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Published on May 2nd, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie

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Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek: The Linen Trader Who First Glimpsed The Microscopic

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In a time when science was well-funded and complex technology was improving all the time, one man went against the grain with wonderful results.

Without scientific training and without huge resources, he was the first person to see the invisible world of the microscopic, the first to watch tiny, single-celled animals hurling across their watery environment. Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch business man with an obsession with lens, forever changed the world.

Early Life

Antoine Van Leeuwenhoek was born in Delft, Netherlands on October 24, 1632. He would live to be 90 years of age and would die in Delft on August 26, 1723.

It’s All About The Lens

Van Leeuwenhoek’s linen business meant that magnifying lenses were needed to examine the quality of the linen fibres. But Van Leeuwenhoek was a keen lens enthusiastic. It was this hobby that would give him access to a world that people never knew existed. From this pastime he created microscopes which were much more powerful than the microscopes of the time.

The secret to Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes was the lens. Unlike conventional lens that were created through a cutting and polishing process, his lens used a completely different process. He melted and stretched pieces of glass moulding them into the desired shape. His lens were tiny but they were much more spherical than any of the lens used by the compound microscopes of the 17th century and as a result they had a far higher magnification.

Whereas compound microscopes could only magnify up to a certain point without distorting the image, Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes could magnify up to 500 times without losing distortion. Images that were only one or two microns  (one/thousandth of a millimetre) in size could be observed in razor-shape detail.

The Microscope

With lens that were superior to anything that was available in the world, Van Leeuwenhoek could set about building his simple microscopes constructed from metal ores which he melted down and moulded to form the metalwork of the scope.

Leewenhoek Microscope

With his custom-made microscope he could control the focus very precisely it also allowed him to move the samples around the scope with equal precision. Throughout his life, Van Leeuwenhoek created over 500 lenses and some 250 microscopes.

The Brave New World Of The Microscopic

What an amazing world Van Leeuwenhoek saw. Tiny, unknown animals were everywhere. They were in our water, in our food, abundant in everything.

In 1674 Van Leeuwenhoek saw the first protists (unicellular micro-organisms), infusoria. He saw the first bacteria in 1676 and the first human sperm a year later. He would become the first person to see life in water, the first to see the patterns of fibrous muscle, and also the first to see human red blood cells.

Royal Society Recognition

Van Leeuwenhoek realised quite quickly that in order to achieve recognition and to secure his place in history his work would have to gain credibility. He saw that his best hope of getting recognition was receiving approval from the British Royal Society. He sent many letters to the society detailing his discoveries and what he had seen.

Royal Society London

Initially, the two enjoyed a good relationship but this was mainly because Van Leeuwenhoek wasn’t straining convention and his initial drawings were close-ups of parts of bees. When Van Leeuwenhoek broached the subject of his discoveries of micro-organisms in 1676 the relationship became highly strained. It wasn’t until 1680, at Van Leeuwenhoek’s determined insistence, that the Royal Society accepted his account after sending over a team to the Netherlands to look through Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s Business Acumen

Van Leeuwenhoek’s business background helped to copper-fasten his legacy. He realised that if anyone discovered how easy it was to make his microscope lens – it would undermine his place in history. Therefore, he resolved to keep it a secret and instead told people of supposed countless hours that he would spend toiling away making his lens. In reality they were relatively easy to make and could be completed quite quickly.

Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek

In keeping it a secret, Van Leeuwenhoek added to their mystic. It would be over 200 hundreds years later, in the 1950’s, that people discovered how he made his lenses. It would take 100 hundred years for technology to surpass his lens and it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists had more powerful microscopes at their disposal.

Legacy

Antoine Van Leeuwenhoek created his own legacy. He designed something that on the surface appeared simple – yet no one had every done it before. His persistence in corresponding continuously with the Royal Society is a lesson in how you have to fight for your accomplishments and recognition.

His hard work paid off and Van Leeuwenhoek became known as ‘The Father Of Microbiology‘. He met countless celebrities, Kings and Queens who all wanted to seek tantalising glimpses into this alien universe, the place of the tiny.

He gave us access to a world that was invisible. Antoine Van Leeuwenhoek literally changed the world.


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