History of the microscope

The origins of the microscope can be traced back to the early days of human history when people first began using lenses to magnify objects.

Today, they are used in a wide range of scientific fields, including biology, medicine, and material science. 

Here’s a quick look at their journey through the ages.

Early lenses

The earliest known lenses with magnifying potential have been found in ancient Assyrian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian ruins.

The most famous example, the Nimrud lens, discovered in the ruins of an Assyrian palace and dated to 750 BCE, had a humble 3x magnification.

It is possible that ancient lenses were used as reading aids, but many experts think they were primarily decorative or used to start fires.

423 BCE

The first written evidence of a device with magnifying potential is seen in a work by Greek playwright Aristophanes in 423 BCE.

The Clouds, a satire about Socrates, refers to a ‘splendidly transparent stone by which they kindle fire’.

First century

Did Nero really use an emerald to see gladiator fights better? Some people think so, but it could just be a misunderstanding based on a mistranslation of Pliny the Elder's writings. Pliny also mentions using a crystal lens to cauterise wounds.

Another well-known Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, was the first to put pen to paper about using a glass globe full of water to make small letters easier to read.

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801 – 900 CE

Abbas ibn Firnas was a brilliant inventor who is credited with creating the first ‘reading stone’. These were basically lenses made of quartz or beryl that you could put over text to make it bigger and easier to read.

It's hard to say exactly when people started using reading stones, but it was probably a gradual process.

11th century

Ibn al-Haytham is considered the father of modern optics and he wrote about using convex lenses to magnify images. However, there’s no evidence that he actually made his own lenses.

His most important surviving book is titled the Book of Optics, which was translated into Latin and became really popular in the western world.

13th century

The use of magnifying lenses for optical purposes probably started in the Islamic world and spread to Europe in the 13th century.

Around 1290, the first pair of glasses was made in Italy (probably in Pisa or Venice).


Invented in the 1500s, simple microscopes known as ‘flea glasses’ or ‘fly glasses’ were used to look at small insects.

Circa 1590

A modest Dutch eyeglass maker named Zacharias Janssen and his father Hans are credited with inventing the first compound microscope.

The Janssens’ microscope consisted of a series of lenses mounted on a small metal frame, and it was capable of magnifying objects up to nine times their actual size.

1600 – 1800

Overall, there was relatively little advancement in microscopy during this period, with a couple of notable exceptions. These are the famous names of Hooke and Leeuwenhoek.

In 1665, Robert Hooke published his illustrated book, Micrographia, which contained drawings of plants and insects as seen through a microscope. The book quickly became popular and helped to increase interest in microscopy.

In the 1670s, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a self-taught scientist, developed his own simple microscope lenses, which were far superior to those that had been previously available, capable of magnifying objects up to 200 times their actual size.

His findings and research received widespread acclaim and he became one of the early pioneers of microbiology.


The 1800s were a time of significant progress in microscopy, with numerous advances in lens technology, specimen preparation and microscope design.

One of the trailblazers is Joseph Lister, who is known for his pioneering work on antiseptic surgery. Lister developed a method for mounting specimens for observation under the microscope and the use of immersion oil to increase resolution.

He also made significantly improved lenses free from achromatic aberration (where objects appear coloured) and spherical aberration (where all objects appear as if circular).

Another legend is Carl Zeiss, who founded the company that bears his name and is still a major player in the microscope industry today.

Zeiss developed new types of lenses and microscope objectives that greatly improved the resolution and clarity of microscopes.

Together with physicist and inventor Ernst Abbe, he produced the first oil immersion lens and the Abbe condenser, which provides a bright, focused beam of light onto a sample.


Reaching the limits of optical microscopy, scientists turned to electrons and new optical techniques in the 1900s.

In 1931, Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll built the first prototype electron microscope. Two years later, their improved design would surpass the resolution of optical microscopes for the first time. Ruska would later receive the Nobel prize for his invention.

Manfred von Ardenne invented the scanning electron microscope in 1937. The following year he would go on to develop the first scanning transmission electron microscope.

In 1953, phase contract microscopy was invented by Nobel laureate Fritz Zernike. Around the same time, Georges Nomarski would develop differential interference contrast microscopy.

The first scanning tunnelling microscope was developed in 1981 by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer. They received the Nobel prize in physics alongside Ernst Ruska in 1986.

But let’s not overlook Albert Coons. In the 1940s, Coons invented florescence microscopy, which became an essential source of major discoveries in cell biology.

Thanks to Coons, we can see things in eye-popping, dazzling detail, as if they were lit up by a neon sign.


Today’s powerful electron microscopes, allow us to see the world in a whole new way.

The mega transmission and scanning electron microscopes are remarkable.

These gigantic instruments allow us to magnify objects up to 50 million times their normal size, giving us an unprecedented look at the tiny details of everyday products and processes, and pushing the boundaries of what physics allows us to see.

From the nano details of everyday materials to the search for a cure for cancer, the field of microscopy is undergoing fast and furious change.

It’s hard to say exactly what the future holds for microscopy, but one thing is certain: with each new advance in technology, we’ll be able to see things in ever greater detail.

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