A microscope is an instrument used to produce enlarged images of small objects. The most common kind of microscope is an optical microscope, which uses lenses to form images from visible light. Electron microscopes form images from beams of electrons. Acoustic microscopes form images from high-frequency sound waves. Tunneling microscopes form images from the ability of electrons to "tunnel" through the surface of solids at extremely small distances.

An optical microscope with a single lens is known as a simple microscope. Simple microscopes include magnifying glasses and jeweler's loupes. An optical microscope with two lenses is known as a compound microscope. The basic parts of a compound microscope are the objective, which holds the lens near the specimen, and the eyepiece, which holds the lens near the observer. A modern compound microscope also includes a source of light (either a mirror to catch external light or a light bulb to provide internal light), a focusing mechanism, and a stage (a surface on which the object being examined can be held in place). Compound microscopes may also include a built-in camera for microphotography.

Ancient peoples noted that objects seen through water appeared larger. The first century Roman philosopher Seneca recorded the fact that letters seen through a glass globe full of water were magnified. The earliest simple microscopes consisted of a drop of water captured in a small hole in a piece of wood or metal. During the Renaissance, small glass lenses replaced the water. By the late seventeenth century, the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek built outstanding simple microscopes using very small, high-quality lenses mounted between thin brass plates. Because of the excellence of his microscopes, and the fact that he was the first to make observations of microscopic organisms, Leeuwenhoek is often incorrectly thought of as the inventor of the microscope.

The compound microscope made its first appearance between the years 1590 and 1608. Credit for this invention is often given to Hans Janssen, his son Zacharias Janssen, or Hans Lippershey, all of whom were Dutch spectacle makers. Early compound microscopes consisted of pairs of lenses held in a small metal tube and looked much like modern kaleidoscopes. Because of the problem of chromatic aberration (the tendency of a lens to focus each color of light at a slightly different point, leading to a blurred image) these microscopes were inferior to well-made simple microscopes of the time.

The earliest written records of microscopic observations were made by the Italian scientist Francesco Stelluti in 1625, when he published drawings of a bee as seen through a microscope. The first drawings of bacteria were made by Leeuwenhoek in 1683. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, numerous mechanical improvements were made in microscopes in Italy, including focusing devices and devices for holding specimens in place. In England in 1733, the amateur optician Chester Moor Hall discovered that combining two properly shaped lenses made of two different kinds of glass minimized chromatic aberration. In 1774, Benjamin Martin used this technique in a microscope. Many advances were made in the building of microscopes in the nineteenth

and twentieth centuries. Electron microscopes were developed in the 1930s, acoustic microscopes in the 1970s, and tunneling microscopes in the 1980s.

Raw Materials

An optical microscope consists of an optical system (the eyepiece, the objective, and the lenses inside them) and hardware components which hold the optical system in place and allow it to be adjusted and focused. An inexpensive microscope may have a mirror as a light source, but most professional microscopes have a built-in light bulb.

Lenses are made of optical glass, a special kind of glass which is much purer and more uniform than ordinary glass. The most important raw material in optical glass is silicon dioxide, which must be more than 99.9% pure. The exact optical properties of the glass are determined by its other ingredients. These may include boron oxide, sodium oxide, potassium oxide, barium oxide, zinc oxide, and lead oxide. Lenses are given an antireflective coating, usually of magnesium fluoride.

The eyepiece, the objective, and most of the hardware components are made of steel or steel and zinc alloys. A child's microscope may have an external body shell made of plastic, but most microscopes have an body shell made of steel.

If there is a mirror included, it is usually made of a strong glass such as Pyrex (a trade name for a glass made from silicon dioxide, boron dioxide, and aluminum oxide). The mirror has a reflective coating made of aluminum and a protective coating made of silicon dioxide.

If a light bulb is included, it is made from glass and contains a tungsten filament and wires made of nickel and iron within a mixture of argon and nitrogen gases. The base of the light bulb is made of aluminum.

If a camera is included, it contains lenses made of optical glass. The body of the camera is made of steel or other metals or of plastic.

The Manufacturing

Making the hardware components

Making optical glass

Making the lenses

Making the mirror

Assembling the microscope

Quality Control

The most critical part of quality control for a microscope is the accuracy of the lenses. During cutting and polishing, the size of the lens is measured with a vernier caliper. This device holds the lens between two jaws. One remains stationary while the other is gently moved into place until it touches the lens. The dimensions of the lens are read off a scale, which moves along with the movable jaw.

The curvature of the lens is measured with a spherometer. This device looks like a pocket watch with three small pins protruding from the base. The two outer pins remain in place, while the inner pin is allowed to move in or out. The movement of this pin is connected to a scale on the face of the spherometer. The scale reveals the degree of curvature of the lens. A typical lens should vary no more than about one-thousandth of an inch (25 micrometers).

During polishing, these tests are not accurate enough to ensure that the lens will focus light properly. Optical tests must be used. One typical test, known as an autocollimation test, involves shining a pinpoint light source through a lens in a dark room. A diffraction grating (a surface containing thousands of microscopic parallel grooves per inch) is placed at the point where the lens should focus the light. The grating causes a pattern of light and dark lines to form around the true focal point. It is compared with the theoretical focal point and the lens is repolished if necessary.

The mechanical parts of the microscope are also tested to ensure that they function correctly. The eyepiece and the objective must screw firmly into their proper places and must be perfectly centered to form a sharp image. The rack and pinion focusing mechanism is tested to ensure that it moves smoothly and that the distance between the objective and the stage is controlled precisely. Rotating disks containing multiple objectives are tested to be sure that they rotate smoothly and that each objective remains firmly in place during use.

The Future

Amateur observers may soon be able to purchase microscopes with small, built-in video cameras, which allow the movements of microscopic organisms to be recorded. Computers may be built into the internal control mechanisms of the microscope to provide automatic focusing.

Where to Learn More


Bradbury, Savile. An Introduction to the Microscope. Oxford University Press, 1984.

Jacker, Corrine. Window on the Unknown: A History of the Microscope. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966.

Rochow, Theodore George, and Eugene George Rochow. An Introduction to Microscopy by Means of Light, Electrons, X-rays, or Ultrasound. Plenum Press, 1978.


Bardell, David. "The First Record of Microscopic Observations." Bioscience, January 1983, pp. 36-38.


Ford, Brian J. "History of the Microscope." October 11, 1996. http://www.sciences.demon.co.uk/whistmic.htm

Rose Secrest

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