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What is so Special About an Antique Microscope?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Anyone who has ever seen or used an antique microscope knows immediately that they are something special. The feel of the metal in your hand, the satisfying action of focusing the rings or raising or lowering the slide plate, and the sturdiness with which they are built all make looking through an antique microscope a true joy. Although somewhat rare, the benefits of a classic microscope are great, and even the act of searching for one can be a wonderful experience in itself.

The earliest microscopes are known as optical microscopes, or simply light microscopes, because they rely on lenses to magnify visible light in order to better study a specimen on a slide. Newer microscopes are often of a non-optical type, which may use some sort of special staining, with ions or chemicals, to achieve incredible magnifications far beyond that which can be achieved with an optical microscope. These newer types include things like transmission and scanning electron microscopes. An antique microscope will, by necessity, be of the simpler, optical variety.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The most basic type of antique microscope one sees is known as a simple microscope, and uses just a single lens. This lens is fixed in a stationary position, with a slide plate that can be raised or lowered. Essentially, a simple microscope is little more than a well-made magnifying glass, and this sort of microscope tends to be very old, and quite rare, with examples dating back to around the 11th century. More commonly, one will find an antique microscope that is of the compound variety, with multiple lenses allowing for greater and greater levels of magnification. Compound microscopes date back to around the late-16th or early-17th century.

Most antique microscopes come from around the mid-19th to early-20th century. Within this range there are many different producers, who made microscopes in a wide range of configurations. The traditional style, with a horseshoe-shaped base, and a straight or slightly-angled body with a slide plate and long viewing tube, tend to come from the late-19th century or early-20th century, and are most often made out of brass. Some popular models include the petrological microscope by E. Leitz Wetlar from 1892, the Harvey binocular microscope from 1883, and the Highley’s Educational microscope with chain drive focus from 1860.

An earlier antique microscope usually has only one viewing shaft, and may not even have a built-in slide plate, such as the Gilbert — Sons from 1820. A later-period antique microscope, such as one from the early-20th century, may have multiple lens shafts to give a binocular view, and may have an ornate slide plate that can be adjusted in many ways. Some later models may also have some sort of reflecting lens to shine light through the bottom, as well.

Depending on the model, the condition, and the rarity, the price of an antique microscope can vary widely. As with all antiques, desirability is often less a matter of quality in terms of use, and more a matter of its rarity in the market. Cheaper antique microscopes can be found for less than $200 US Dollars (USD), even those from the mid-19th century. Expensive models can cost thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars.

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