the study of the natural world had, up to the seventeenth-century, not put much thought into what might be too small for their senses to glean. C. H. Lüthy describes why in his article on the early microscope’s relation to the telescope; Aristotle was an anti-atomist, believing that “when several elements combine to form further compounds… they lose their individual forms or qualities in favor of one single and homogeneous new form.”[2] With this assumption, magnifying matter would be rather useless and uninformative. It would take peering into the realm of minutia to debunk this belief and return to the atomist, or corpuscularian, theories of antiquity. At a time when many scientists were already questioning Aristotle’s philosophy, microscopic observations provided yet another nail in the coffin.

One such observer was Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a relatively poor Dutch draper with excellent eyesight. His accomplishments to a modern student of biology seem fantastic — he is credited as the first observer of protozoa, algae, yeast, bacteria, and human sperm — and he used very simple, single-lens microscopes that he ground and created himself. Each microscope was created for a single specimen, and at his death, several hundred microscopes with specimens still mounted were among his possessions.[3] Though he spoke only Dutch, he interacted regularly with the Royal Society in London, ensuring his work’s dissemination among the European scientific community.[4]

Although the microscope was not an invention bred of a passionate curiosity to uncover the mysteries of the minute, its rise coincided and reinforced the fall of Aristotle’s dominion over natural philosophy. After the initial discoveries, it quickly fell out of the scientific landscape until its revival in the nineteenth-century, in large part due to the lack of practical applicability it offered medical and natural philosophical men. But its contributions were important and would become moreso in the centuries to come.

[1] William J. Croft, Under the Microscope: A Brief History of Microscopy (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Pte. Ltd, 2006), 4-5.

[2] C. H. Lüthy, “Atomism, Lynceus, and the Fate of Seventeenth-Century Microscopy,” Early Science and Medicine 1, no. 1 (1996): 12.

[3] A. D. S. Khattab, “Dances with microscopes: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723),” Cytopathology 6, no. 4 (1995): 216.

[4] Ibid.

Vernacular Knowledge

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China, Dagmar Schäfer

            In her analyses of the writings of Song Yingxing (1587-1666?), author Dagmar Schäfer elucidates the intricate and complex systems of knowing in seventeenth-century China. Song was part of a society in which individuals were divided into four major classes: scholars, farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. While Song’s writings reflect these subdivisions (and the social hierarchies in which they were placed), they also defy his society’s unique knowledge classification systems by emphasizing the role of qi in universal harmony and understanding. In a method markedly different from his contemporaries, Song proposed a chaos-defying system based on qi and “natural phenomenon and the production of material objects,” instead of on “moral categories of ‘heaven’” imposed on humanity.[1] Schäfer brilliantly highlights how cultural, political, and societal influences play a role in knowledge production and understanding through her case study analysis of a single, at times abnormal and at times quite typical, lower-ranked Chinese scholar. 

Science in the Everyday World: Why Perspectives from the History of Science Matter, Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader

            Science in the Everyday World brings attention to the tendency for scientists and historians of science to discount or altogether ignore the importance of those “outside the temple of science” and in the realm of popular culture in the production and perpetuation of knowledge.[2] To assume that all knowledge is synthesized in the laboratories of professional scientists leaves out the many, equally important actors at play in the lay world. If historians will venture into the realm of popular cultures of science, Pandora and Rader argue, we have to gain “the positive transformation of relations between expert scientific practitioners and nonexpert public science participants.”[3] The authors then illustrate how this type of analysis should be carried out by discussing three examples: historians’ work on the nineteenth-century scientific popular culture, the development of and motivations behind scientific museums, and twentieth century media portrayals of the scientist. By understanding the ways that the scientific community and laypeople communicate with one another, scientists can benefit from historians in a way that will make future conversations far more rewarding.

Pandora and Rader’s piece on popular science reminded me very much of Nancy Tomes’s work, The Gospel of Germs. Tomes appears to use the exact analytical strategies proposed by Pandora and Rader; she attempts to understand the lay American reaction to an awareness of microbial disease-carriers. A marked difference between this approach and the more traditional, top-centered strategy can be located in the source base. Pandora and Rader’s brief discussion on popular representations of scientists in the twentieth century focus on film and television shows, while Tomes uses similar sources that lay outside of the professional realm, including advice books, patent applications, advertisements, and oral histories. While these sources may not always be the most visible, apparent, or traditional, they offer insight into a completely different aspect of scientific culture — one that is equally important to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.

I find the indirect approach to the historical study of scientific understanding the most fascinating, and arguably the most important. While scientists like to isolate themselves physically and professionally, they are still part of the worldly, human-comprised community. They are not immune to its structure, politics, culture, or ideas, as many proponents of the SSK school would argue. I think, however, that one of the most effective ways of understanding the context in which science is conducted is to study the consumers of science. Their role in the creation of scientific knowledge has been paramount; after all, without public support science (usually) cannot operate. And how science sells or isolates itself from the common people can have major implications for what kind of science is done. Equally interesting and useful is the study of how science has affected the communities for which it operates; how did your average American understand germ theory, and how did this change how they behaved? A question taken up by Tomes, this kind of inquiry can lead the historian to better understand what role science has played in the overall history of humanity, and like Pandora and Rader argue, it can facilitate important modern-day conversations between scientists and common audiences.

[1] Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of 10,000 Things, 52.

[2] Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader, “Science in the Everyday World,” 350.

[3] Ibid, 354.