Single lens microscopes

Leeuwenhoek's single lens microscopes
number metal
3 gold
170 silver
3 silver and brass
95 brass

The single-lens microscopes is the classic design that most commonly comes to mind on mention of Leeuwenhoek's microscope.

Adding those from the auction catalogue and the 26 that he bequeathed to the Royal Society produces a total of 271.

The table on the left breaks them down by metal. Most of them were of silver, including the most recently discovered on the far left of the top row below. For those that were a combination of silver and brass, the catalogue does not specify which parts were which.

The last time the then-nine surviving were exhibited in one place was in 1983 in the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden. The images here (not displayed to scale) were taken from the catalog for that show, Beads of Glass. Since then, two more have been authenticated, the 248x and 68x silver microscopes, for a total of eleven that have survived.

Eleven Surviving Microcopes

 248x  167x 80x
 69x  68x

Five Silver

 266x  118x  112x  110x  74x  no lens

Six Brass

We don't know when Leeuwenhoek made them, the order in which he made them, or what observations they were used for. For only three of them does the provenance stretch back to the auction catalogue. Leeuwenhoek's sister Margrieta's great-grandson Dirk Haaxman bought them. They stayed in his family until 1929, when the predecessor of the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden purchased them.


What do we know about the surviving microsopes' journey?

A note on sources

  • In 1981, Van Zuylen did the only thorough examination of all the then-extant microsopes that had ever been done, including some of what was known of their provenance.
  • In 1983, Bruce Bracegirdle pushed Beads of Glass, the catalog of the 1982 exhibition at the Boerhaave Museum. It included everything then known of the each microscope's provenance. It has the best set of images of the then-surviving nine.
  • In 1991, Hans Houtzager extended this work in "De microscopische nalatenschap van Antoni van Leeuwenhoek" (NL only).
  • In 2002, Marian Fournier published "Een microscoop van Antoni van Leeuwenhoe". It has the optical information about the silver microscope donated to the Boerhaave in 1983.
  • In 2015, Lesley Robertson, a microbiologist at TU Delft, wrote an account of the fate of the microscopes, "Where are they now?".
  • In 2016, Zuidervaart and Anderson included in their paper on Leeuwenhoek's microscopes and other scientific instruments some of the information in this section of Lens on Leeuwenhoek.
  • In 2016, Tiemen Cocquyt published "De identificatie van een zilveren microscoopje van Antoni van Leeuwenhoek". The images and information about the most recently discovered silver microscope came in 2015 from Tiemen Cocquyt, curator at the Boerhaave, who led the authentication team.

The page for each microscope includes information from all of these sources.

Van Zuylen did not state why he ordered the microscopes as he did nor does it seem to be an ordering according to one of the characteristics, such as size or resolving power. Subsequent authors have followed van Zuylen's numbering, which in any event includes only the nine then extant.

In the literature, the microscopes are often referred to with by a name associated with its provenance, for example, the Degenaar microscope, referring to the recently recovered 248x silver microscope.

At Lens on Leeuwenhoek, the surviving microscopes are presented in order of descending strength of the lens, usually with the silver separated from the brass. They are referred to by the strength and composition, for example, "the 266x brass microscope".

In 1753, Henry Baker gave the first full description of these single-lens microscopes, along with a diagram (above right): "These Microscopes are plain and simple in their Contrivance."