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Replica of Leeuwenhoek Microscope, c 1670.

Replica of Leeuwenhoek Microscope, c 1670.

Credits:Science Museum, London/SSPL

At the end of the 1500s, Dutch artisans discovered how to arrange two lenses to greatly magnify objects and so created the microscope. Soon people such as the Dutchman Antoni Leeuwenhoek and Englishman Robert Hooke (1635-1703) discovered a new world of tiny organisms with the microscope, seeing plant cells, magnified insects, micro-organisms, and blood circulating in the bodies of fish for the first time. But the growth of microscopy faced obstacles. Additional lenses and mirrors were needed to provide better images and light in microscopes. At the same time, microscopists had to persuade other researchers that the microscope was reliable.

Prominent medical scientists such as Xavier Bichat in France did not accept the microscope as a suitable tool for medical research. Investigating body tissues around 1800, Bichat still refused to use one because he considered it untrustworthy. Soon after, a whole theory of body tissues based on microscopic observation turned out to be false, because ‘globules’ seen under the microscope turned out to be errors produced by the instrument.

Over the course of the 1800s technical improvements such as Joseph Jackson Lister's microscope made microscopes much more powerful and reliable. The microscope became an essential medical tool, and contributed to the discoveries of germs and the cell. In the 1900s new instruments such as the electron microscope increased magnification and offered new insights into the body and disease. Microsurgery combined surgery and microscopy to allow new manipulations inside the body.

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W J Croft, Under the Microscope: a Brief History of Microscopy (Hackensack and London: World Scientific, 2006)

A van Leeuwenhoek, 'An abstract of a letter, Sep. 17, 1683, containing some microscopical observations, about animals in the scurf of the teeth', Philosophical Transactions, 14 (1684), pp 568-574

C Wilson, The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995)



Basic unit of all living organisms, it can reproduce itself exactly.


A tiny single-celled living organism too small to be seen by the naked eye. Micro-organisms that cause disease are called bacteria.