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World's first microscope auctioned off for 312,000 pounds

By Adriana Stuijt     Apr 8, 2009 in Science
One of three silver microscopes built by Dutch scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek - which heralded in the age of micro-biology - was sold by Christie's for 312,000 pounds. This was the highest price ever paid for any antique Dutch scientific instrument.
It also was triple the estimated price for the hand-crafted silver microscope, which magnified subjects by 200 times - at a time when magnification levels of only 30 could be reached. An anonymous bidder placed the successful bid. It was a world-record amount for any antique Dutch-made scientific instruments.
The microscope was found in 1978 among a box of laboratory impedimenta from the Zoological Department of Leiden University and purchased by the current seller, whose name also was not revealed by Christies.
With his self-made microscopes, Van Leeuwenhoek discovered human sperm, red blood cells, the faceted eye of a butterfly, the eggs of lice and other "little animals', as he called them. Picture see
By managing to build microscopes which contained his lenses with magnification levels of 200x, the multi-skilled, self-taught linen merchant also heralded in the age of microbiology. Van Leeuwenhoek, who lived in Delft, was born in 1632 and died in 1723. It is believed the microscope was built before 1675.
He was born at the height of the Dutch renaissance, the so-named 'Golden Age' of the Dutch Republic ; as the son of a wealthy middle-class merchant. After receiving a basic education, he was apprenticed to a linen-draper, when he presumably gained his first experience of microscopy by using a magnifying-glass to examine fabrics, and later learned to grind lenses and construct simple microscopes.
Acknowledged as the father of microbiology, Leeuwenhoek also observed and described muscle fibres, bacteria using his handcrafted microscopes.This particular example was made at the same time as one in Leiden, since their screws are interchangeable, and the presence of the Dutch silver mark of a 'V' also confirms that the present microscope was sold at auction before 1831, and therefore existed some 50 years before copies were manufactured in Germany.
In 1676 a letter from Van Leeuwenhoek, announcing the 1675 discovery of "little animals" living in rainwater was translated from Dutch into English (Leeuwenhoek spoke only Dutch) and published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions. In all over a hundred communications of the Dutch microscopist were published by the Royal Society, who elected him a Fellow in 1680.
Leeuwenhoek presented two of his microscopes to Queen Mary of England and Czar Peter The Great of Russia, and gifted 26 of his silver microscopes to the Royal Society (now lost).
In all he is thought to have made over 550 of these simple microscopes, mostly in brass, but their survival rate is not high, and thus they have become much sought after.
Only nine are known to be extant, of which one may be a later copy, and of these only three are in silver: that held at the Deutsches Museum in Munich; at Museum Boerhaave, Leiden; and the present example (a tenth example in silver is known to be in the collections of the lense-manufacturing company Carl Zeiss in Jena, but is believed to be a copy).
Science was his hobby, not his trade: he sold linens and haberdashery items in his shop during the day, and at night, Van Leeuwenhoek educated himself in mathemathics, chemistry, astronomy and the natural sciences. He also taught himself the art of glass manufacturing and thus also learned how to pour and polish lenses to specific levels of magnification.
He used these skills to create a better magnifying lens than the ones used at that time by linen merchants to control the quality of their stock.
The scientific discoveries which he registered in his diaries and letters, are mainly due to his skills in creating and polishing his magnifying lenses. He never revealed his techniques and took these secrets to the grave.
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More about Antoni van leeuwenhoek, Microscope, Microbiology, Delft, Christies
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