1902 Encyclopedia > Microscope > Microscope - Introduction. History of the Simple Microscope.

(Part 1)


Microscope - Introduction. History of the Simple Microscope.

The microscope is an optical instrument for the ex-amination of minute objects or parts of objects, which enlarges the visual pictures formed upon the retina of the observer by the rays proceeding from them.

Microscopes are distinguished as simple or compound. In the former, the rays which enter the eye of the observer came from an object brought near to it after refraction through either a single lens or a combination ot lenses acting, as a single lens,—its action as a "magnifier" depend-ing on its enabling the eye to form a distinct image of the object at a much shorter distance than would otherwise be possible. The latter consists of at least two lenses, so placed relatively to the object, to the eye, and to one another that an enlarged image of the object, formed by the lens placed nearest to it (the "object-glass"), is looked at through, the lens nearest the eye (the "eye-glass"), which acts as a simple microscope in "magnifying" it; so that the com-pound microscope may be described as a simple microscope used to look at an enlarged image of the object, instead of at the object itself.

History of the Simple Microscope.—Any solid or liquid transparent medium of lenticular form, having either one convex and one flat surface or two convex surfaces whose axes are coincident, may serve as a "magnifier,"—what is essential being that it shall have the power of so refract-ing the rays which pass through it as to cause widely diverging, rays to become either parallel or but slightly divergent. Thus if a minute object be placed on a slip of glass, and a single drop of water be carefully placed upon it, the drop will act as a magnifier in virtue of the convexity of its upper surface; so that when the eye is brought sufficiently near it (the glass being of course held horizontally, so as not to distort the spherical curvature of the drop) the object will be seen much enlarged. And if a small hole be made in a thin plate of metal, and a minute drop of water be inserted in it, this drop, having two convex surfaces, will serve as a still more powerful magnifier. There is reason to believe that the magnify-ing power of transparent media with convex surfaces was very early known. A convex lens of rock-crystal was found by Layard among the ruins of the palace of Nimrud. And it is pretty certain that, after the invention of glass, hollow spheres blown of that material and filled with water were commonly used as magnifiers (comp. vol. xiv. p. 577). The perfection of gem-cutting shown in ancient ms, especially in those of very minute size, could not have been attained without the use of such aids to the visual power; and there can be little doubt that the artificers who could execute these wonderful works could also shape and polish the magnifiers best suited for their own or other’s use. Though it is impossible to say when convex lenses of glass were first made by grinding, it is quite certain that they were first generally used to assist ordinary vision as "spectacles," the use of which can be traced back nearly six centuries; and not only were spectacle-makers the first to produce glass magnifiers (or simple microscopes), but by them also the telescope and the compound microscope were first invented. There seems no reason to believe, however, that lenses of very high magnifying power (or short focus) were produced until a demand for them had been created b the introduction of the compound microscope, in which such lenses are required as "object-glasses"; and the difficulty of working lenses of high curvature with the requisite accuracy led in the first instance to the employment of globules made by fusing the ends of threads of spun glass. It was in this way that Robert Hooke shaped the minutest of the lenses with which he made many of the numerous discoveries recorded in his Micrographia; and the same method was employed by the Italian microscopist Father Di Torre. It seems to have been Leeuwenhoek that first succeeded in grinding and polishing lenses of such short focus and perfect figure as to render the simple microscope a better instrument for most purposes than any compound microscope then constructed,—its inferiority in magnifying power -being inore than counterbalanced by the superior clearness of the retinal picture. And, in despair of any such modi-fication in the compound form as should remove the optical, defects which seemed inherent in its plan of construction,—scientific opticians and microscopic observers alike gave their chief attention for a considerable period to the improvement of the simple microscope. In order that the nature of these improvements may be understood, the principle of its action must be first explained.

The normal human eye has a considerable power of self--adjustment, by which its focal length is so varied that it forms equally distinct pictures of objects brought within ordinary reading distance (say 10 inches) and of objects. whose distance is many times that length,—the size of the visual picture of any object diminishing, however, with the increase in the distance to which it is removed, and the amount of detail distinguishable in it following the same- proportion. Thus a man who looks across the street at a placard posted on the opposite wall may very distinctly see -its general form and the arrangement of its heading, and may be able to read what is set forth in its largest type, whilst unable to separate the lines, still more to read the words, of what is set forth below. But by crossing the street, so as to bring his eye nearer the picture he finds himself able to read the smaller type as easily as he before read-the larger,—the visual picture on his retina having been magnified, say 10 times in linear dimension, by the reduction of the distance of his eye from 40 feet to 4. Similarly, if he holds a page of excessively minute type at arm’s length (say 40 inches) from his eye, he may be unable to read it, not because his eye does not form a distinct retinal picture of the page at that distance, but because the details of that picture are too minute for him to distinguish them. But if he brings the page from 40 inches to 10 inches distance, he may be able to read it -without difficulty—the retinal picture being enlarged four times linear (or sixteen times superficial) by this approximation. Now the rays that enter the eye from each point. of a remote object diverge so little as to be virtually parallel; but the divergence increases with the approxima-tion of the object to the eye, and at 10 inches the angle of their divergence is as wide as permits the ordinary eye to bring them to a focus on the retina. When the object is approximated more closely, an automatic contraction of the pupil takes place, so that the most diverging rays of each pencil are cut off, and a distinct picture may be formed (though not without a feeling of strain) when the object is (say) from 5 to 8 inches distant,—giving still greater minuteness of visual detail in conformity with the-increase of size. A further magnifying power may be, obtained without the interposition of any lens, by looking- at an object, at 2 or 3 inches distance, through a pin-hole in a card; for by thus cutting off the more divergent rays of each pencil, so as to admit only those which can be made to converge to a focus on the retina at that distance, a distinct and detailed picture may be obtained, though at the expense of a great loss of light. Moreover, although an ordinary eye does not form a distinct picture of an object at less than from 10 to 6 inches distance, a "myopic" or "short-sighted" eye (whose greater refractive power enables it to bring rays of wider divergence to a focus on the retina) may form an equally distinct picture of an object at from 5 to 3 inches distance; and, as the linear dimensions of that picture will be double that of the preceding, the object will be "magnified’ in that proportion, and its details more clearly seen.

The effect of the interposition of a convex lens between the eye and an object nearly approximated to it primarily consists in its reduction in the divergence of the rays of the pencils which issue from its several points, so that they enter the eye at the moderate divergence which they would have if the object were at the ordinary nearest limit of distinct vision. And, since the shorter the focus of the lens the more closely may the object be approximated to the eye, the retinal picture is enlarged, causing the object to appear magnified in the same proportion. Not only, however, are the component rays of each pencil brought from divergence into convergence, but the course of the pencils themselves is changed, so that they enter the eye under an angle corresponding to that under which they would have arrived from a larger object situated at a greater distance; and thus, as the picture formed upon the retina by the small object ab, fig. 1, corresponds in all respects with that which would have been made by the same object AB of several times its linear dimension viewed at the nearest ordinary limit of distinct vision, the object is seen (by the formation of a "virtual image") on a magnified scale.

It is obvious that the "magnifying power" of any convex lens so used is measured by the ratio between the dimensions of the retinal picture formed with its assistance and those of the picture formed by the unaided eye. Thus, if by the use of a convex lens having 1 inch focal length we can form a distinct retinal image of an object at only an inch distance, this image will have ten times the linear dimensions of that formed by the same object at a distance of 10 inches, but will be only eight times as large as the picture formed when the object can be seen by ordinary vision at 8 inches distance, and only four times as large as the picture of the same object formed by a myopic eye at a distance of 4 inches. It is usual to estimate the magnifying power of single lenses (or of combinations that are used as such) by the number of times that their focal length is contained in 10 inches,—that of 1 inch focus being thus taken as ten times, that 1/10 of inch as one hundred times, and so on. But the rule is obviously arbitrary, as the actual magnifying power varies in each individual with the nearest limit of distinct vision. Thus for the myopic who can see an object clearly at 4 inches distance, the magnifying, powers of a 1 inch and 1/10 inch lens will be only 4 and 40 respectively. The amplifying power of every single convex lens, however, is impaired (1) by that inability to bring to the same focus the rays which fall upon the central and the marginal parts of its surface which is called ‘spherical aberration," and (2) by that dispersion of the rays of different wave-lengths, in virtue of their different refrangibilities, which produces coloured fringes around the points and lines of the visual picture, and is therefore called "chromatic aberration" (see LIGHT). These aberrations increase with the "angle of aperture" given to the lens, that is, with the proportion between the diameter of its actual "opening" and the focal distance of the object; and thus, when a single lens of very short focus is used in order to gain a high magnifying power, such a reduction of its aperture by a perforated diaphragm or "stop" becomes necessary (in order, by excluding the peripheral rays, to obtain tolerable "definition" with freedom from false colour) that the amount of light admitted to the eye is so small as only to allow the most transparent objects to be thus viewed, and these only very imperfectly. In order to remedy this drawback, it was proposed by Sir D. Brewster to use instead of glass, in the construction of simple microscopes, such transparent minerals as have high refractive with low dispersive power; in which case the same optical effect could be obtained with lenses of much lower curvature, and the aperture might be proportionately enlarged. This combination of qualities is found in the diamond, whose index of refraction bears such a proportion to that of glass that a diamond lens having a radius of curvature of 8 would give the same magnifying power as a glass lens whose radius of curvature is 3, while the "longitudinal aberration" (or distance between the foci of central and of marginal rays) would be in a diamond lens only one-ninth of that of a glass lens having the same power and aperture. Putting aside, however, the costliness of the material and the difficulty of working it, a source of imperfection arises from a frequent want of homogeneousness in the diamond crystal, which has proved sufficient to make a lens worked from it give a double or even a triple image. Similar attempts made by Mr Pritchard with sapphire proved more successful; and, as a sapphire lens having a radius of curvature of 5 has the same focus and gives the same magnifying power as a crown-glass lens having a radius of 3, it was found to bear a much larger aperture without serious impairment by either spherical or chromatic aberration. As the sapphire, however, possesses the property of double refraction, the duplication of the markings of the object in their retinal image constitutes a very serious drawback to the utility of lenses constructed of this mineral; for, though the double refraction may be reduced almost to nothing by turning the convex side of the lens towards the object, yet, as this is the worst position in regard to spherical aberration, more is lost than is gained. Fortunately, however, for biological investigators working with simple microscopes, the introduction of the Wollaston doublet superseded the necessity of any further attempts at turning costly jewels to account as high-power magnifiers.

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