Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders: Project Description

January 2016


Of Antony van Leeuwenhoek's approximately 360 letters, 166 were accompanied by figures, about 1,225 figures in total. He referred to and discussed each figure in the text of his letters. The original figures were mostly red chalk or ink drawings of specimens he examined through this microscope; the rest showed tools he made and used.

All of the drawings were re-drawn in copper to make plates for printing in England for Philosophical Transactions and in the Dutch Republic for Leeuwenhoek's self-published volumes. The majority of the figures were published in both countries, from different plates. We can assume that Leeuwenhoek did not see the engravings in Philosophical Transactions until he recieved them in the mail but that he personally supervised the image-making process in the Republic, from the artist who looked through the lens to the printer who pulled the sheets from his press. Upon preliminary examination, it seems that the same copper plates were used for Leeuwenhoek's parallel Dutch and Latin editions.

As of 2016, Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters has reached only letter 294. Of the rest, some have never been published in Dutch and most have never been published in English translation. Without a complete corpus, there has never been a comprehensive study of the texts let alone the figures. Those in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters are generally of low resolution and poor quality. While the rest of the texts await publication, all of the figures are available in Philosophical Transactions and Leeuwenhoek's Werken. Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders will catalog the figures and their variants. To the extent permissible, it will include photographs of all of them. The images will be accessible at LensonLeeuwenhoek.net, where the dataset will be searchable and the figures will display in pop-up windows that can be moved and re-sized.

Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders is intended as a resource for teachers and researchers in history, science, and visual culture.


The heart of this project is a spreadsheet that has a row for each figure and variant. The columns will have the bibliographic and descriptive information about each figure as well as the meta-data, that is, the taxonomic tags by which the figures will be searched and organized for display on the website.

Of equal importance are the image files. A professional display is based on a consistent size and quality. Ideally, there is an existing image file of sufficient resolution. As an alternative, I can, with permission, photograph an original drawing or printed page to make the required file.

The publication of Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders on the Lens on Leeuwenhoek web will complete the project. The web uses a custom content management system built from the Drupal 7 framework. I maintain the datebase and code on a server that is hosted by A2 Hosting in the U.S. Depending on how user feedback suggests that the figures are best displayed, I expect to be able to use standard Drupal modules, greatly minimizing the time it will take for final publication.

Audience and Stakeholders

  • Teachers and researchers: history, science, and visual culture
  • The Huygens Institute: Dutch heritage and eHumanities
  • The Royal Society: its heritage of visual assets

Historical/Cultural Significance

This project comes toward the end of one process -- publication of the complete corpus of Leeuwenhoek letters -- and the beginning of another process -- digitizing our cultural heritage. We are currently in the phase of plucking the low-hanging fruit, for example, the ePistolarium project, the new Clusius Correspondence web, the Royal Society's Making Visible project. The first two are text-only. The Making Visible project overlaps the Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders project in two areas:

  • the central research questions of taxonomy, image-making, and knowledge-making
  • during Philosophical Transactions' first century, the Royal Society's engravers did more work for Leeuwenhoek's articles than for any other author's, by far

One way of developing these resources is the type of web illustrated by Lens on Leeuwenhoek. It has a narrow focus in time and space but being on the web can have a quantity and quality of content not possible in the ink-on-paper world. This sort of niche or boutique treatment of historical topics has obvious advantages over the physical limitations of traditional books because it can make links within a web of richly-illustrated and searchable text. In that sense, Lens on Leeuwenhoek is a model of what can be done by someone who has the core digital humanities skills: historical research, writing, graphics, information design, and content management systems.


Originals: Several hundred original drawings have survived. Most are in the possession of the Royal Society. Some are in archives in the Netherlands. A few are in Italy and Germany.

Plates: As far as I know, none of the copper plates have survived. Most often, more than one figure appeared on a plate, sometimes as many as a dozen. About half of the figures were engraved in England for publication in Philosophical Transactions, where Leeuwenhoek's figures appeared at the end of the journal issue on a plate most often along with the figures accompanying other author's articles. A larger number of figures, grouping them and placing them throughout the text, were engraved in the Dutch Republic for publication in Leeuwenhoek's self-published volumes.

Printed: I have access to the complete Philosophical Transactions and to almost every edition of Leeuwenhoek's self-published letters.

In his Leeuwenhoek biography (p. 388), Dobell commented on Leeuwenhoek's published letters:

There is still no complete edition of all Leeuwenhoek's letters: and of those already published there are so many versions that specific reference to any particular passage is often a matter of grievous difficulty. ... [They] have been, indeed, the despair of all authors who have had occasion to refer to them; and I do not, therefore, pretend to describe or enumerate all their many versions here.

Plan and tentative target dates for completion of each phase

  • decide on column headings for spreadsheet (the taxonomy) - February 15
  • identify and evaluate sources - February 15
  • collect images - April 1
  • complete spreadsheet - June 1
  • prepare Lens on Leeuwenhoek content type - July 1
  • develop views and modules for searching and displaying - July 15
  • (re)collect images or higher quality images - July 15
  • prepare images files - July 31
  • uploading spreadsheet and images to the development site at test.leeuwenhoek.net - July 31
  • test the web's usability on the development site - August 15
  • publish the new Cabinet of Wonders section of the Lens on Leeuwenhoek web - September 1, 2016

Project Needs (staff, equipment, skills)

I have the equipment and skills to complete the technical part of the project on my own. However, like all such projects, it will be greatly improved by partnerships in three areas:

  • developing the taxonomy - the researchers involved with the Royal Society's Making Visible project are also making a taxonomy. Their corpus overlaps mine, making a shared taxonomy very useful for later researchers.
  • getting access to the Leeuwenhoek-related material and getting, if possible, permission to photograph originals - Huygens Institute, Dutch National Archives, Royal Society, Bert Degenaar
  • processing the images - intern at the Huygens Institute for cropping, resizing, and file naming.

Intellectual Property and Copyright

The Dutch texts of Leeuwenhoek's letters, and thus the figures accompanying them in his self-published volumes, are in the public domain. I believe that is also true of the text and figures in Philosophical Transactions. If so, that leaves two areas of concern:

  • The English translations in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters are covered by copyright for a long time to come. Until that English-language text can be coded and stored in a database, the corpus, while complete, will not be useful. For example, Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders could use it to have the appropriate explanatory text appear on a page with each figure. Is that fair use?
  • The original red chalk and ink drawings are in the possession of several instutitions, chiefly the Royal Society. The Society is currently monetizing these assets by charging money for digitial versions and restricting their use. I have no budget and the raison d'etre for Leeuwenhoek's Cabinet of Wonders exceeds that use. I do not know whether the other institutions owning original Leeuwenhoek-related material will have similar policies.

Data Analysis

Because there has never been a complete corpus of either the texts or figures, any quantitative analysis has been partial and limited. When the corpus of figures is complete, high-level statistics such as those below will lay the groundwork for subsequent detailed analysis by other researchers.

The new Clusius Correspondence web has similar intentions:

We hope that by making available what we have now ... we shall encourage research and engage new Clusius fans who would like to become involved in this ongoing project. ... For now, you can use the current transcriptions with all its particularities and inconsistencies. ... We hope you enjoy reading, browsing and searching these fascinating letters.

Figures in Leeuwenhoek's letters

Total: 1,228 figures in 166 of 364 letters

  • Originals at Royal Society: 279 drawings in 43 of the first 294 of the 364 letters
  • AVL's self-published letters: 865 figures in 108 of 165 self-published letters in Dutch and Latin
  • Philosophical Transactions: 604 figures in 86 of 120? Philosophical Transactions articles
  • French, German, other Latin: 136 figures in 22 of 83 letters
  • other Dutch and English: 22 figures in 5 of 24 letters
  • English (Hoole): 378 figures in 57 of 79 letters with 635 figures; the 57 have only 545 figures because Hoole omitted 90 of them

Total: 2,284 possible variants of the 1,228 figures