100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Microscope
Year of Invention: 1590

What Is It? An optical device that magnifies small objects and allows humans
to see objects too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Who Invented It? Hans and Zacharias Janssen (in Middleburg, Holland) and
Anton van Leeuwenhoek (in Delft, Holland)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Microscopes revolutionized science. Studies of cells, microscopic organisms, blood, molecules, and atoms would never have been possible without microscopes. The fields of medicine, engineering, anatomy, biology, zoology, and chemistry all depend on, and were made possible by, microscopes.

Microscopes opened the human mind to the possibilities of other worlds and of universes too small for our eyes to register and our minds to imagine. Microscopes are a profound source of knowledge and understanding and have taught us more about ourselves and the natural world than has any other single invention.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Surely even the earliest humans were aware of the concept of magnification. Dewdrops on a leaf magnify the features of the leaf. But no one pursued the idea of artificially creating that magnification for thousands of years.

By 1290, craftsmen in Venice, Italy, had developed the ability to grind and polish high-quality transparent glass lenses. Over the next hundred years, lens making for spectacles (eyeglasses) swept through Europe. Glasses became a fashion statement. Most of these spectacle lenses magnified images—but only to a slight degree.

In 1558, Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner had a more powerful (more curved) convex lens made and mounted into a metal frame. He used this magnifying glass to examine snail shells. This was the first recorded use of a lens for optic magnification and scientific study.

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