Nineteenth Century British Microscopy

and Natural History: Part 8

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

  Visit the Micscape Library to read other parts in the series.


In Part 7, we looked at the Presidential Address of Lionel Beale before the Royal Microscopical Society and five years later in the April 1886 issue of the Journal, we find the Presidential Address of the Reverend W.H. Dallinger, LL.D., F.R.S. You may recall that Beale’s Address was a 21 page rant against evolution whereas the Reverend Dallinger’s Address is a 14 page discussion which begins with a brief consideration of the dangers which scientists encounter of being overwhelmed by the extraordinary advances in the sciences and the staggering accumulation of new knowledge–and this in 1886! The rest of the paper is a fairly technical investigation of the role of the cell nucleus in the physiology of a group of very small flagellates. He presents an interesting and sensible paper with no polemics against evolutionists and no bizarre theories of protoplasmic life forces as does Beale and I wonder if, at this time, he was any longer a member of the Society, since Dallinger cites Beale’s bete noir, T.H. Huxley.

“Wise and well-timed were the words of Professor Huxley in his address, so recently given, on quitting the chair of the Royal Society. ‘Of late years,’ he says, ‘it has struck me with increasing force, that those who have toiled for the advancement of science are in a fair way of being overwhelmed by the realization of their has become impossible for any man to keep pace with the progress of the whole of any important branch of science....It looks as if the scientific, like other revolutions, [is] meant to devour its own if the man of science of the future were condemned to diminish into a narrower and narrower specialist as time goes on.”

With characteristic Victorian optimism, Huxley goes on to state that he does not see this as a necessary consequence. He believes that a wonderful sort of rational balance is possible and that “it lies in the organization and extension of scientific education in such a manner as to secure breadth of culture without superficiality; and on the other hand, depth and precision of knowledge without narrowness.” A magnificent vision, but not one we have made much progress toward achieving. Our educational system is a shambles in which Beale’s anti-evolutionary spirit is alive and well; anti-intellectualism is rampant, and our “culture” isn’t even “bread and circuses” anymore, but has become “beer and football.” In spite of that our scientific and technological knowledge has continued to grow exponentially and in ways that have not served to advance Huxley’s lofty goals and we have indeed reached a tipping point where no one is any longer capable of truly being an expert beyond a fairly narrowly circumscribed set of subjects in a few intellectual disciplines. Today one is not simply a mathematician, but rather a topologist or number theorist; one is not simply a zoologist, but a protozoologist or parasitologist or molecular biologist with sub-specialities, in some cases limited to a small group of organisms. However, if there is so much anti-intellectualism, then why has there been the political and economic support that has made these advances possible? As a skeptic and cynic the answers to that question are not encouraging to me.

[WARNING–One of my political rants follows.

If you want to skip it, I’ll stick in a note

to indicate when I’m through ranting.]

1) Power. It has become cliché to say that knowledge is power, but as hackneyed as that phrase may seem, it contains a deep and disturbing truth. From the beginnings of recorded history, we have accounts of the attempts of humans to achieve military dominance over others and along with that goes an interesting history of the development of technology--swords, shields, armor, guns, cannons, airplanes, bombs, tanks, submarines, and on to the “super” weapons of today–nerve gases, biological bombs, thermonuclear devices. What this means, of course, is that those who have power will support new scientific and technological endeavors that will provide them with the means to maintain and increase their power.

2) Distraction. There is enormous potential to control and manipulate the masses by providing relatively inexpensive spinoffs of the military technologies. Cell phones, MP3 players, iPods, HDTVs, enormously complex computer games, CD players, DVD machines, and, of course, the internet can keep people so occupied that as long as they have enough money for basic necessities and these distractions, a frightening number of them are rendered mindless and thus harmless to those in power. Some argue that the internet is liberating and gives virtually everyone the opportunity to express his or her ideas. My response to this is to suggest that anyone who believes this idea needs to go online and read a lot of blogs and MySpace entries and also reflect honestly on how much influence online petitions to political figures have. The power of the people is ultimately an illusion.

Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”–Hermann Goering

How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don't think.”–Adolf Hitler

And, of course, there is the common political justification by means of appeal to a “Higher” authority:

I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.”–Adolf Hitler

Unfortunately, many scientists and engineers have been co-opted by rhetoric and have contributed both to the destructive and the creative sides of modern society.

3) Greed. In the first place, there are enormous profits to be made from militarism and, of course, a hot war is more profitable than a cold one, because it’s easier to argue that armaments are in constant need of being replaced, while new (and colossally expensive) ones are being developed. Can you really grasp that you are paying (as of now) 3.4 billion dollars for a single “super” submarine?! Vast amounts of money are invested in unneeded weapons; there is enormous waste; planned obsolescence, overcharging, cost overruns and it’s coming our of your wallets. The consolation prizes are more and more hi-tech gadgets and lower and lower prices. So, the military-industrial complex makes obscene profits from weaponry and related technologies such as satellites which provide the GPS systems for new cars. The technocratic industries make obscene profits from dealing not only with the government, but also by providing consumers with all of those enticing gizmos and gadgets that few of us need, but have been conditioned to want.

What Huxley didn’t anticipate was the degree to which science would become a tool of vain politicians and ruthless entrepreneurs who were and are quite willing to abandon any meaningful sense of human culture and human decency. Over half of the world’s population lives in poverty; an extremely tiny percentage lives opulently as did royalty and aristocrats in previous centuries. In the country which has more billionaires, it is absolutely vile, that we have families that are homeless, that children go to school hungry, that we continue to provide only mediocre education and health care. We have the means, the talent, and the knowledge to create a whole new dimension of human achievement and transform our society and its cultural institutions into something which the Victorians would have been proud of and would envy. Instead, we squander our resources on trivia and massively counter-productive anti-human follies.

There is, however a glimmer or two of hope. Because of the vast explosion of knowledge, a wide range of expertise, and frequently a need for complex and expensive equipment, scientific challenges are more and more being addressed by groups of individuals working as teams. These are often multi-disciplinary efforts and, as a consequence, all of the participants must, in order to successfully contribute, acquire synthetic perspectives which extend beyond their own restricted areas of specialization. There are projects in the cognitive sciences that have brought together psychologists, logicians, neuro-physiologists, endocrinologists, philosophers, and computer scientists, some of whom are specialists in artificial intelligence. Such interdisciplinary projects can be enormously exciting, productive, and create a kind of interconnectedness between individuals who might otherwise not interact and have the opportunity to benefit from such collaborations.

One can further hope that such cooperative efforts will contribute toward creating an ethos that resists the exploitation and manipulation by governments and corporations and which works to prevent the future scientific and technological development of applications specifically designed for the control or destruction of other human beings. Unfortunately right now there seem to be too many Dr. Strangeloves around.


With regard to the issue of scientific specialization in relation to larger synthetic contexts, Dallinger, like Huxley, recognizes the risk and the need for balance, and like a true Victorian remains optimistic.

“In other words, and from our own point of view, exact and exhaustive research in the narrowest fields must be encouraged and fostered; we must have increased ambition for it; but at the same time we must incite ourselves and all our fellow-workers to keep the small and special areas closely linked to, and in the strong broad light of, the inconceivably vaster realm of which it is not a separated fragment, but an essential and inalienable factor.”

There are two striking parallels between Dallinger and Beale. Both recognized the special contributions which microscopy could make in understanding natural processes and both were strong advocates for the newly developed high power lenses that provided not only greater magnification, but higher resolution. However, the Reverend Dallinger was content, quite unlike Beale, to address himself to concrete observations from his researches on the cell nucleus of four small flagellates two of which are shown in the accompanying plate. They are Tetramitus rostratus and Dallingeria Drysdali.

Clearly ego-wise, Dallinger was not shy and retiring in giving his own name for the genus of this latter organism and the name of his long-time friend and fellow researcher Drysdale for the species.

In Part 7, I included a photograph of Beale, so I’ll show you one of Dallinger here.

His presentation is purely scientific and is a clear straightforward account based on careful observation; there are no religious overtones or undercurrents and no speculative nonsense regarding “mysterious protoplasmic life forces” such as are to be found in Beale’s Presidential Address.

As always the summaries of current researches contain many interesting notes for specialists and the section on microscopy provides us with another look at Victorian ingenuity with regard to instrumentation and accessories. In this issue we find an instrument for the microscopist who is also a violinist, namely, Helmholtz’s Vibration Microscope.

Here is a small part of a description by Helmholtz himself:

“No complete mechanical theory can yet be given for the motion of strings excited by a violin bow, because the mode in which the bow affects the motion of the string is unknown. But by applying a peculiar method of observation proposed in its essential features by the French physicist Lissajous, I have found it possible to observe the vibrational form of individual points in a violin string, and from this observed form, which is comparatively very simple, to calculate the whole motion of the string, and the intensity of the upper partial ones.”

Forty years ago when I was an avid, but not rabid, audiophile, I invested in a heavy duty Marantz amplifier which had on the front panel a very small oscilloscope about 2 inches square which would display the Lissajous patterns of the music being played. That was at a time when my wife and I used to have an open house for the students and faculty of the Philosophy Department every Friday evening. They were all fascinated by these intricate little patterns and you have to remember, this was in the days before there were home computers with elaborate graphics.

There is also a photograph of a nice Reichert microscope with a “New Stage and Iris Diaphragm”. Later mechanical stages of this type usually had only two knobs, but Reichert was always innovative and this stage with its four knobs would serve either right- or left-handed users.

This iris diaphragm condenser is also of an interesting and innovative design.

Anyone who has ever tried to repair a mechanical stage or a leaf diaphragm knows just exactly how intricate these accessories are and how much skill and patience is required to get things working properly again.

The next microscope is one about which I have considerable ambivalence; it is Thoma’s Microscope for observing the circulation of the blood. The ones one usually sees are designed for observing blood circulation in the membrane of the foot of a living frog strapped down to a small platform ostensibly with no subsequent damage to the frog. However, as you can see from the image below, this has a large and fairly complex platform.

The reviewer tells us:

“This Microscope was designed by Prof. R. Thoma to observe the circulation of the blood (and especially inflammatory disturbances of the circulation, not in frogs, but in warm-blooded animals, using for the purpose the mesentery of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, &c. For this purpose a very large stage is of course necessary, with some kind of heating apparatus, and it is also desirable to be able to keep a stream of liquid constantly flowing over the part of the animal under observation,...”

I would hope the mention of “inflammatory disturbances” meant that this instrument was developed primarily with veterinary applications in mind and not for the satisfaction of idle curiosity which has brought so much suffering to humans and animals alike.

The late 19th Century was a period when there was also a great passion for photomicrography, but the equipment was elaborate and costly and the process of developing and printing was usually tedious and expensive, but some of the results were astonishingly good. Consider this diatom image taken at least as early as 1891.

This is the diatom Pleurosigma angulatum which is frequently used as an object to test the resolution of objectives. It is magnified 4900 diameters and was from a micrograph taken by Dr. R. Zeiss using an apochromatic objective with a numerical aperture of 1.30 and a projection eye-piece 4.

This was printed in the seventh edition of Carpenter’s The Microscope and Its Revelations. Carpenter died in 1886 and Dallinger edited this edition, the first seven chapters of which he entirely rewrote and enlarged and he also revised the entire work.

In this issue there is a brief description of a technique described as “Instantaneous Photo-micrography” which involved using a life-slide that was rather like micro-aquarium and, by means of an intense oxy-hydrogen light, the image of an Amoeba was projected onto the ground glass plate of the camera and the image was captured using a dry plate. These dry plate images could then be projected “magnified 10,000 diameters, [to] make a picture of about eight feet on the screen, so accurate that the granular appearance of the protoplasm could be distinctly seen.”

Oh, those clever Victorians!

However, as I said, very few could afford such apparatus and so drawings still played a dominant role in transmitting information. But as Hamlet says, “Aye, there’s the rub...” I, and I suspect a lot of other people, can’t draw; I flunked stick figure art class in 3rd grade. Once again , Victorian ingenuity prevails. The camera lucida was a relatively inexpensive device which involved using prisms in a small attachment placed over the eyepiece which allowed the observer to look through the microscope and see the image of the organism projected onto a sheet of paper below and then one could use a pencil and make a nice accurate drawing of the specimen.

This shows the basic working principle of the device.

Here you can see a closeup of one version of a camera lucida, namely, one designed by M.L. Malassez. However, as you well know, once an idea like this gets rolling, the passion to improve and extend the principles of the design are pursued relentlessly until a new kind of technology overtakes; in this case, cheaper, more compact and more sophisticated film cameras, polaroid cameras, video cameras, and now, of course, digital cameras. However, before the virtual disappearance of the camera lucida, major microscope manufacturers produced quite refined versions of this accessory. Several years ago, on eBay I bought a Zeiss version which as you can see is considerably more complex than the Malassez camera lucida and fits into the body of the microscope itself and not over the eyepiece.

The last third of this issue is organized in a rather peculiar fashion in that the summaries on microscopes and accessories and micro-technique are oddly intermingled and then there is a four page listing with extremely short remarks–a sentence or four–of articles and items from other microscopical publications. two of which caught my attention.

The first is titled: “Monkeying with the Microscope” and derives from the Indiana Medical Journal:

“Advice to readers not to purchase a Microscope to ‘furnish the office,’ nor to ‘mount scores of slides,’ which should not be done ‘unless for recreation or as a hobby.’”

What strange advice! It seems almost as though the author thinks that lay persons ( at least not patients) should not be privy to the sacred secrets of microscopes and microscopy.

The second item refers to the Journal of the New York Microscopical Society and is headed “Professional Microscopy.”

“There is, then a science of microscopy. Its mastery is particularly difficult, requiring rare sagacity and dexterity, and a lifetime of devotion, and its study has become a profession. This fact is not known to all, it having grown too fast for any but a watchful eye to keep pace with it. ‘There is no science of microscopy–the Microscope is only an instrument,’ was said in our hearing a few days ago. A gun is but an instrument; yet is there not a science of gunnery? and its acquisition is an indispensable part of the professional soldier’s education. The importance of a special and systematic course of instruction is gaining recognition in some of our best institutions of learning.”

I, for one, wish that the writer had come up with a more felicitous analogy–but maybe the NRA would like his comparison.

Finally, I want to look briefly at a few of the summaries on micro-technique, but I’ll skip the one titled: “Preparing Nasal Mucous Membrane.” There is a summary called: “Chloral Hydrate for Preserving Lower Animals” which is of interest in several respects. The method has been applied to hydroids, corals, nudibranchs, and nemertine or “ribbon” worms all of which are either highly contractile or tend to disassociate if preservation is attempted without narcotization. The organism is put in a vessel staining at least 100 c.c. of either saltwater or freshwater depending on whether it is marine or not. Some crystals of chloral hydrate are added to the water taking great care that none of them come in direct contact with the organism. Additional crystals are added at intervals of 10 to15 minutes. Narcotization is complete when the probing of the animal with a dissecting needle no longer produces any contraction or other reaction. At that point, the specimen should be immediately transferred to strong alcohol.

The issue of narcotizing specimens so that one can study them in an extended state is one that amateurs and professionals alike have struggled with for nearly two centuries. It is a matter that has occupied me off and on and for many years has been a source of frustration. It is astonishing the number of substances and methods which have been tried–everything from near boiling water to deadly poisons and, of course, drugs that have a narcotic or anesthetic affect. The reason for all of the efforts is naturally a consequence of the great diversity of organisms and the enormous variety of their physiological responses to different chemicals and alterations of their environments.

Chloral hydrate seems to have enjoyed a certain popularity for a time, but now it is almost unobtainable for amateurs. For unscrupulous, underworld types, it used to be the basis for the classic Micky Finn. They would slip some into a person’s drink--and if they got the dosage right–wham!, said person would pass out.

Fortunately, for us amateurs, there is an easily obtainable, inexpensive substitute at your nearest drugstore, supermarket, or discount store. I mean a substitute as an anesthetic for aquatic invertebrates, not as a substitute for making a Mickey Finn. The substance I am referring to is Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) and the stuff you get at the store has some impurities that make it work better than the high grade purified chemical you could get from a scientific supply house for more money.

Another favorite of the Victorian microscopists was cocaine hydrochloride; however now that’s a severely restricted substance reserved for celebrities and lawyers.

An intriguing note “”Cultivation of Pollen-Grains” outlines an experiment which I want to try out. The pollen grains are collected from Tradescantia (Wandering Jew) which is a common household plant and is easily cultivated. The pollen should be taken from flowers which have been blooming for a while. A few pollen grains are deposited on a cover glass to which is then added a drop of a saturated solution of cane sugar. A great advantage of using Tradescantia is that when so treated the “pollen-tube begins to develope [sic] in a very few minutes, and within an hour becomes many times longer than the grains, and has received the contents.”

Between observations, the cover glass can be placed in a most chamber which you can make from a Petri dish with a piece of most blotting paper lining the bottom.

Finally, there is a note on “Meate’s New Medium of High Refractive Index.” This involves using bromine and sulphur which is “boiled gently” until the sulphur is dissolved, then powdered metallic arsenic was added and the whole mixture boiled until the arsenic was dissolved. It’s no wonder that the average life span at the beginning of the 20th Century was only 47 years!

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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