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What is an Inverted Microscope?

By Josie Myers
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are two basic types of microscopes. The one most people are familiar with looks down at the specimen with the light source coming from below and is called an upright microscope. An inverted microscope looks up at the specimen with the light source coming from above instead.

Inverted microscopes were first invented in 1850 by Tulane University's J. Lawrence Smith and debuted at the World's Fair in London in 1852. In the early 20th century, they began to be used for observation of living cells, particularly for aquatic life. It was also used for analysis of heavy metals like iron and steel before World War II.

An inverted microscope is most helpful when looking at heavy objects or those which are greatly effected by gravity. Material specimens like metal can be large and heavy. They require the large staging areas that inverted microscopes allow for.

The materials greatly affected by gravity include living cells and aquatic life that tend to pool and collect on the bottom of specimen containers. An inverted microscope looks at the sample from the bottom, making it easier to see the organisms with ease. It also allows users to see the samples in a more natural environment than a standard glass slide. Petri dishes allow more movement for the samples and are commonly used with inverted microscopes.

This type of microscope has been redesigned and improved on to accommodate particular uses. There are stages made particularly for processes like incubation and in vitro fertilization. The nosepieces have been made larger and revolvable, making to make it easier for scientists to identify and rotate objects. They have also been made heavier and sturdier, allowing for less vibration and greater ease of observation.

There are two grades of inverted microscopes. A routine inverted microscope is small and comes in low and medium power settings. These can be used in homes and small labs in schools. They are limited in what the can observe as they usually do not allow for fine focus and have relatively low power magnification.

A research inverted microscope comes in heavy power settings and can allow for a very fine focus. The major disadvantage to them is that they are extremely expensive and are usually only used by universities and medical institutions. They are usually able to accommodate video cameras and televisions to assist in research documentation. The improvements on the inverted microscope over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries have allowed it to be an integral part of advanced scientific research.

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Discussion Comments
By Monika — On Feb 17, 2012

@Azuza - Even though the fancy inverted microscopes are too expensive for most schools, routine inverted microscopes are available. Even though they don't have a very fine focus, they're still enough to introduce a student to the concept of an inverted microscope.

I personally think these would be even better for young students than regular microscopes because they allow you to observe a living organism. I think that would be more interesting for a kid than looking at a bunch of dead cells on a slide.

By Azuza — On Feb 16, 2012

@ceilingcat - I've never seen an inverted microscope either, which is kind of a shame I think. If only they weren't so expensive, more young students might get the chance to see a real inverted microscope with all the capabilities. I think having access to something like an Olympus inverted microscope could open up new avenues of exploration for a lot of students.

But I guess for now these microscopes will just be available to universities and medical institutions.

By ceilingcat — On Feb 15, 2012

@hamje32 - I was wondering about the logistics of this thing myself. It makes sense that it would be at about a thirty degree angle. I don't think scientists would get much work done craning their neck trying to look directly up into a microscope.

Sadly, I've never seen one of these, but they sound really cool. I did take a few science classes in college though, and I remember for one I used a Nikon microscope. However, it was just a regular upright microscope, not something cool like an inverted microscope.

By David09 — On Feb 15, 2012

@hamje32 - In the medical profession I believe that it’s common to use inverted fluorescent microscopes. The idea here is that some substances emit energy and the fluorescence will highlight what’s going on. You might see this used where technicians want to study bacterial cultures or things like that.

By hamje32 — On Feb 14, 2012

@SkyWhisperer - I think that the eyepiece has been moved so that it’s positioned at an angle; at least that’s what I’ve gathered from pictures I’ve seen.

It’s not top down. It’s more like at a thirty degree angle, and then I think it aims at plates at the bottom of the microscope which reflect off the lens plate at the top of the microscope, if that makes sense.

By SkyWhisperer — On Feb 13, 2012

I can see where this kind of a thing makes sense, especially if the stuff you want to look at is in the belly of the specimen and not in its top down view.

I also imagine that we are still dealing with small specimens here and not large objects. I just have a question about the logistics of this device.

For example, how does the scientist get underneath the lens plate to see the specimen? How do you view the sample if the microscope is inverted? You’re not looking down at it like you would with an ordinary microscope, correct?

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