The microscope

In time, the microscope made the existence of a whole tiny world irrefutable. This amazing device was invented in the 1590s, probably either by Hans Janssen, working with his son, Zachariah, or by Hans Lippershey, all of whom were eyeglass makers in Middelburg, the Netherlands.

Robert Hooke's microscope

Robert Hooke's microscope

The microscope was possibly a byproduct of the invention of the telescope, and it definitely benefited from the fact that a great many people were wearing eyeglasses by the end of the 16th century.

The compound microscope, multiple lenses in a tube, like the device Robert Hooke used to make his famous study of cells, was invented before the simple, single-lens model like the one Anton van Leeuwenhoek used when he discovered microorganisms.

The Nobel Committee has awarded four prizes for microscopes, the most recent three for Physics:

  • Richard Zsigmondy won in Chemistry in 1925 for his development in 1903 of the ultramicroscope, which allowed him to view objects that were below the wavelength of light.
  • Frits Zernike won in 1953 for his invention in 1932 of the phase-contrast microscope, which makes colorless or transparent objects visible.
  • Ernst Ruska won in 1986 for the electron microscope, a superior design for magnification that he developed in 1938.
  • Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer won in 1986 for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981.  This amazing instrument makes the atoms in an object visible — in three dimensions!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Clear as glass

Glass-making is an ancient art, originally developed in the Middle East. Its secrets have been lost, re-discovered at different times and in different processes, and eventually spread around the world. The magnifying properties of glass were obvious and often remarked upon.

Modern lenses evolved from reading stones — rock crystal, for example, that was shaped into magnifiers, the first step toward creating instruments that would make the minute world visible.

Reading stone

Reading stone

The scientist and mathematician Abu Ali Hasan Ibn Al-Haitham, also known as Alhazen, "the father of modern optics," working in 11th-century Spain, described many of the properties of light, including refraction and color, as well as the magnifying properties of  lenses.

Some talented Italian made the first eyeglasses in Europe, for far-sightedness only, sometime in the 13th century. Nicholas Cusanus, a brilliant German cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is credited with making the first eyeglasses for myopia, in 1451.

In 1604, Johannes Kepler, the great German mathematician, astronomer and inventor, published Optics, an astonishing treatise that covered the nature and action of light, as well as the mechanics of sight. Optics became part of the bedrock of physics.

In 1611, Kepler improved on Galileo's telescope by replacing its concave eyepiece with a convex one. (Candidates abound for the honor of inventing the telescope, around 1600.)

Incidentally, Kepler's mother, Katharina, was accused of witchcraft in 1615, when she was about 70. He handled her defense himself, eventually winning her acquittal. Katharina Kepler reportedly had played a part in her son's lifelong love affair with the heavens: When he was six years old, she took him to "a high place" so he could see the spectacle of the Great Comet of 1577 in the night sky.

Image from Zeiss Optical Museum