Bob Nuttall

A dozen favourite books related to microscopy

I was born near, and went to my first school at, Bank Top, one of the Lancashire mill villages built in the early nineteenth century by the Ashworth family for their employees. Their water-powered New Eagley Mill, with its 5000 spindles, made early use (in 1802) of the spinning mules invented a short way downstream by Samuel Crompton (1). In contrast, even closer was Holden’s Mill, the last to be built in Bolton, with a quarter million spindles. It is the most tenuous of connections to my theme, but, from time to time, on fine days in the spring – as the bluebells opened – the whole of our school decamped to the banks of the Eagley Brook for a natural history afternoon. I’m sure that this then stemmed far more from the tradition established by the nineteenth-century mill operatives than from any demands posed by a National Curriculum. At home there were ex-WD magnifiers about the house, and we often looked at plants and bugs that I collected in a totally untutored way.

One of my early memories of being with my mother is of sitting in my socks on the bench at the local cobblers while the rubber “irons” on my wood-soled clogs were renewed. This seeming improbability is explicable on two grounds – the first that of clothes rationing, but the second that she had worked part-time as a little piecer from the age of ten, at the same time helping to bring up a family of seven, including four younger brothers, all of whom at some time also worked in the cotton industry. Yet by the time I finally left home the twilight of a mill society I had been privileged to share flickered and died: my school was converted into homes, the tennis club of my youth was derelict, and the village was submerged in suburban sprawl. Amongst the slides in my cabinet are a small group of Flatters & Garnett’s textile-fibre mounts which constitute one surviving tangible reminder of that lost era. Appropriately issued when I was newly at Imperial College, and the cotton industry entering its final decline, my first choice is their Mikrops Catalogue A10 Microscopical Preparations (Manchester: Flatters & Garnett, 1956). With typical blunt northern honesty, Flatters & Garnett point out that they mounted all their slides and, to judge by some of those I possess, included in their output specialized specimens directly supporting textile education.

My next choice is Photomicrography with the Vickers Projection Microscope (York: Cooke, Troughton & Simms, n.d.) for it represents my first real contact with a microscope. My paternal grandfather was a labourer at the Bessemer steel plant in Bolton, and my father in turn was a fitter who worked his way up to management in a large engineering factory. He was also a part-time lecturer in Workshop Technology at Bolton Technical College. Some time in the late 1940s, one Saturday morning near Christmas, I was taken off to the College to view the operation of a brand-new Vickers projection microscope. There was much muttering about etching and carbon arcs and I can vaguely remember a mysterious image. I think my father could identify my disappointment in what I had seen, for a little later we went to Captain Stokes’ Opticians Shop to choose a toy microscope and some prepared slides as a present for my own use. The images caused much hilarity that Christmas when everybody was expected to contribute a hair for examination. The microscope is long gone but I still have some of the slides which are recognisable as prepared by NBS. Fifty years later I was to work more closely with Eric Marson at NBS when we developed a set of slides to support the introductory microscopy afternoons I ran for primary teachers in Glasgow schools. Photomicrography was part of an interesting group of books, for in the 1950s Cooke, Troughton & Simms also published highly informative texts on Microscope Design and Construction, and The Polarising Microscope, both of which are still well worth looking at.

After this we go forward about 20 years and move to Glasgow, where one evening a near neighbour happened to mention that he had inherited a large collection of microscopes. Remembering how much I’d enjoyed my childhood toy I said he could certainly sell one to me. Stuart explained that he had to try for the best price he could because they had come from his mother’s sports shop where they had been pawned in exchange for equipment by medical students long ago, and had then lain in the attic. Recalling that I passed Arthur Frank’s Exchange Square Optician’s shop every day I suggested that I could try and sound out a price for him. As I later discovered Arthur was no slouch and before I could negotiate a purchase for myself he had bought the lot; however I was to have one of my choice. A little later, on a Saturday morning, I was introduced to the Aladdin’s Cave which lay above the shop. Arthur took great delight in showing visitors round his collection; he also loved to bargain! It took all that morning to sort out and buy a microscope, and we hadn’t even gone half way round the collection. That was the start of many Saturday mornings I spent working on his instruments – firstly sorting out an enormous collection of objectives; though I realize now that was just about the most complicated place of all to start: just last year we went again through those still to be identified and discovered a Powell & Lealand which had become separated from its immersion front.

Amongst the visitors I met while in the shop was Allen Simpson, even then researching the history of telescopes, who invited me to visit the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh where he worked; this was the start of a long association with Allen and the Museum. As with many collectors Arthur couldn’t stand the idea of his collection being split up and we first tried to interest the Glasgow Museum by laying on a exhibition of his collection at Kelvingrove. The catalogue of the material included more than 1000 instruments – which filled the main hall. I had initially sorted and described these while working in one of the old Glasgow horse-tram stables (now the Tramway Theatre); but it was not to be, for Glasgow wanted a new Transport Museum. By now I had become fascinated by early achromatic-period microscopes and so I persuaded Arthur to let me sort out some of the best items in his collection which I catalogued, photographed, wrote up, and Arthur published as Microscopes from the Frank Collection (Glasgow: Arthur Frank, 1973 – but still available from the NMS) (2). I include this as one of my favourites mostly to pay tribute to Arthur’s generosity for I had a free hand and he paid for everything. It was a source of great pleasure to us both that all of these instruments went as a collection to Edinburgh. More were to arrive later when Allen and I visited Arthur, by then in Jersey, and as a result a large collection of the latter’s Scottish instruments followed.

When I started to publish papers on the history of microscopes, one of my disappointments was to discover how little reference many of the standard histories of the sciences made to the achromatic microscope, as at least a factor in the evolution of observation. However, a number of microscopy-related books I thought particularly impressive including John Baker’s biography of Abraham Trembley and Cyril Smith’s work on the development of metallography. Of this group Arthur Hughes’ A History of Cytology (Abelard-Schuman, 1959) proved to be particularly helpful: it is an account of the relationship of microscopy and the development of the study of the living cell. In effect Hughes turns the usual approach inside out and looks at the development of observation through the microscope in terms of the growth of understanding of the form and structure of cells. One of his conclusions is particularly noteworthy:

We see, therefore that progress in magnifying power and the possibility of resolution of fine details are by no means the only factors which have promoted further researches into the structure of minute bodies.

In the 1840s, methods of observation and specimen preparation appear to have been a very significant factor limiting the utility of the microscope. Thus the rapid increase in the attainable numerical aperture of dry lenses around this date was not particularly significant as an indicator of progress in microscopy, as opposed to progress in optical design. In contrast, as Hughes shows, the introduction of oil immersion lenses in the 1870s did lead to significant improvement in observation and interpretation because of the greater maturity of associated histological techniques.

Within my main interest – the history of the early achromatic microscope – I would like to illustrate four strands. The first of these represents the main stream of microscope development. In this respect I was very fortunate, for early on I stumbled across the remarkable collection of microscopy books put together by Allen Thomson during the period he was Professor of Anatomy (1848–1877) at the University of Glasgow. These were all placed in Section H of the Library basement store and when one day I was allowed to visit this section in person I discovered treasure trove. (It is a sad reflection that this could no longer happen for they are now in a remote and inaccessible store.) Thomson’s collection was far superior to anything in the Edinburgh libraries, for there such books had been scattered amongst many collections, some of which are now known only from their catalogues. Amidst all of the books I enjoyed, I have to choose one to stand for many: Pieter Harting’s Het Mikroskoop (four vols, Utrecht: van Padenburg, 1848–1854) can be credited as one of the earliest systematic, scientific texts devoted to the microscope, its optics, and its applications. Better known in its German translation, my one regret is that my copy lacks the fifth volume detailing later developments. To make up for that, its previous owner was the great historian Clifford Dobell. Books by authors such as van Mohl, Robin, Chevalier, Quekett, etc appeared thick and fast at around the same date but Harting seems to me a model of what could then be achieved.

There was also a sub-stratum of popular tracts on microscopy at this date, usually associated with a particular type of microscope. They are interesting as an introduction to microscopy at a level which is not usually given serious consideration: a Cary-Gould instrument would now never rate attention alongside a Ross or Powell for example. Yet quite clearly many were sold in the first half of the nineteenth century. The associated C Gould – The Companion to the Microscope (London: for W Cary, 1 “ed” 1828 – 17 “ed” 1850) is to be found far less frequently than the microscope it describes, but helps characterize an aspect of popular microscopy which served as enlightened entertainment for many. There must also have been proud owners, artisan botanists for example, for whom it provided a serious mode of investigation. Supporting this group, but now cloaked in obscurity, there were also amateur microscope makers typified by James Veitch. When I first sought them out, his Scottish-border descendants still had several of the very effective simple microscopes he had made – but what is quite unknowable is how many more he made and sold, and who used them. He was certainly highly capable – for example successfully fabricating lenses from garnet.

Quite early on in my association with Arthur Frank, he took over an Edinburgh business lying in direct line of descent from Alexander Adie who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was one of that city’s most capable optical workers. In the cellar we found a box which contained several jewel lenses, and then somewhat later we were able to buy an Adie jewel-lens microscope in a Paisley auction. As anticlimax, shortly after we published an account of these there appeared yet another such microscope – being cynical we took a wet cotton bud to clean the “jewel” lens which had been coloured with red ink! One of the contemporary sources for the development of such optical devices is David Brewster’s Treatise on the Microscope (Edinburgh: Black, 1837). Dedicated to Henry Fox Talbot it also includes an early account of some of the results obtained with the polarizing microscope. Fox Talbot’s role in the development and successful application of this type of instrument has been overshadowed by his contributions to photography, but taken in isolation would in themselves ensure him an honorable place in the history of our subject. Brewster, a quite idiosyncratic character, was one of the great figures of Scottish science, not least in microscopy and mineralogy where his tentacles seem to have extended, octopus like, into virtually all domains. His text for example, also contains a favourable description and several illustrations of one of Andrew Pritchard’s early achromatic microscopes. Some of Fox Talbot’s microscopes are in the National Museum’s collections along with a remarkable polariscope/microscope made for Brewster well before 1830, but which it seems he never used (3)!

Andrew Pritchard’s simple and compound microscopeFig. 1. Andrew Pritchard’s simple and compound microscope, c.1830
[From D Brewster – A treatise on the microscope. Edinburgh: Black, 1837]

Inevitably when I realized that the Frank Collection included a small group of then unpublished instruments made by Hugh Powell before 1841, I lost no time in adding to the corpus of material devoted to the business he established. Similarly Andrew Ross’ products and their users have from time to time attracted my attention; but I would exchange all of these for the microscopes made by James Smith, and Smith & Beck. Nowadays grossly under-rated, their users included many of the small number of serious mid-nineteenth century British microscopists, not least of whom was Joseph, Lord Lister. Setting aside those medical innovations for which he is now best remembered, he was also a fine microscopist. There is an elegant symmetry in the fact that he achieved this status under the tutelage of his father Joseph Jackson Lister, a key figure in the period of microscope development I found so fascinating. After looking at the published sources for his work and study of his surviving instruments, research in the archives of the Royal Society, into the publication of J J Lister’s work on the development of his achromatic objectives, showed that his key paper detailing his results had been subjected to severe elision. I was, however, unable to locate a copy of the original version (4). It was some compensation when more recently I was able to help arrange, through a Lister descendant, for the Dollond telescope used by J J Lister in his studies into the limits of vision, to be restored and added to the National Museum’s collections in Edinburgh. This ensured that yet another substantial part of the optical equipment used by Lister is in safe hands. It was an accession which would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of Alison Morrison-Low another good friend, and oft times co-author, at the Museum.

One more of Smith & Beck’s customers was Henry Clifton Sorby: for study of their business’ records revealed that his earliest work on the application of the microscope to petrography and metallography was enabled by yet another of that company’s instruments. It is well documented too that Charles Darwin also used Smith & Beck’s instruments: his account books show that he paid that business for a new compound microscope on April 27 1847. On the first day of May he wrote to J D Hooker to let him know that “My new microscope is come home (a “splendid plaything” as old R Brown called it)”. My next half choice – for it is a mere leaflet – is James Smith’s (crossed out and changed to Smith & Beck) Description of the Improved Achromatic Microscope (London: Couchman, for the makers, 1846); my copy is signed by Darwin and also carefully annotated in J J Lister’s hand with his personal instructions for using its optical equipment – definitely my desert island choice (5)! The suggestion by a recent biographer that Darwin wasted his time on microscopy before publishing his theory of evolution is quite risible.

In March 1868, William Smith the diatomologist, then Professor of Natural History at Queen’s College, Cork wrote:

I have four Educational Microscopes in constant use in my class, both for the examination of general objects and the demonstration of animal and vegetable tissues. I find them admirable instruments for all these purposes; indeed I regard them as marvels of cheapness and excellence.

This is the other side of the coin, for Smith & Beck were the only one of the “big three” to make any attempt to support the educational market. Introduced at the Paris Exhibition in 1855, it was successor to earlier student instruments which had met with considerable success. Faced with competition from both the Society of Arts microscope and from imported French instruments, final sales of the instrument described in the pamphlet The Description, Price &c of the Educational Microscope (London: Hare, for the makers, various dates) were relatively modest; but I think Smith & Beck deserve great credit for continuously supporting the education of young microscopists through the introduction of this, and their earlier relatively inexpensive instruments.

I think it a particularly ungenerous act to disparage the work of earlier historians of the microscope. Authors such as Clay & Court contributed a great deal to our present understanding, but it would be astonishing if there were not now evident shortcomings in what they published. Their strong tradition of amateur publication in this arena has been continued by authors such as Donald Padgitt whose account of the development of early American microscopes well illustrates just what can be achieved (6). In the history of science, this is of course the era of the professional historian, some of whom, to judge by unattributed referee’s comments, seek to impose discrimination against others by the use of wholly artificial and theoretical barriers, evidently in defence of their all-too-limited knowledge of the history of the microscope. The reality is that that history and its application requires input from all directions. No more so is this evident than when one looks at the remarkable contributions made by professional microscopists when they turn to history. I will not embarrass our editor by nominating one of his books, but I must observe that I have found his researches on the history of slide mounting particularly inspirational, the more so when they relate the artefact to what is known of both the maker and the user. In this manner they help very much to underpin any future attempt to use this class of material as evidence. Rather I wish to pay tribute to the work of Gilbert Hartley, whose The Light Microscope: its Use and Development (Oxford: Senecio, 1993) is but the tip of a mountain of published work, based upon an amalgam of a lifetime of hard-won practical knowledge of the reality of practical microscopy, coupled with a commonsensical view of historical development.

We too easily neglect the work of continental historians. Van Cittert’s and Van der Star’s catalogues of microscopes at Utrecht and Leyden established a pattern of presentation and interpretation which provided inspiration for many more recent publications (7). My next choice – Ed Frison’s L’Évolution du Partie Optique du Microscope au Cours du Dix-neuvième Siècle (Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Geschiedenis der Natuurwetenschappen, 1954) – is a monograph which not only pioneered historical study of the optical components of the microscope but also of test diatoms, test plates and type slides. Frison, giving due credit to the earlier work of Boegehold, for example, provides lists comprehensively delineating the development of the achromatic objective in terms of maker, focal length and aperture and construction, carefully comparing the work of American, British, and Continental opticians. An important aspect of Frison’s presentation of these data is the careful manner in which he analyses the significant difference between measured and usable aperture. His book is a starting point which also deserves to appear in any account of the work of such figures as Carl Möller and Friedrich Nobert. With respect to the work of the continental opticians, I have much enjoyed reading the articles which have appeared in both the Quekett and the Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society making better known the work of instrument makers such as Plossl, the Chevaliers, and recently J G A Chevallier. Perhaps some of the curators of the bigger British microscope collections might consider making long-term exchanges with their continental counterparts in order to enhance the representation of instruments from these, and other makers, in British collections. Such instruments made a vital contribution to the development of both biological and medical sciences in the hands of continental (and British) observers.

I very much subscribe to the Correlli Barnett school of British history – that our failure to fully apply our technological capabilities throughout the last century has had a highly-detrimental effect upon our past and present social and economic well being. If you doubt my thesis, simply consider the impoverished technology of our railways and our inability to finance a decent health service – to some extent at least on account of the way in which our industrial economy has been allowed to run down. As illustration of my point: I bought the 1934 edition of Zeiss’ Industrial Measuring Instruments from amidst a group of immediate pre- and post-war aero books and magazines, initially because of a recently-developed interest in the history of Zeiss microscopes of this period. I find it enthralling from two aspects: first of course, it illustrates an application of the microscope which tends to attract too little historical interest, namely its use in control technology including metrology. As well as applications such as optical profile gauging and surface quality control, here too are illustrations of toolmaker’s and universal measuring microscopes to which I cannot recall previous reference to in the pages of the Quekett.

Zeiss Toolmakers’ MicroscopeFig. 2. Zeiss Toolmakers’ Microscope, 1934.
[From Zeiss Industrial Measuring Instruments, 1934]

There is a second more fundamental point intrinsic in this catalogue’s pages. It was with the aid of the instruments therein described that rearmament took place in Britain in the 1930s. In a sense the defensive Battle of Britain was won on its basis and, for example, quality control of the materials used in the all-metal Spitfire was facilitated by Zeiss instruments, and the copies later pirated by British instrument makers. Lest you seek to turn my argument on its head by citing the aircraft I mention as a triumph – which it was – consider that when American technology used the magnificent Merlin engine, it produced the Mustang with all the flying capabilities of the Spit£re but with laminar-flow wings, which afforded such greater range of operation as to enable American air power to win the offensive battle for the skies over Germany (8). Are my comments pertinent to my main theme? Where is the present-day British microscope industry – what were the causes of its downfall? Given equality of optical outfits, which second-hand instrument would you purchase – a Leitz, a Wild, or something from the Cooke, Troughton & Simms stable?

I have always had the greatest admiration for the standard of German scholarship, for it has resulted in microscopy books of the highest quality. So when I began to research the postwar history of Zeiss microscopes it wasn’t long before I came across my penultimate choice. Written by one of the twentieth century’s greatest microscope designers, Kurt Michel’s Die Mikrophotographie (Vienna: Springer, 1ed 1957, 2ed 1962) appears to maintain that tradition. Systematic and scientific it is, but comprehensive it is not! This is a book that pretends that Zeiss Jena’s post-war products did not exist. If your German is reasonable and you want to find out about the Zeiss Winkel, Zeiss Opton, or Zeiss Oberkochen microscope you have just been lucky enough to buy, then this an ideal place to start. However, Michel’s deliberate omission of the work of his former colleagues in East Germany, from what purports to be a general survey, I think devalues an otherwise pre-eminent piece of scholarship.

While working at the National Museums in Edinburgh [where I particularly enjoyed a period of sabbatical leave adding to their collection of twentieth-century apparatus] I have always been impressed by the level of activity which exists below the seemingly-calm surface. Major museums have an important role as custodians and publicists of our cultural, scientific, and technological heritage – much of which is outside the interest range of most of their potential visitors. It follows that for the specialist the medium by which knowledge of collections is transferred is the catalogue.

For the curator this is a nightmare because of the sheer amount of time such a publication takes to prepare – for the demands of modern standards of scholarship are very high. The minimum starting point is a listing of holdings such as those available for the Billings, Cambridge, and Royal Microscopical Society Collections. Gerard Turner’s work on the last has provided us with a magnificent publication, but how much more satisfying is his earlier catalogue of the Van Marum collection where the relationship of makers, their instruments, and the user is fully developed (9). My final choice, and I admit to partiality, is the National Museums of Scotland’s Brass and Glass. Scientific Instrument Making Workshops in Scotland (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1989) which for me epitomises everything I want to find in a catalogue devoted to scientific instruments [10]. It continues a tradition established by past curators such as David Bryden, with its meticulous care in detail and interpretation, and embodies that thesis so clearly set out by Robert Anderson of the use of artefacts as sources of evidence for the past. It makes extensive use of Arthur Frank’s Scottish material and should thus encourage the acquisition of further material from private collectors who play such a vital role in bringing together desirable artefacts. But above all else, it provides a model which any future catalogue of scientific instruments should aspire to, through its use of new and previously untapped reference sources in a manner which is totally convincing and stands up to the most careful scrutiny. As an account of Scottish instruments set in the context of their makers and sellers it is an invaluable reference source for the future.

Modification of a Martin design by Miller & AdieFig. 3. Modification of a Martin design by Miller & Adie, c1810.
[From the Frank Collection of Scottish Instruments: NMS inventory 1980.229. By courtesy of the Trustees of the National Museum of Scotland

Now I am frustrated for I have run out of choices without even mentioning Henry Witham’s pioneering work on the microscopical study of fossil material, Daniel Cooper’s Microscopic Journal – quite the finest publication of its type for more than fifty years, and —; but then perhaps the editor will indulge me in another go round at some time in the distant future?


1. Boyson, R. [1974] – The Ashworth Cotton Enterprise. Oxford: University Press.

2. But, some details in the catalogue have proven to be incorrect: c.f. item 51, which is in fact an early instrument made by the Chevalier business in about 1826. Item 50 – about which I remain uncertain – came from my neighbour’s attic, traded in by a medical student!

3. Christie, J. R. R. & Morrison-Low, A. D. (eds) [1984] – “Martyr of Science” Sir David Brewster 1781–1868. Edinburgh: Royal Scottish Museum.

4. Another important source I have never been able to locate is Lister’s business account book, which according to Clay & Court makes reference to his financial involvement with both Andrew Ross and James Smith.

5. I am grateful to Jim Bennett for providing me with a copy of this pamphlet, which is held in the Whipple Museum, Cambridge.

6. Padgitt, D. L [1974] – A Short History of the Early American Microscopes. London and Chicago: Microscope Publications,

7. Van Cittert, P. H. [1934]- Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection of Microscopes in Charge of the Utrecht University Museum Groningen: Noordhoff.
Van der Star, F. [1953] – Descriptive Catalogue of the Simple Microscopes in the National Museum of Science Leyden. Leyden: National Museum.

8. On internal tanks alone, or with drop tanks the Mustang had about twice the range (900/1600 miles) of the equivalently configured Spitfire. It was however a less forgiving aircraft to fly.

9. Turner G. L. [1989] – The Great Age of the Microscope. Bristol: Hilger.
Levere, T. H. & Turner, G. L [1973] – Martinus van Marum Life and Work, Vol 4, van Marum’s Instruments in Teylers’ Museum Leyden: Noordhoff.

10. Clarke, T. N., Morrison-Low, A. D. & Simpson, A. D. C. [1989] – Brass and Glass. Scientific Instrument Making Workshops in Scotland as illustrated by instruments from the Arthur Frank Collection at the Royal Museum of Scotland. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland.

R H Nuttall
15 Moray Place
Glasgow G41 2BA

Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 2003, 39, 475–481

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