The Classic 1200x Microscope Revisited

by Guido Santacana, Puerto Rico


  The title contains the very words that bring fear into any amateur microscopist when approached by a newcomer or parents of a child who have just made the acquisition of the infamous 1200x microscope. They want you to show them how to use it. You don't have the heart to tell them the truth about their very powerful instrument that came with such a nice set of lab tools. Maybe there's a solution.

   Why is this situation so common? All these high power microscope sets are available in many toy or hobby stores. The prices usually fall in the more than acceptable range and the sets are very well presented in their boxes with some of the microscopes being quite impressive. Now, how we deal with this situation is very important since it may bring another member to our ranks or we will lose him/her forever. There are several things that we have to realize when we are presented with this dilemma. The people who bought the microscope thought they were doing the right thing. If you discourage them by making their instrument look like the devil incarnate, you'll probably get them upset and end their interest. So, try to see what can be done with the little 1200x microscope. In my experience I have found that some of these instruments can work at low powers and show some very acceptable images. They are not top-notch quality images but if they serve to promote an interest in microscopy some ground has been gained. As you explain to the owners of the 1200x classic that it is better to use the lower powers and show them how much they can see, eventually you will be feeding a curiosity and promoting the eventual acquisition of a better instrument. Remember that some of the individuals or parents bought this microscope not only because of its allure but also because of the price. They don't know that it would have been better to get a used student or professional microscope. To educate them in this matter is our job but we cannot start this education using discouraging comments about their new acquisition.

  As many of you know I own a small collection of older microscope sets dating back to the 1930s and up to the 60s. What I have found is that in most of the sets that I own the microscopes are very usable with some of them providing quite reasonable images that will probably look more clear to a 10 or 12 year old. Even diatom structure can be resolved with most of the little instruments at low power. Some of these microscopes even have substage diaphragms, color filters and polarizers. In fact a couple of my sets have instructions that were written by renowned professional scientists. Even today there are some sets in which the microscopes reach a reasonable quality level at low power.

  In conclusion my recommendations for approaching the classic “I bought this Very High Power 1200x Microscope” are as follows:

1. Let them bring the microscope and look at it as if you were looking at your new phase contrast Zeiss. By all means don't look discouraged!
2. Test the microscope at low power with a very common subject and see if it does a fair job. It probably will. So there's a little color fringe but can you see the facets in a fly's eye?
3. Tell them about the limitations of the microscope and about the fact that we use the lowest possible power to observe. High power, even in our microscopes, is used only occasionally.
4. Instruct them on the proper use of their microscope and check the manual that came with the set to see if it contains instructions for simple preparations.
5. If the instructions are not good at all then instruct them on some simple preparations so that they can have a head start.
6. Tell them to come back for more instruction and in the second visit show them a simple professional or student microscope. Eventually they will ask questions about upgrading their instrument.

Using this approach I think that we can come a long way into promoting microscopy among our young and even some of our old. I started my microscopy days 36 years ago with a 300X power child's microscope. It had its limitations but with it I saw my first protozoa, onion-skin cells, insect wings, brine shrimp, hydra etc. etc. There were no instructors or instructions other than the simple books that came with the microscope but I am sure that if an adult would have told me that the microscope was no good it would have been put away and a whole life of having fun, learning and probably even a career in science would have been lost. At that time a 300x small microscope in a wood box with four slides was all I could afford.

All comments to the author Guido Santacana are welcomed.

Editor's note: The author's Micscape articles on older toy microscopes are as follows:


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Published in the December 2001 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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