A Legacy of Microscopy for Kids

by Guido Santacana, Puerto Rico

(Note: images with blue borders are clickable to show detail).

Just recently, while "browsing" through a used-things shop in cyber city, I found something that brought many memories about my beginnings in microscopy. It was an old A.C. Gilbert microscope set from the very early 1960's. In fact it was exactly the same first set that I ever had. As you can imagine, the set with the beautiful black microscope is now in my hands (see Fig 1 right).



It took some cleaning and a minor repair to have the microscope working properly but it was worth it. I placed my first slide on the stage of the recently refurbished 35 year old instrument and, while looking at the intricacies of a grass stem, I realized the reason why microscopy became so interesting for me as a kid. This microscope really performed well and,in addition, the set included everything you needed to do a reasonable set of 260 experiments described in a very well written and illustrated instruction manual. After an excellent description of the microscope and its operation, the manual gave clear and concise instructions on how to prepare different materials for observation. The areas covered went from biology to criminology. I remember working for hours with the set and using the manual as my only mentor.

The result of finding this microscope set has been the start of a small collection. Some more A.C. Gilbert sets have fallen in my hands (see Figure 2 above), as well as two other sets from the same period, a Lionel-Porter and Tasco (see Figure 3 below and Figure 4 right).



The common factor in all of these microscopes is optics. Most of them will not magnify over 450X to 500X which is reasonable. The lenses are made of good quality glass and not plastic like many of today's microscopes sold in toy stores. In other words, you can see clear images! I remember observing most of the common protozoa with my old Gilbert. In addition to the microscopes these kits included almost everything you needed to carry out most of the experiments in the manual.

A sample of the contents in a Tasco set (see Figure 5 below) included blank slides, prepared slides, Canada balsam, various stains, diatomaceus earth, alcohol, xylol, feathers, fish scales and even brine shrimp eggs. Other sets even included preserved animals. Polarizing filters were always there with a set of slides to be observed through crossed polars. You could work for years with one of these sets due to another important characteristic, the microscopes were rugged and could suffer the wear and tear that a 12 year old could provide them with.

I have not been able to find a microscope sold in a toy store that can even come close to the performance of these older instruments. The "toy" microscope sets of the 50's and 60's left a permanent impression on those who owned them and a legacy of interest in microscopy that has endured all these years regardless of the pathways that our lives may have taken.

On subsequent articles I will describe some of the more interesting sets in my growing collection.

Comments to the author Guido Santacana welcomed.

Editor's note: Read Guido's latest article on toy microscopes, the 'Amerscope Reflecting Microscope'.


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