Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Weaving Wonders
14 January 2012

Weaving Wonders

Microscopes evolved courtesy of the textile industry. Held close to the eye, between cheek and brow, the glass orb set in this five cm long van Leeuwenhoek microscope opened the window to a miniature world. Its maker was an unlikely scientist, a poor 17th century Dutch draper, who as an apprentice employed magnifying glasses in checking the quality of a weave. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia – with its intricate drawings of fleas – inspired van Leeuwenhoek to explore the magnifying power of a single lens. His design included an adjustable mount (pin) to keep samples steady. With this he could see what he called ‘animalcules’: micoorganisms in river water; and sperm. His invention helped establish germ theory and provided a biological basis for sexual reproduction. For many years he kept his method of creating lenses a secret, ensuring his reputation and place in history.

Written by Stefan Janusz

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