Who Invented the Microscope

The men who invented the microscope, Zacharias and Hans Janssen, were Dutch eyeglass makers in the 1590s. The invention of the microscope begins much earlier, however, in ancient Rome.

Creating Lenses
All microscopes need lenses to magnify their subjects, and to make lenses, you need clear glass. The Romans perfected clear glass around 100AD and discovered that glass which was thicker in the middle and thinner on the edges had the ability to make things look larger. They called this early magnifying glass a lens; the name derives from the latin lentis, or lentil bean, which has a similar shape.

The First Microscope
Nearly 16 centuries passed before Zacharias Janssen and his father, Hans, experimented by mounting two lenses in a tube. They discovered that the lenses working together allowed a much higher magnification than either lens alone, if they were placed in the proper alignment. Word spread to the famed scientist Galileo, who documented the principles behind microscopes and lenses and created his own version that used reflected light. The Janssen's microscope was a direct-view model, similar to microscopes used in science classes and laboratories today.

Building a Better Microscope
Early microscopes could magnify things around 10 times, or 10x, which wasn't much. Around 1670, another Dutchman, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, improved the lenses by developing new methods of polishing and grinding the glass. Leeuwenhoek realized that increasing the curve of the glass had a profound affect on magnification and created microscopes capable of magnifying things 270 times. A new, microscopic world was revealed to Leeuwenhoek's eyes, and he was the first to document protozoa, red blood cells and plant structures. Leewenhoek's work was verified by English scientist Robert Hooke, who published the first work of microscopic studies, Micrographia, in 1655.

Hooke also built microscopes and was the first to use the word "cell" to describe structures within living tissue.

Beyond the Lens
Microscopes didn't change much over the next 200 years. In the 1850s, German engineer Carl Zeiss began making refinements to the lenses he used in the microscopes he manufactured. In the 1880s, Zeiss hired glass specialist Otto Schott, and the company's lenses quickly became known as the best in the world.

As scientists became aware of the smaller particles that make up structures, there was a natural desire to see them. German scientists Max Knott and Ernst Ruska made that possible when they invented the first electron microscope, a device that uses charged electrons in a vacuum to create images of structures as tiny as an atom. Ruska won a share of the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his invention, sharing it with Gird Binnig of Germany and Heinrich Roherer of Switzerland, who improved the technology by creating the first scanning tunneling microscope.

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