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A highly important Dutch silver microscope


A highly important Dutch silver microscope
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), circa 1690
The lens held between two riveted silver plates; stage with rounded step design, specimen pin and focusing screw; main screw with rounded handle, with angle bracket and securing screw. Marked with an incuse 3, and two later Dutch sale marks (for the periods 1813-1893 and 1814-1831).
dimensions of plates 39 x 22mm.
Found in 1978 among a box of laboratory impedimenta from the Zoological Department of Leiden University and purchased by the present owner.
Believed to be no. 62 in the 1875 exhibition catalogue by Harting, and from the collection of the Dutch zoologist R.T. Maitland (1823-1904).
Bought at an unknown auction between 1814 and 1831.
Bracegirdle, B. Beads of glass (London, 1983), p.36
Ford, B. The Leeuwenhoek legacy (London, 1991), p.158
Harting, P. Gedenkboek van het den 8sten September 1875 gevierde 200-jarig herinneringsfeest der ontdekking van de mikroskopische wezens, door Antony van Leeuwenhoek (Rotterdam, 1876), p.127.
Museum Boerhaave Beads of glass: Leeuwenhoek and the early microscope, November 1982 - May 1983, no.13.
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Lot Essay


Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft in 1632 at the height of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, was 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 discovered micro-organisms, and was the first to observe muscle fibres, bacteria and spermatozoa using his handcrafted microscopes.

In 1676 a letter 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, Munich, Inv. no. 8880; Museum Boerhaave, Leiden, 7019 (M2a3); and the present example (a tenth example in silver is known in the collections of Carl Zeiss, Jena, but is believed to be a copy; cf. Ford p. 139).

This example was made at the same time as the Leiden example, since their screws are interchangeable, and the presence of the Dutch silver mark of a 'V' (shown bottom left) confirms that the present microscope was sold at auction before 1831, and therefore existed some 50 years before Mayall's copies were manufactured.

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