Historical Precedents of Popular Involvement with Science (and Microscopy)

Improvements in Instruments

The early days of microscopy were full of activity by 'amateurs' - people whose main job was something else.

Major innovations in instrumentation and in advancing knowledge of what was seen came from the work of these individuals

(Images derived from Bradbury,S  Evolution of the Microscope.  Oxford: Pergammon Press, 1967)

Leeuwenhook  (1649)
Adaptation of Telescope for microscopy (1650 engraving)
 Italian Brass Microscopes (1650)

Widespread Interest in Science

The New Science was also diffused by public demonstrations. This was especially the case in public anatomy lessons. Scientist and layman alike were invited to witness the dissection of human cadavers. The body of a criminal would be brought to the lecture hall and the surgeon would dissect the body, announcing and displaying organs as they were removed from the body.

Throughout major European cities there were wealthy men who, with lots of free time on their hands, would dabble in science. These were the virtuosi -- the amateur scientists. These men oftentimes made original contributions to scientific endeavor. They also supplied organizations like the Royal Society with needed funds.

By 1700, science had become an issue of public discourse. The bottom line, I suppose, was that science worked! It was wonderful, miraculous and spectacular. For the 17th century scientist -- a Galileo, a Newton or the virtuosi -- science produced the Baconian vision that anything was indeed possible. Science itself gave an immense boost to the general European belief in human progress, a belief perhaps initiated by the general awakening of European thought in the 12th century.

from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/lecture7a.html
Lecture 7  The Medieval Synthesis and the Secularization of Human Knowledge: The Scientific Revolution, 1642-1730 (2)

Bonnani - Horizontal Microscope 1691
Hooke  1669
Lucernal microscope (designed to project 1789

Microscopes as Parlor Instruments

(Adornment beyond functional necessity)

Adam's microscope (created for King George III)
Hooke Microscope (created by Cook) 1679

Public Presentation and Diversion


The American Philosophical Society (APS) was one of several institutions founded and fostered by Benjamin Franklin. In 1743, he circulated a letter, titled “A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America,” which solicited interest in founding a society of correspondence so that members who were separated from each other by great distances could keep current on the latest developments in “natural philosophy,” the term which, in that day, meant any kind of physical science as well as mathematics.

The scientific instruments from Benjamin Franklin’s time were used not just by a few intellectuals and scientists in a backroom laboratory, but by everyone, as this exhibit shows. The ferment and excitement over discovering new things with these instruments was clearly so widespread that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between science, the application of science in the form of new technology, and daily entertainment.

The parlors, or living rooms, were much different places in the 18th and 19th Century than they are today. Often the parlors displayed globes, a microscope, or an electrical machine. The most popular parlor activities were those that combined advanced technology with fun.

Text describing exhibit on the APS

Microscope 'Vacations'

People would go on trips to collect samples to look at in their microscopes

Narine  'chest microscope' for field observations  1747

An evening at the microscope - a popular form of entertainment

The growth in the number of visitors to Dorset coast coincided with a fashionable interest in natural history and collecting specimens between 1820 and 1870. Seashells, sea anemones or any marine creature that could be brought back to an indoor aquarium, as well as plants such as ferns, and of course fossils, were all popular. Natural History Societies flourished and it was part of the attributes of being a gentleman that he should be able to talk knowledgeably about the latest scientific discoveries. While women were not permitted to attend these meetings, apart from the occasional ‘ladies evenings’, an interest in natural history was thought very suitable way for women to spend their leisure providing fresh air, exercise, and of course, education.

from Settlements and Society  -