Today, original documents reveal the mind of the
first great microscope maker. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Information piles up in our
FAXs, computers, and compact discs. Yet librarians
warn that the old artifacts -- letters, books, and
more -- carry things we'll never catch on Xerox and
optical scanners. That's something writer Brian
Ford learned when he set out to study Antonj
Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632 in Delft. When he was
33, Robert Hooke published a book of drawings from
microscopes in England. Hooke used multiple lenses
that magnified 20 to 50 times. He gave the public
wild pictures of insects looming like great
Eight years later Leeuwenhoek began reporting his
own observations to the Royal Society in London. By
the time he died in 1723 he'd created our first
clear picture of the subvisible world.
Now Ford digs into Dutch and English museums. He
finds Leeuwenhoek's old microscopes. Compared to
Hooke's they're absurdly simple.
Here's one the size of a large postal stamp.
It's a flat piece of metal with single bead of
glass in it. A screw adjusts that tiny lens. That's
all there is to it.
Yet it gives many times the magnification Hooke
got. Leeuwenhoek didn't give a fig about
entertaining the public with dragon-like gnats. He
didn't dramatize things we'd already seen.
His simple lenses took us down into a world we'd
never seen. He showed us bacteria, cells, and
spores. His craft and keen eye were those of a pure
amateur. He had no scientific ambitions.
Leeuwenhoek set out only to convince himself that
he was honest and thorough. And he himself was not
easy to satisfy.
Next Ford opens original letters. Here's one that
other scholars had read on microfilm. There are
strange square drawings on it. Ford finds they
aren't drawings at all! Small specimen packets are
pasted to the original letters. In them, we find
the same sequence of specimens that Hooke first
So that's what Leeuwenhoek did until he was 41.
First he read Hooke. Then he created a far simpler
and more powerful microscope by dint of pure
craftsmanship. Finally, he systematically reran
Hooke's experiments to hone his technique. Only
then did he take microscopy far beyond anything it
And we're left with a double parable of simplicity
and directness. By gazing at Leeuwenhoek's own
samples through his own microscopes -- by handling
the original material -- we finally see into
Leeuwenhoek's science. When we do, we find a mind
for which knowing was an end in itself. It was a
mind undistracted by the search for fame and
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds