Gilbert Hartley

A dozen favourite books on microscopy

I thought I had a pretty comprehensive library until I saw Savile Bradbury’s disposal list. However, when challenged to talk about my favourite twelve, at first I could only think of about six: that number has now extended out of reason, and although I love all of them, I must omit many good friends, being selective in my favourites.

The first serious book I encountered, in the school library in 1930, was Drew & Wright [1]. This opened my eyes to both the practical technique of handling the microscope, and the need to criticize what is written. I took its statements as gospel, and was thus mislead for many years until I realized that it was an advertisement for Watson’s – a piece of Wilfred Watson-Baker’s anti-Zeiss propaganda. Others such as Conrad Beck confine their attention to single makers, but produce honest and reliable material, and there is certainly much of value in the book. My copy was the second edition, and I thought it might have been an honest text suborned, in the same way that Carpenter originally favoured Ross but changed allegiance to Powell & Lealand once Dallinger took over as editor. However, when I saw the first edition of Wright it was just the same – it had started life as an advertisement. I had a lot to learn about authors, as well as about microscopes!

My second book was Spitta [2], combining the proper handling of the substage and the mechanical evolution of the instrument from the long-bodied English stand to the short Continental type. The photomicrographs guarantee the integrity of the work, and form a test for the rest of us, who can now use flash instead of exposures measured sometimes in hours, and tungsten-halogen instead of the limes and bottled gases alarmingly described in his work on photomicrography. Spitta may be recognised as the microscopist’s Bible: time has added techniques, but the foundation is bedrock.

In the same category as Spitta is Dallinger [3], but I am only concerned with its first part, written by E M Nelson, whose uncompromising views dominated the late Victorian period. He had a private line to God, but is the only former President of the Royal Microscopical Society expelled for his views on the Abbe theory: he was the only one who understood it, and he wrote the first intelligible account of it. This book is an absolute necessity for all with more than a superficial interest in the optics of microscopy. It combines a mechanical history of the instrument in its most important period, with an analysis of the resolution of diatoms. Histological subjects did not interest the microscopical cognoscenti: diatoms provided quite enough interest by themselves.

Martin & Johnson [4] is a book refreshingly free from heavy prose, obviously meant for physics students. I met it in the early edition, and recognised at once that it had been written for a specific audience concerned with general optical principles, and not for microscopical zealots. The sensation was like coming out into fresh air.

I once wrote a book myself [5] aimed at a special audience. My target was sixth-formers going onto university, and I wanted to catch them before they were misled by some lab steward. Though it was never reviewed or advertised, but sold by recommendation, it became the accepted elementary guide for microscopy classes for a time. The original 7s.6d version was entirely mine, as I drew the diagrams, and later editions I deplore.

Making a list of favourite books is a self-generating task; every book has its unique charm. Hooke knew as much about lightning as anyone before 1850, while the great Quekett [6] taught me the origins, when all the lenses were convex and men fought for resolution: a fundamental basis. His book is notable for omitting from its third edition a lot of dubious material which had appeared in its second: he seems to have been overwhelmed by the Great Exhibition, but thought better of it later.

I bought Conrad Beck [7] early in the war: it is the only microscope book I’ve taken to bed to read. If only it had not considered only Beck instruments, it would have been the universal ideal. It is notable for dealing with resolution in terms of anti-points, not the diffraction theory, the approach of J W Gordon, with whom Beck used to have verbal battles in the early twentieth century.

In Edinburgh I found Almoth Wright’s book [8], a composite of the ideas of the above-mentioned W J Gordon, who had plagued the RMS for years with good ideas wrongly understood: he nearly invented phase contrast in the early 1900s. Gordon’s attitude antagonised people, but Wright took his part.

I also found Barnard & Welch [9], and learned a lot about photomicrography and the ultra-violet, which stood me in good stead when dealing with a Zeiss UV instrument just after the war.

Apart from the ancient worthies including Hooke and Quekett, I ought to mention an elementary book, and Peter Healey’s book is a gem [10].

The more I write, the more authors clamour for inclusion. Chamot & Mason ensure that the reader thinks of polarized light as readily as simple illumination. However, my twelve near their end, and I must not mention details of this one.

Finally, two major works are George Needham’s description of most of the optical gear available post-war [11], and Burrell’s book on industrial microscopy [12]. This is a monumental work which covers virtually all the instrumental aspects – all the things a competent microscopist ought to be capable of doing: he is particularly good on lamp collector lenses, a branch commonly ignored but of vital importance. I think Burrell is worth all the rest, and that is saying something for an avid book critic!


1. L Wright – The microscope. A practical handbook. Enlarged and rewritten by A Drew. London, 1922.
[The first edition of the book was published in 1895, as A popular handbook to the microscope].

2. E J Spitta – Microscopy, the construction, theory and use of the microscope. London: Murray, 1907.
[Later editions followed in 1909 and 1920].

3. Nelson wrote [without acknowledgement] the account in the first two chapters [containing 116 pages] of W B Carpenter – The microscope and its revelations. London: Churchill, 8ed 1901, revised by W H Dallinger.

4. L C Martin & B K Johnson – Practical microscopy. London: Blackie, 1931.
[Other editions followed in 1949 and 1966].

5. W G Hartley – Teach yourself microscopy. London: E.U.P., 1962

6. J T Quekett – A practical treatise on the use of the microscope. London: Bailliere, 1848.
[Later editions followed in 1852 and 1855].

7. C Beck – The microscope. Theory and practice. London: Beck, 1938.

8. A E Wright – Principles of microscopy. London: Constable, 1906.

9. J E Barnard & F V Welch – Practical photomicrography. London: Arnold, 2ed 1925.
[The first edition of 1911 was by Barnard alone: a third was published in 1936].

10. P Healey – Microscopes and microscopic life. London: Hamlyn, 1969.

11. G H Needham – The practical use of the microscope including photomicrography. Springfield: Thomas, 1958.

12. W Burrells – Industrial microscopy in practice. London: Fountain Press, 1961.
[A new ‘edition’ – which was actually unchanged – was issued in 1977].

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Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 2005, 40, 39–40

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