Microscopes have come an unbelievably long way since they were first developed in the late 16th century. While Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is often credited with being the creator of the first microscope, it was actually one of two optics pioneers who is the real father of the instrument: Zacharias Jansen or Hans Lippershey. Of the three, it is Lippershey who is most widely considered to be its inventor, an idea which is especially credible given that he was also the designer of the first modern-style telescope. Leeuwenhoek would not be born for nearly half a century after the earliest models were first built.
The microscopes of van Leeuwenhoek’s invention provided at best 275 x magnification. For its time it was truly impressive and broke new ground, enabling a host of scientific discoveries and advancing scientific knowledge and medicine in almost every way imaginable. Today of course, even many inexpensive of microscopes are capable of much higher levels of magnification and a variety of new microscopy technologies are available to allow scientists, physicians and researchers to get a close up look at the invisible world around us.
Optics have increased in sophistication by orders of magnitude in the last four centuries, with the lenses being used in microscopes being immeasurably improved and more powerful with every passing year. It’s not only in the design of the lenses used that microscopy has advanced – there are an array of new technologies behind the magnification power of the modern laboratory microscope.
Over the long history of these instruments, we have seen them advance to having a single objective to multiple objectives, the addition of adjustable viewing stages, improved focus mechanisms and the development of the stereomicroscope (actually two microscopes which focus on a single point rather than being one microscope with two lenses).
Microscope illumination has advanced by leaps and bounds along the way. From the earliest days of microscopy when illumination would have meant sunlight or perhaps candles, we have progressed to an age where we have not just high power microscope lenses with magnification power of up to 1000x, but illumination to light the slide from below (known as bright field microscopy) and illumination technologies which exclude scattered light to allow the observer a view of the specimen on the slide and nothing else (a method called dark field microscopy which is also used in non-optical microscopy).
Not only have optical microscopes made progress which would be unimaginable to Hans Lippershey, but there are now microscopy technologies which do not rely on optics and provide us with an incredibly powerful tool for looking deep within the natural world. Electron microscopy has been able to show us the microscopic world in greater detail and at magnifications which go beyond anything van Leeuwenhoek would have dreamed; as high as 1,000,000,000x by using a carefully directed electron particle beam to produce high resolution images.
From the lenses used in modern high power microscopes to stereomicroscopy, advances in microscope illumination and electron microscopy and other non-optical instruments, the history of the microscope has been one stunning advance after another. With each improvement comes new insight and revelations about the world around us. In an uncertain world, one thing that can be counted on is that these instruments will continue to progress and amaze us with the discoveries they facilitate.