Discovering with Microscopes

Among the most important tools available to scientific researchers, particularly in the life sciences industry, is the microscope. The microscope was first invented around 1590, although it remains unclear who should be called the first person to make this vision technology breakthrough. There are a few main suspects: Hans Lippershey of Germany, whose career unfolded mainly in Holland during the Dutch Golden Age, and Zacharias Janssen, who may have developed an earlier prototype of the device alongside his brother Jans.

All three lived in Middelburg, one of the most important cities in Holland at the time, and the Janssen microscope soon fell into the hands of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who derived important insights from it that he used to improve his telescope designs. In that sense, before microscopy had even become mainstream science, it had already unleashed important innovations in vision technology. It would only get better from there!

Microscopy Drove Discoveries That Shaped Today’s World

The unaided human eye is capable of seeing objects approximately the width of a human hair – anything finer than this is effectively invisible. Although the microscope had the potential to revolutionize dozens of different fields, and ultimately did, the earliest scientific triumphs attributable to the device were related to biology, physiology, and medical science.

Early on during professional use of the microscope, scientists made important discoveries about the way blood circulates through the body and the relationship of the circulatory system to various body processes. Soon after this, the natural progress of optics and vision technology made it possible to directly observe individual organic cells.

Although it took quite some time, microscopy ultimately drove the development and acceptance of germ theory – which was a largely settled science by the 1860s thanks to pioneers like Louis Pasteur. For the first time, it became possible for ordinary people to understand the vectors of infectious diseases and the personal practices that could protect against them.

The Primacy of the Microscope and the Future of Life Sciences

Fundamental limits in the wavelength of light meant scientists were probing the far frontier of what conventional microscopes were capable of by the 1920s. This prompted the development of the first electronic microscopes in 1930s – thanks to the very short wavelength of the electron, it effectively served as a light source. This made astonishing magnification possible.

Recent innovations attributable to microscopy revolve, to a great degree, on genetics. In 1995, Edward Lewis, Christine Nusslein and Eric Wieschaus used then-advanced microscopes in key discoveries about the nature and structure of genes. For their contributions, they shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1995, an accomplishment made possible by microscopy.

The fundamental principles of the microscope continue to be applied to all forms of scientific endeavor, not only life sciences. Today, many forms of vision technology are advancing thanks to the lessons of microscopy. Modern electron microscopes are supporting the search for even more fundamental particles in the human body and throughout the very universe itself.


Vision in Life Sciences This content is part of the Vision in Life Sciences curated collection. To learn more about Vision in Life Sciences, click here.