Who invented the microscope?

Today, microscopes are a vital part of hundreds of industries and scientific disciplines.

But despite their overwhelming importance to our way of life, we know surprisingly little of their origins.

Here’s a quick look at what we know of early microscopes and their inventors.

Who invented the first microscope?

We have no idea!

The earliest plausible microscopes may have been the ground and polished rock crystal lenses occasionally found in the ruins of ancient Assyrian and Babylonian civilisations.

However, despite possessing limited magnification capabilities, most archaeologists believe they were not used as primitive magnifying lenses, but instead as fire starters or fancy decorations.

The earliest definitive use of lenses for magnification occurred somewhere between the 9th and 13th century, when ‘reading stones’ were popularised. Reading stones are hemispherical lenses that could be placed over texts to enlarge the image and allow for easier reading.

The first microscope – as we would recognise it today – was likely developed between 1300 and 1500, given that simple microscopes known as ‘flea glasses’ or ‘fly glasses’ were relatively common in the 1500s.

As the name implies, they were often used to study small insects, such as fleas and flies.

Who invented the compound microscope?

Funnily enough, we can’t be sure of this either. 

The first compound microscope (a microscope using two lenses for much greater magnification) is thought to have been developed in the late 1500s or early 1600s, but there several potential claimants.

The frontrunners are Zacharias Janssen, a Dutch spectacle maker, and his father Hans. Other people credit their rival glassmaker Hans Lippershey, inventor Cornelis Drebbel, and even the famed astronomer Galileo.

Whoever the true creator really is, all of these individuals have played a significant part in advancing optical science, paving the way for the remarkable scientific discoveries to come.

Who invented the stereo microscope?

The earliest binocular (two eyepieces) microscope was likely developed in the 1600s.

A Capuchin monk named Antonius Maria de Rheita first described a binocular microscope in 1645, and in 1677 a fellow monk, Chérubin d’Orléans, developed a working prototype that would permit tiny objects to be viewed with both eyes at the same time. Still, it lacked the 3D stereoscopic image we use today.

It was another 200 years before John Riddell, an American chemistry professor and postmaster, developed an early version of a stereo microscope. The image relief was reversed however, so it wasn’t truly stereoscopic.

The first true stereo microscope was created by Horatio Greenough in 1890. Working with microscope manufacturer Zeiss, his design would correct the optical flaws of the earlier attempts and go on to become the forbearer of the stereo microscopes we still use today.

Who invented the electron microscope?

On firm ground at last, we can say with certainty that the first electron microscope was inaugurated in the 1930s. Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll of the Technical University of Berlin created the first prototype electron microscope in 1931.

Two years later, they would improve on their design, achieving a greater resolution than optical microscopes for the first time. (Ruska was later awarded the Nobel prize for his efforts.)

The technology advanced rapidly, with Manfred von Ardenne producing the first scanning electron microscope in 1937.

The following year, he developed the first STEM (scanning transmission electron microscope). However, it didn’t produce ideal results and the original microscope was later destroyed by an airstrike in 1944.

In the 1970s, the concept was revisited by Albert Crewe, who would improve on the design and create the first modern STEM.

Later, in 1981, two researchers working at IBM developed an electron microscope based on quantum tunnelling. Known as the STM or scanning tunnelling microscope, their prototype would award Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer the Nobel prize alongside Ernst Ruska in 1986.

Microscopes have come a very long way from their humble beginnings, and yet we’re still discovering new techniques and designs today. Who knows where we’ll be in another 20 years?

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