Brian Davidson

A dozen favourite books related to microscopy

My interest in microscopy commenced before the age of ten. It was very much a solitary hobby without guidance, and using a toy purchased at Gamages. Ponds were abundant and available some 60 years ago, even in London. A drop of water on a slide, even without the addition of a cover slip, offered endless excitement. My early education at boarding school did little to nourish this declining enthusiasm and it was not until my early twenties that unexpected opportunities arose to rekindled the flame.

My first career was in the world of antiques, based in central London. Work entailed weekly visits to all the major London salerooms, and regular valuations for insurance and sale purposes. It was during a valuation in Hertfordshire that I came across a large 19th century No.1 brass microscope, in the dusty corner of a vast attic. I ended up with it instead of a fee, and that opened the floodgates.

I have long found the history of old objects and those who made them, enthralling, and this has continued unabated to the present day. I get considerable satisfaction from a successful design beautifully executed, especially when it has the appearance and patina of its years. My interest in the history of the microscope grew in parallel with my work in other areas of antiques. The salerooms began in the early 1960s to offer old scientific instruments, including microscopes. In order to learn about these pieces I turned to contemporary books, wherever I could find them. There were still many small bookshops around the country at that time. Kendal in the Lake District which I visited annually, was a very fruitful hunting ground. It was also often possible to purchase both books and slides with the microscopes.

A chance trip to Wallace Heaton Ltd in Bond Street put me in touch with my first QMC ‘mentor’, Eric Lewis. His knowledge, enthusiasm, unlimited patience and kindness gave direction and focus to my reading and collecting.

I shall now avail myself of the licence of those who have preceded me in this series of articles on favourite books. Before I begin a list of my twelve books, I must mention the series of Journals and serials to which I turn perhaps most often to find an answer, or just for the pleasure of a dip into their pages. Our own Club Journal now so much easier to navigate, heads the list. The Journal of The RMS holds untold and un-indexed riches for those interested in the history of the microscope and everything appertaining to it. Arthur Barron’s The Microscope has been a most rewarding source of information on the individuals involved in microscopy, and particularly the preparation of slides. It contains ‘From my notebook’ by Dr D. S. Spence, which is treasure trove indeed. I turn to all the above and other series such as Watson’s Microscope Record, for a few minutes relaxation or more prolonged exploration with a particular goal in mind.

My researches are in the main focussed on identifying an object. What is the period, how rare is it and if unidentified, who is the maker? After many years of enquiry, I have a sense as to which book is most likely to give me the answers that I seek. The period of microscope design which was my primary interest spanned the years 1820–1920. This preoccupation with the instruments changed some twenty years ago, when I began to consider slides. The more I looked, the more I began to appreciate the skill, innovation and artistry evident in their preparation. By chance rather than planning I had sufficient ‘raw material’ to study the evolution of the slider into the slide, and give some degree of substance to the hitherto shadowy figures, whose names could be found on the slides.

In chronological order, my first choice of favourite book is Essays on the microscope by George Adams, Second edition 1798. This weighty tome gives a real sense of microscopy in the age before professionalism and in-depth scientific enquiry. I must admit that the smell of this book gives me pleasure. The aroma is redolent of time passed, a combination of age, dustiness and old books. It is a very comprehensive work and after a courtly dedication to the King, it lists books consulted and goes into the history and development of the instrument. Chapters on Insects, Infusoria, timbers and all manner of things follow. The book contains 32 plates of excellent detail covering the above. There is a chapter on microscopic objects and a “copius list” running to many pages. My copy has a 14-page comprehensive price list of all the instruments made by W. & S. Jones [who were responsible for issuing this second edition]. This has over the years provided marvellous source material, and gives a real sense of microscopy in the second half of the 18th century.

Next on my list is Treatise on the microscope by Sir David Brewster, 1837, originally forming an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is in historical terms, what I would call a ‘transitional’ book, covering the seminal years following Lister’s paper on achromatic lenses, but there is also information on the pre-achromatic period. The exciting developments are recorded in print and illustration, and convey a feeling of the important changes of the time in microscope and optical design. The list of objects contains ‘rest objects’, and the plates of these showing details of scales and diatoms underline the progress in optics.

My third book has already appeared in this series of choices. It is the first edition of John Quekett’s A Practical Treatise on the use of the Microscope, 1848. Although only a decade later in date than the previous book, it shows clearly the pace of scientific and commercial development of the achromatic microscope. Quekett covers all aspects of microscopy from its history, to the instruments, accessories and all their uses. Most important for me are the details on the making of slides, and even advice on exhibiting them to best advantage. It contains a comprehensive list of contemporary preparations, much of which relates to the work of C. M. Topping. I know of no other list of his slides from which to try to identify early mounts from his hand. As he is my ‘hero’, this book is invaluable in my efforts to learn more of C.M.T’s commercial beginnings. Chapter XX relates to Test objects, also an area of great interest to me. It confirms some of the earlier observations from Pritchard on the subject, and indicates the part they play in challenging the skill of both instrument makers and microscopists. Finally both at the front and back of this book are some pages of advertisement of leading firms and persons engaged in the trade. It is most useful source material.

I must ask for additional latitude in my next choice. Carpenter’s The Microscope first appeared in 1856. It ran to eight editions over the next half century, growing in size and content with each one. My plea is to be allowed to have all eight as one! This work is really comprehensive, and only surpassed in the details of new microscopes and equipment by those in the RMS Journal covering the period. The last edition ran to almost 1200 pages, and every area of microscopy is dealt with. ‘Optics’ in the last edition is the unacknowledged work of Nelson, and much of it is still relevant today. The quality and detail of the very many prints and photographs are of high standard. I use these volumes regularly for identification of objects on slides.

A proportion of the slides of A. C. Cole and his son Martin, were sold in sets. Those who have examples of ‘Prize Medal’ preparations will notice that many have numbers and or sets printed on the lower label. Their production for the medical and other professions has been documented. In 1883 Cole produced the first of a series of 4 volumes. The title was Studies in Microscopical Science. The basis of this book is a set of 52 of Martin Cole’s slides, covering a variety of microscopical subjects. Each one is illustrated by the drawings of J. E. Ady, who also wrote the majority of the detailed descriptions. It is difficult to find a better example of fine visual presentation, erudite and comprehensive information, with a bibliography of the period. It is a pleasure to choose one of the 52 slides covered, set it on the stage of a contemporary microscope and study it with the relevant page to hand.

My next choice is another thick book, The Micrographic Dictionary by J. W. Griffith & Arthur Henfrey. I have the third edition of 1875. There are 845 pages of detail and description of a multitude of microscopical subjects and methods. My copy has the 48 plates many coloured, bound with the text. This work can also be found in two separate volumes. The text has many additional illustrative line drawings within it. When researching old objects, it is often advantageous to look at contemporary literature to find original names and titles. For example slides of diatomaceous material in the 1840s were often inscribed with the word ‘infusoria’. It was only somewhat later that the word ‘diatom’ was used in this context. I still find myself reaching regularly for The Micrographic Dictionary to help in identifying slide material, or to find information, much of it still relevant.

Now comes a book by two of the leading collector/dealers of the early 20th century – R. S. Clay and T. H. Court, The History of the Microscope, 1932. Many choice historical microscopes passed through their hands, sometimes coming via the salerooms. They both collected and acted as agents for private persons and institutions. They were benefactors to the Science Museum collection, the Whipple via the Heywood collection, and others. Neither was an historian by profession, and this is apparent in some of the attributions, which need to be treated with caution. However, this is a well-illustrated book mainly covering the Georgian period. I have found the list of microscope, telescope and other instrument makers most useful over the years.

The next two books are almost a pair, having much in common. The first is Historical Aspects of Microscopy, edited by Savile Bradbury and Gerard Turner. This first appeared in the Journal of the RMS, Vol. 2, Part 1, 1967, and contains 7 papers read at a one-day conference held by the RMS at Oxford on 18 March 1966. It mainly covers the theory and development of early optics and their place in science. The final paper deals with the history of the Electron microscope.

The second of them is Essays on the History of the Microscope, by Gerard Turner. This contains 12 ‘Essays’ by him covering instruments, details such as decorative tooling on 17th and 18th century microscopes, notables such as Henry Baker and much else. I have found that selective re-reading of these essays has broadened my knowledge when endeavouring to write an historical piece myself. ‘Powell & Lealand: Trade Mark of Perfection’ was a spur to my own enquiries into this extraordinary firm. The same applies to ‘The contributions to science of Friedrich Adolf Nobert’.

The book which has undoubtedly influenced me most profoundly is Brian Bracegirdle’s A History of Microtechnique. It was first published in 1978, at the most propitious time for my own burgeoning interest in the subject. I have read it through a number of times, and regularly turn to it for information. There is no other book which offers such a comprehensive history of preparations, technique, chemicals, instruments, bibliography and considerable detail on commercial mounters. It can be used in conjunction with books such as my second and third choices, to help identify methods or preparers of slides. For those interested in this particular branch of microscopy, it is the most complete work on the subject.

My penultimate choice is by the same author as the preceding one. Microscopical Mounts and Mounters is a visual and written reference work on preparers and their slides. It is interesting to note that the author and the book are now quoted by dealers in slides, to validate their offerings. The simple format of listing the mounters and subjects followed by the colour plates and captions, works very well indeed. I have on a number of occasions been able to find what I thought was a hitherto unidentified maker, by comparing the slide with the illustrations.

One of the ways that I judge the value of a book to me, is the stimulation that I gain from it. The last two have had this effect ever since I first read them. I have re-ordered my slides, and have examined them in ways not previously tried, with sometimes unexpected and surprising results. These books together with papers in our Journal on the topic, have caused me to enquire in greater depth into the period from 1840–60. I hope to make some small addition to the body of historical information in due course.

Finally a book by another of our Honorary members, published some ten years ago. This is The Light Microscope, its use and development by W. G. Hartley. Many is the time when I have listened and endeavoured to understand a talk on light, optics, wavelengths and similar. Usually a helpful person nearby will enlighten me sufficiently to grasp the basics of what is being said. When I have returned home after the Meeting, I will turn to this book. I know of no other which is so comprehensive, readable and informative, especially for someone who gave up maths at the earliest opportunity. It does not ‘talk down’ to the reader, yet answers questions about the background and development of the instrument, optics, makers, illumination and much more. It is sufficiently up to date for all my needs.

The exercise of choosing just twelve books was more difficult than I had expected. To start with I gathered my choices into a pile, which was of considerable height. By the time I had discarded a number, there were still far too many. Then came the task of selecting my ‘favourites’. This of course raised questions as to which I used most often, for what purpose, and how much pleasure did I gain from them. As I write this there are four books in an accusing pile to my right, which I would like to have included. A degree of discipline has been necessary, and the job has been completed. Perhaps ‘Desert Island Discs’ will be next!

My choices:

1. G. Adams – Essays on the Microscope. London: Dillon & Keating, 2ed. 1798.

2. D. Brewster – A Treatise on the Microscope. Edinburgh: Black, 1837.

3. J. Quekett – A practical treatise on the use of the microscope. London: Baillière, 1ed 1848.

4. W.B. Carpenter – The microscope and its revelations. London: Churchill, 1856–1901.

5. A.C. Cole – Studies in microscopical science. London: Baillière, vol. 1, 1883.

6. J.W. Griffith & A. Henfrey – The micrographic dictionary. London: Van Voorst, 3ed. 1875.

7. R.S. Clay & T. Court – The history of the microscope. London: Griffin, 1932.

8. S. Bradbury & G.L’E. Turner – Historical aspects of microscopy. Cambridge: Heffer, 1967

9. G.L’E. Turner – Essays on the history of the microscope. Oxford: Senecio, 1980.

10. B. Bracegirdle – A history of microtechnique. London: Heinemann, 1ed 1978, 2ed 1986, Chicago, Science Heritage.

11. B. Bracegirdle – Microscopical mounts and mounters. London: Quekett, 1998.

12. W.G. Hartley – The light microscope, its use and development. Oxford: Senecio, 1993.


Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 2004, 39, 737–740

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