Melvyn Bragg’s ever-fascinating series on Radio 4 looked at the history of the microscope this week, from the earliest days of Robert Hooke and Anton van Leuwenhoek right up to the Scanning Electron Microscopes of our modern age. UK readers can access the program via this link:
There is a lot packed into this 45 minute discussion so it is churlish of me to pick up on omissions. However, I am intrigued by the social history of the microscope, particularly during the 19th century. An earlier post talked about the contribution that Arthur Hill Hassall’s microscopy made to the public health debates of the 19th century (and I will write more about him at some point soon). He was just one of many Victorian gentlemen who peered down microscopes and made important discoveries.
This was the Age of Empire and a generation of European explorers, including Richard Burton and David Livingstone, were captivating audiences with tales of previously unknown regions of the world. Yet, at the same time, amateur naturalists equipped with a microscope were able to find an equally exotic assortment of organisms from ponds and streams within walking distance of their own homes. In 1865, for example, “some 60 persons” attended the first meeting of the Quekett Microscopical Club in London, attesting to the wide appeal of microscopy in an age where there were fewer distractions than in our modern age.