The Dutch Lead the Invention of the First Compound Microscope

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Like most inventions, the invention of the first compound microscope happened over time, with contributions and advancements of several individuals. Since several men were working in the field at the same time, the definitive answer is debatable. However, Zacharias Janssen, a Dutch lens-maker is commonly credited with the invention. No one can know who first found that looking through a crystal would magnify an object, but in the 13th century eyeglasses became popular. It would be a few hundred more years that some men would put two lens together in a long tube and invent the compound microscope.

More Than a Magnifying Glass

A compound microscope is an instrument which has more than one lens, compared to the simple microscope also known as a magnifying glass. Compound microscope are still in use today. A long tube houses two (or more) lenses. An object too small for the naked eye is placed at the base of the tube under the lens or magnifying glass. The second lens at the top magnifies the first magnification to produce greater magnification than one lens alone.

Eye-glass makers, Astronomers and Microbiologists

Who invented the first compound microscope? Several different scientists are credited with either inventing this piece of equipment or improving it.

Zacharias Janssen - Dutch eyeglasses-maker (1580-1638) is generally credited with the invention. He experimented on several designs with multiple lenses housed in a long tube. The tubes slid within each other improving the focus and resolution of the object.

Hans Lippershey - German-Dutch lensmaker (1570–1619) is credited with the invention of the telescope and possibly the compound microscope.

Cornelius Drebbel - Dutch scientist (1572-1633) learned lens grinding and optics from Lippershey and Jansen. A Dutch ambassador credited Drebbel with the invention of the compound microscope.

Galileo Galilei - Italian astronomer (1564-1642) sent a two-lens microscope to a scientist in Rome who examined bees and published his results. Galileo’s instrument was more advanced and finely tuned.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek - Dutch scientist (1632-1723) and the first acknowledged microbiologist. He spent his life building microscopes and examining objects like yeast, bacteria and water organisms. He published his works by letters to the Royal Society of England and the French Academy.

Robert Hooke - English scientist and architect (1635-1703) coined the word “cell” to confirm van Leeuwenhoek’s tiny organisms. Hooke improved on van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope design.

Charles A. Spencer - American microscope designer and manufacturer (1813-1881) produced a catalog of microscopes, telescopes and other instruments. He might be considered an industrialist who mass produced compound microscopes.

Compound Microscope Improvements

Dutch, Italian, English and American men invented, manufactured and used the compound microscope, with the Dutch leading in the field. The invention of the first compound microscope took place around 1590 and was improved in quality over the next few hundred years. Modern scientists use a similiar design in today’s laboratories. Other types of microscopes are in use, like the stereo microscope and the electronic microscope. Newer designs like the USB microscopes have freed the scientist from the bench mounted microscope in the laboratory, to hand held microscopes able to be transported into the field. Digital images of objects can now be captured, stored and viewed simultaneously on the computer.


Mary Bellis, History of the Microscope

University of Texas Medical Branch, Invention of the Microscope