The Early Microscopes


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(a) Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) is credited as being the first person to observe microbes, including bacteria, which he called “animalcules” and “wee little beasties.” (b) Even though van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes were simple microscopes (as seen in this replica), they were more powerful and provided better resolution than the compound microscopes of his day. (c) Though more famous for developing the telescope, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was also one of the pioneers of microscopy. (credit b: modification of work by “Wellcome Images”/Wikimedia Commons)

OpenStax Microbiology

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, sometimes hailed as “the Father of Microbiology,” is typically credited as the first person to have created microscopes powerful enough to view microbes. Born in the city of Delft in the Dutch Republic, van Leeuwenhoek began his career selling fabrics. However, he later became interested in lens making (perhaps to look at threads) and his innovative techniques produced microscopes that allowed him to observe microorganisms as no one had before. In 1674, he described his observations of single-celled organisms, whose existence was previously unknown, in a series of letters to the Royal Society of London. His report was initially met with skepticism, but his claims were soon verified and he became something of a celebrity in the scientific community.

While van Leeuwenhoek is credited with the discovery of microorganisms, others before him had contributed to the development of the microscope. These included eyeglass makers in the Netherlands in the late 1500s, as well as the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who used a compound microscope to examine insect parts. Whereas van Leeuwenhoek used a simple microscope, in which light is passed through just one lens, Galileo’s compound microscope was more sophisticated, passing light through two sets of lenses.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s contemporary, the Englishman Robert Hooke (1635–1703), also made important contributions to microscopy, publishing in his book Micrographia (1665) many observations using compound microscopes. Viewing a thin sample of cork through his microscope, he was the first to observe the structures that we now know as cells. Hooke described these structures as resembling “Honey-comb,” and as “small Boxes or Bladders of Air,” noting that each “Cavern, Bubble, or Cell” is distinct from the others (in Latin, “cell” literally means “small room”). They likely appeared to Hooke to be filled with air because the cork cells were dead, with only the rigid cell walls providing the structure.

Robert Hooke used his (a) compound microscope to view (b) cork cells. Both of these engravings are from his seminal work Micrographia, published in 1665.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: