Lockdown microscopy gets a boost: A tale of two hobbies

Jeffrey Silverman

The COVID pandemic has not really changed my life all that much. I don’t go out much, unless it is to the airport to fly over to the UK and/or Europe (coming to grips with that awful Brexit). If I’m not travelling or working a rare shift at the hospital pathology department that I cover in my retirement, I’m doing microscopy. My microscopy hobby is two-fold. First, I collect antique microscopes from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Prior to the pandemic, I was an avid and frequent traveler to Europe and during the warmer three-quarters of the year I made monthly trips. That has become impossible now for the foreseeable future since Americans are presently banned from landing in Europe. Accordingly, I have taken the opportunity to earmark my travel budget and utilize it instead to up my game on the collection. I have taken it up a couple of notches bidding on some of the more important historical instruments from the 1700s and early 1800s which I previously had felt, sensibly or not, were beyond my reach financially. Prior to the quarantine I too often had watched wistfully as they went to other more well-heeled bidders.

Some of the recent English acquisitions include a Jones Most Improved microscope signed by Bancks (Fig. 1). This type of microscope was considered to be the pinnacle of design in the immediate pre-achromatic era. As I write this, it has not arrived yet from the auction house in the UK. One of the predecessors of the Jones Most Improved was the Cuff Double Constructed microscope (Fig. 2) which was designed by Cuff in response to complaints from microscopists, primarily Henry Baker (1698–1774) over the long-lived and popular Culpeper type with its awkward and obstructed stage access caused by the triple strut supports. Mine is signed by Dollond of London and it is thought that some of Dollond’s examples of this model were actually made by John Cuff himself before he went bankrupt. Unfortunately, Cuff was a poor businessman and despite the support of Henry Baker, he had to declare bankruptcy in 1750.

Jones Most Improved microscopeFig. 1: Jones Most Improved microscope

Cuff Double Constructed microscopeFig. 2: Cuff Double Constructed microscope

I also acquired several types of important simple microscopes including the Jones Universal Pocket microscope (Fig. 3). The original design is ascribed to Benjamin Martin and George Adams Jr. certainly produced this design before Jones. It was first shown in George Adams Jr.’s 1787 Essays on the Microscope and later in the 1798 edition of Adams’ Essays on the Microscope, the rights to which were purchased by W. and S. Jones who published it and also bought the rights to manufacture Adams’ designs, where it was described as “Jones Universal Pocket Microscope”.

Jones Universal Pocket microscopeFig. 3: Jones Universal Pocket microscope

I also bought an unsigned W. and S. Jones Ellis type aquatic microscope (Fig. 4). The origin of the design was first suggested by the work of the Swiss naturalist Abraham Trembley (1710–1784) and slightly later by the English microscopist Henry Baker (born 1698), who in 1742 published The Microscope Made Easy which was a popular guide to using the microscope. Both scientists performed studies on hydra, aquatic animalcules which are sensitive to being disturbed and for which a movable lens would be less disruptive than moving the specimen dish around. Again, we have Baker complaining to Cuff of the unsuitability for observing larger moving aquatic organisms using current compound microscopes which used sliders having no room for a hydra as well as the screw barrel and compass types of simple microscopes then popular. And again, it is Cuff who solves the problem, making his first version of a simple aquatic microscope, though without the movable lens, around 1745. The first examples stood on a brass disc base and soon Cuff made them to be clamped to a block of wood for greater stability. Later, in response to John Ellis (1707–1776), an Irish naturalist, John Cuff refined his design. Ellis wanted a portable field microscope on which he could easily follow the movements of small water organisms swimming in a watch glass on the microscope stage. The model incorporating Ellis’ refinements was made by Cuff for Ellis in 1752. The refined more versatile design became quite popular, and gave rise to similar microscopes throughout England and Europe.

W. and S. Jones Ellis type aquatic microscopeFig. 4: W. and S. Jones Ellis type aquatic microscope

These two simple microscopes replaced what had been the popular and useful 18th century screw barrel microscope (Fig. 5). The screw barrel microscope was developed to fill a demand for a small, portable instrument that was easy to carry into the field and to use, and feasible to mass-produce at reasonable cost. During the 18th century, Wilson’s simplified version became very popular with amateur naturalists in England and was manufactured for many decades. The British optician and instrument maker James Wilson is often credited with creating the screw-barrel simple microscope. Wilson published a description of his screw barrel microscope in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions in 1702. An improved form was subsequently illustrated and described in the various editions of Henry Baker’s book, The Microscope Made Easy, in the chapter entitled “Of Mr. Wilson’s Single Pocket-Microscope”. However, it was actually Dutch mathematics and physics professor Nicolaas Hartsoeker who first invented the device and published a drawing in 1694. Additionally, Edmund Culpeper made a version of the screw barrel simple microscope which he published and illustrated in 1700, predating the illustration by Wilson in 1702. Neither Wilson nor Hartsoeker ever claimed to have invented the screw barrel microscope.

18th century screw barrel microscopeFig. 5: 18th century screw barrel microscope

Returning to compound microscopes, I finally dipped my beak into the heretofore forbidden Powell & Lealand pond with my purchase of a lovely P & L No. 3 outfit (Fig. 6). The No. 3 arose from and greatly resembles the early Powell & Lealand’s “New Microscope” of 1843, which was the prototype for the P & L Nos. 1, 2, and 3. These three main P & L models underwent numerous design changes and improvements over the years but it is the No. 3 that, even in its final form, is truest to its roots that go back to the 1843 “New Microscope”. The No. 3 was as functional as the No. 2 for much less money, so the No. 3 is much more common than the No. 2 which didn’t sell for that reason. I have not yet begun to play with it since I am saving that fun for when the snow is swirling outside.

Powell & Lealand No. 3 outfitFig. 6: Powell & Lealand No. 3 outfit

At the same auction, the fine sale at Flints Auctions in May, I was able to snag a most interesting early stand by James Smith from the period before he joined with the brothers Beck to form first Smith & Beck and soon after Smith, Beck & Beck (Fig. 7). This stand features the ingenious White lever stage with its lever above the stage providing multidirectional movement without reversal of the image seen through the eyepieces. The better known Varley stage functions in the same manner but has its lever below the stage. The two stages are often confused. Again, I have not really begun to put this instrument through its paces or to write it up, preferring instead to let that task keep me warm and occupied when the shut-in months arrive.

James Smith microscopeFig. 7: James Smith microscope

Finally, from France I acquired two important instruments. The first is the Simple and Compound Achromatic microscope by Charles Chevalier which was one of his early important well known successful models (Fig. 8). The case mounted microscope comes with fine Chevalier doublets for use as a simple microscope and with stacking achromatic “button” objectives, for which Chevalier became famous. I also recently bought an unsigned but stunningly complete outfit of the small version of Chevalier’s Universal Achromatic microscope which can be arranged in 5 basic configurations: a simple microscope for opaque objects using doublet lenses, a normal upright compound microscope which is inclinable up to 90°, a horizontal microscope using the 90° prism mount, an inverted chemical microscope arranged by inverting the rotatable bar and limb, and finally an inspection or aquarium microscope arranged by rotating the objective to the side and removing the stage. The maker is unknown but, based on comparison with some extant instruments, is likely Noël Buron, an acclaimed Parisian optician (Fig. 9).

Simple and Compound Achromatic microscope by Charles ChevalierFig. 8: Simple and Compound Achromatic microscope by Charles Chevalier

Noël Buron microscopeFig. 9: Noël Buron microscope

You can read about all of these instruments and more from my collection on my Facebook page Scope Porn, where I show the microscopes using copious illustrations including imaging of objects along with structural descriptions of the instruments and detailed historical essays on the manufacturers, users, and the instruments themselves.

Now for the second branch of my microscopy hobby. Thankfully, I reside in a quiet bucolic wooded setting that features innumerable fresh water ponds and brackish to marine inlets and bays to sample. Many of you are familiar with my frequent posts of the various organisms I find and the triumphs and travails that they undergo on the stage of my Zeiss Standard stand outfitted with Hoffman modulation contrast optics. Though this modality has been the mainstay of my microscopy for the past 14 months or so, I am not going to go into that aspect as it has been covered in my daily posts other than to say that Hoffman provides a sort of “poor man’s DIC” or phase contrast with a three-dimensional effect and is relatively easy to use and configure.

Instead I will herein describe and demonstrate my earliest forays using an incredibly kind gift provided to me by a fellow collector – a complete and perfectly working Zeiss Photomicroscope III (Fig. 10) outfitted with plan apochromat objectives Zeiss Planapo 10/0.32 180/-, Zeiss Planapo 25/0.65 160/0.17, Nikon 40/0.95 160/0.17, and Zeiss Planapo, 65/1.4 oel 160/-. The quintuple nosepiece was completed by a Zeiss 4× that is nonfunctional but that is alright. Since my microscope came with a phase condenser with PH2 and PH3 rings and an achr. apl. 1.4 NA optical condenser, I have purchased Zeiss Neofluar 16× and 25× objectives for my first foray into phase microscopy. This massive microscope is also equipped with epifluorescence and the illuminator is fully functional and the bulb is relatively young. Mastering epifluorescence will also make for a fulfilling wintertime project since I am still busy out in the garden and the local bodies of water.

Zeiss Photomicroscope IIIFig. 10: Zeiss Photomicroscope III

Since it was a gratis gift, I did not hesitate to spend the money for my old service technician from my days working in hospital histopathology to give it the once over (Fig. 11). Everything works fine but the very tight Y axis control on the circular centering stage as well as the relative positioning of the X and Y axis controls are not suitable for chasing protists and invertebrates all over creation and so I am replacing it with the square Zeiss stage that has left and right handed coaxial X and Y controls. My tech friend had one in his shop and he tells me it is smooth as silk. But for now I must be content to try and image organisms that are standing still and I must say I am impressed with the image quality in comparison to my Hoffman modulation rig. It is a bit unnerving to deal with the greatly reduced plan apochromat working distances of from 0.14 to 0.32 mm so there will be no more plant leaves under the coverglass on my wet well slides unless I can flatten them very well and maybe replace my No. 2 coverslips with No. 1. It is a shame that the elaborate internal film cassette camera will be of no use unless someone invents a digital insert where the cassette goes. However, my Photomicroscope III features an excellent C-mount which currently is home to a digital movie camera dating from before 2006 so I soon will be joining those of you who use such cameras. Suggestions on such that have better resolution than my Samsung Galaxy S9+ are appreciated.

Zeiss Photomicroscope IIIFig. 11: Zeiss Photomicroscope III

For this presentation, I show some early attempts to put my beautiful beast through her paces using my first planapochromat objectives – outside of pathology work that is. One of my favorite ciliates, the anaerobe Metopus, often sits still in one place and has a fascinating ciliation and AZM at 400× (Fig. 12). I also imaged some antique prepared diatom slides to test the resolution at 250× and 400× (Fig. 13–14). While my friend was working on my Hoffman stand, I witnessed during my first ever ride on the new Photomicroscope III an amazing phenomenon. The bacteriophage ciliate Metacystis, seen alone at 250× (Fig. 15) was invaded by another bacteriophage, the slender Cohnilembus – another bacteriophage, who entered the cytostome of the Metacystis apparently being completely engulfed only to re-emerge intact (Fig. 16). This happened repeatedly and with different individuals. Perhaps Cohnilembus was trying to steal some of Metacystis’ already ingested bacterial meals. This was a most exciting introduction to my new microscope – never a dull moment.


Fig. 12 (Metopus): Click the arrow to start the video; click the symbol to the left of “vimeo” for a larger version

Antique prepared diatom at 250×Fig. 13: Antique prepared diatom at 250×

Antique prepared diatom at 400×Fig. 14: Antique prepared diatom at 400×


Fig. 15 (Metacystis): Click the arrow to start the video; click the symbol to the left of “vimeo” for a larger version


Fig. 16 (Cohnilembus and Metacystis): Click the arrow to start the video; click the symbol to the left of “vimeo” for a larger version

As I wrote this submission, the two Zeiss phase objectives that I bought on eBay for US $50 a piece arrived. At that price I was worried that I would receive expensive paperweights. Thankfully the Neofluar PH2 16/0.40 160/- worked a charm with bright clear images. Unfortunately, the Zeiss Winkel Neofluar PH2 25/0.60 160/0.17 does not work well with my well slide aquatic organisms, though a slide of prepared diatoms gave decent images. I may return the 25×. I share here some results from my very first day doing phase contrast microscopy: some Paramecium caudatum (Fig. 17), Peranema (Fig. 18), Loxophyllum (Fig. 19), and a survey from an antique diatom arrangement (Fig. 20). I am thrilled to now have phase contrast capability.


Fig. 17 (Paramecium caudatum): Click the arrow to start the video; click the symbol to the left of “vimeo” for a larger version


Fig. 18 (Peranema): Click the arrow to start the video; click the symbol to the left of “vimeo” for a larger version


Fig. 19 (Loxophyllum): Click the arrow to start the video; click the symbol to the left of “vimeo” for a larger version


Fig. 20 (Antique diatom arrangement): Click the arrow to start the video; click the symbol to the left of “vimeo” for a larger version

In the future, I look forward to sharing my adventures with phase contrast and epifluorescence microscopy. That ought to keep me busy until the airports of Europe are open to me once again, or God forbid, until the next plague besets us. To my fellow Queketteers, be safe and I hope to see you all again soon.

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