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The microscope is an optical tool which can be used to magnify very small items, like animal cells and minerals. Microscopes have allowed us to see things that we can’t see with our naked eye, leading to major discoveries in many areas of science, especially biology.

Microscopes use a combination of different lenses to produce a magnified image.There are different types of microscopes, but the original and most commonly used one is the optical microscope. Optical microscopes shine light through a sample to create a magnified image. The human eye has a resolution of about 10-4m and we are unable to really see things smaller than that without assistance. The earliest method of magnifying small objects was using single convex lenses, but these only offered limited magnification. The simple compound microscope uses a number of lenses together to magnify an image.

The inventor of the microscope is unknown. It is believed Zacharias Jansen and his father Hans were responsible for making the first compound microscope in the Netherlands in the later part of 16th century. Galileo is sometimes listed as the inventor, but this is very unlikely to be true. In 1665 Robert Hooke produced a very influential book called Micrographia in which he drew images of objects that cannot be seen with the naked eye. It was in this book that Hooke coined the term ‘cell’ as a biological building block. Microscopes have been incredibly essential in pushing forward our knowledge of the world that is so small it cannot be seen without assistance. Microscopes have led to the discovery of bacteria; Anton Van Leeuwenhoek first described and wrote about them in the 17th century.

Photography gave microscopy a new edge, allowing scientists to take pictures of what they saw through the eyepiece. This allowed them to easily share their findings with colleagues and the public easily. In modern times, scientists now use electron microscopes which allow for a much higher level or magnification than optical microscopes.

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Types of Microscopes

  • Optical Microscopes - Used to view small structures and objects using visible light.
  • Fluorescence Microscopes - Similar to an optical microscope, but uses fluorescence to increase resolution.
  • Electron Microscopes - Uses electrons instead of light. Can produce magnifications up to 10,000,000X.
  • Scanning Probe Microscopes - Used at an atomic level for producing images of a surface.
  • X-Ray Microscopes - Uses x-rays instead of visible light and used for seeing inside small objects and structures.
Learn more about inventions and discoveries that have changed the world in our Picture Encyclopedia of Innovations!
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