Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 549:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 549.

Today, original documents reveal the mind of the first great microscope maker. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Information piles up in our FAXs, computers, and compact discs. Yet librarians warn that the old artifacts -- letters, books, and more -- carry things we'll never catch on Xerox and optical scanners. That's something writer Brian Ford learned when he set out to study Antonj Leeuwenhoek's microscopes.

Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632 in Delft. When he was 33, Robert Hooke published a book of drawings from microscopes in England. Hooke used multiple lenses that magnified 20 to 50 times. He gave the public wild pictures of insects looming like great dragons.

Eight years later Leeuwenhoek began reporting his own observations to the Royal Society in London. By the time he died in 1723 he'd created our first clear picture of the subvisible world.

Now Ford digs into Dutch and English museums. He finds Leeuwenhoek's old microscopes. Compared to Hooke's they're absurdly simple. Here's one the size of a large postal stamp. It's a flat piece of metal with single bead of glass in it. A screw adjusts that tiny lens. That's all there is to it.

Yet it gives many times the magnification Hooke got. Leeuwenhoek didn't give a fig about entertaining the public with dragon-like gnats. He didn't dramatize things we'd already seen.

His simple lenses took us down into a world we'd never seen. He showed us bacteria, cells, and spores. His craft and keen eye were those of a pure amateur. He had no scientific ambitions. Leeuwenhoek set out only to convince himself that he was honest and thorough. And he himself was not easy to satisfy.

Next Ford opens original letters. Here's one that other scholars had read on microfilm. There are strange square drawings on it. Ford finds they aren't drawings at all! Small specimen packets are pasted to the original letters. In them, we find the same sequence of specimens that Hooke first studied.

So that's what Leeuwenhoek did until he was 41. First he read Hooke. Then he created a far simpler and more powerful microscope by dint of pure craftsmanship. Finally, he systematically reran Hooke's experiments to hone his technique. Only then did he take microscopy far beyond anything it had been.

And we're left with a double parable of simplicity and directness. By gazing at Leeuwenhoek's own samples through his own microscopes -- by handling the original material -- we finally see into Leeuwenhoek's science. When we do, we find a mind for which knowing was an end in itself. It was a mind undistracted by the search for fame and greatness.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Ford, B.J., Single Lens. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

For more on Leeuwenhoek and his microscopes see the fine website: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/leeuwenhoek.html

Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.

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