A lacquered brass microscope
A lacquered brass microscope
A lacquered brass microscope
1 More
A lacquered brass microscope
4 More
Prospective purchasers are advised that several co… Read more The Charles Darwin Family Microscope
A lacquered brass microscope

CARY, CIRCA 1826-1830

A lacquered brass microscope
Cary, circa 1826-1830
A Gould-type monocular microscope signed on the arm 'Cary, London' in original mahogany box with accessories: three lenses, convex mirror, stage with ivory disc painted black to reverse, condenser lens, Lieberkühn reflector, light/dark-ground discs, live box, three arms for stage, blued steel forceps, tweezers, ivory handled dissecting pin, under the tray a manuscript list of objects on three slides (the slides missing), manuscript monogram for Leonard Darwin dated 1864 June 14th.
5 1⁄3 x 4 1⁄4 x 1 1⁄2in. (137 x 107 x 37mm.)
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Leonard Darwin (1850-1943)
Edward Leonard Darwin (1934-2020)
Special notice
Prospective purchasers are advised that several countries prohibit the importation of property containing materials from endangered species, including but not limited to coral, ivory and tortoiseshell. Accordingly, prospective purchasers should familiarize themselves with relevant customs regulations prior to bidding if they intend to import this lot into another country.
Sale room notice
We request that this lot be collected by the buyer as soon as possible following the sale due to changing ivory regulations.

Brought to you by

Julian Wilson
Julian Wilson Senior Specialist, Books, Maps & Manuscripts

Check the condition report or get in touch for additional information about this

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

The only Darwin Microscope to have ever been offered at auction.

Microscopy is a leitmotif of the Darwin family and its scientific triumphs. Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus owned a fine ‘Jones Improved’ microscope (now preserved at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery), and combined close observational skills with evolutionary speculation:

Hence without parent by Spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth;
From nature’s womb the plant or insect swims,
And buds or breathes with microscopic limbs.

Charles Darwin’s own research career began in earnest with the more prosaic, but no less philosophical, investigation into the sea creatures being dredged up from the Firth of Forth, which Charles obtained from friendly fishermen while he was trying to avoid his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin’s studies of these strange ‘zoophytes’, which made liberal use of the microscope, began in 1826 and reached a successful conclusion in the spring of 1827, when he presented his very first scientific paper to the University’s Plinian Society.

These dates coincide with the first appearance of the present modelon the market: the instrument was designed by Charles Gould for the firm Cary around 1825, and was certainly on sale by 1826, when its accompanying booklet was mentioned in the Mechanics' Register. Of the five other surviving microscopes associated with Charles Darwin, four are known to have been acquired later (two in 1831, one each in 1847 and c.1848), and the other cannot be used for studying marine invertebrates.

As historian Phillip Sloan explains, this early research was more than mere juvenilia: Darwin was contributing to Robert Grant’s radical reinterpretation of the animal kingdom, in which apparently simple creatures – like the ‘zoophytes’ examined by Darwin – were understood to be at the beginning of a natural order that led up to Homo sapiens. This preoccupation with the ‘first’ creatures was picked up again by Darwin in the crucial period during and immediately following the Beagle voyage. On board the Beagle, for example, Darwin was to write to his cousin W.D. Fox:

‘The invertebrate marine animals are, however my delight; amongst them I have examined some, almost disagreeably new; for I can find no analogy between them & any described families. — Amongst the Crustacea I have taken many new & curious genera: The pleasure of working with the microscope ranks second to geology.’

Darwin’s pleasure was related to a rich seam of microscopical inquiry – into the manner of reproduction of all kinds of marine invertebrates, their mode and pattern of growth, and the relationship between the plant and animal kingdoms. This constitutes what Sloan calls the ‘invertebrate program’ of Darwin’s Beagle researchers, and has the greatest significance for the development of his transformist thinking in the late 1830s and 1840s.

On the Beagle Darwin is known to have used one of the microscopes now preserved at Down House – the simple microscope recommended to him by Robert Brown and made by the firm Banks. The other early microscopes at Down are an enigmatic small botanical microscope, and another instrument by Cary, made to the design of Henry Coddington. Darwin’s barnacle researches were largely carried out with the large Smith and Beck compound microscope now held at the Whipple Museum. The final known microscope is the ‘prototype’ of Darwin’s own modified aquatic microscope, which remarkably went into production by Smith and Beck in the 1840s.

Should the present instrument have been preferred by Darwin in his youth, it was apparently out of favour by the middle of his career, when he was clearly well stocked with alternatives. In a house filled with microscopes and characterised by the enthusiastic investigation of all kinds of natural phenomena, it is easy to imagine how Charles’ son Leonard’s might have acquired what would have been quite an old instrument by the time he was able to use it. Indeed Charles himself even gives us a glimpse of their playful work together in a letter to his eldest son in 1858:

‘Lenny was dissecting under my microscope & he turned round very gravely & said “dont you think, papa, that I shall be very glad of this all my future life”.—’

Christie's would like to thank Dr. Boris Jardine, University of Cambridge, for his assistance in the preparation of this catalogue entry.

More from Valuable Books and Manuscripts

View All
View All