Some favourite plates from Victorian microscopy books
Compiled by Dave Walker, UK
Like many microscopy enthusiasts, I've acquired over the years a selection of popular Victorian microscopy and natural history books from the late 19th and early 20th century. If I see one in a bookshop for a few pounds, I invariably can't resist buying it. These books do have a great appeal; they often have detailed observations in a conversational style which is not readily adopted in modern biology books. The plates in particular can be attractive and very often finely drawn or photographed.
Below I enclose a selection of plates from some of the author's favourite books, with some short notes on their particular appeal.
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Notes on sourcing books: Most of the books mentioned below are quite common on the second hand market and relatively inexpensive. Bookshops specialising in microscopy and/or natural history books often have some in stock. e.g. Savona Books in the UK (catalogue online). Second hand bookshops worldwide can be searched online for specific titles on web sites like www.abe.com and www.bibliofind.com.
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This is one of the attractive plates in 'Marvels of Pond Life' by H J Slack (London, 1891). I like the combination of artistry and finely observed detail.
This book has a chapter for each month of the year describing the types of micro-organism that can be found in a pond. As well as a small selection of colour plates, the book has plenty of neat line drawings.
Plate facing page 120. 'Plumatella repens (Single Polypide enlarged).'
It would be hard to pick just one favourite plate from Professor L C Miall's book 'The natural history of aquatic insects', (London, a 1912 reprint; 1st edition preface dated 1895).
For the naturalist interested in the aquatic insects and their life cycles, its definitely a book worth seeking out. The text is very detailed but easy to read and with refs. to papers of the time. My copy was very tatty externally (but fine otherwise) so it was priced at 50 pence (£0.50).
Plate right is Figure 1 showing the whirligig beetle Gyrinus marinus.
A book on insects with detailed figures in the text is 'On the senses, instincts and intelligence of animals with special reference to insects' by Sir John Lubbock (London, 1888). It's a fascinating insight into the state of knowledge of this subject in the late 19th century.
Figure 73. Head of Gnat.
'Hidden Beauties of nature' by Richard Kerr (London, 4th edition, undated ca. 1900?) is a well illustrated overview of some of the subjects that delight the microscopist, such as sea urchins, diatoms and radiolaria.
Some of the plates are particularly attractive as they have been drawn on a darkfield which gives them a luminous quality.
An example is shown right. Figure 3. 'Euplectella suberea'.
This rather neat set-up to create a gravity fed fountain in a freshwater aquaria must have duly impressed the Victorian naturalist's fellow enthusiasts when they visited. But I suspect such a design wouldn't be very practical in a modern house with a reservoir of water (labelled A), precariously sitting on top of the bookcase and overflow jug beneath the table.
Figure 38 from 'Freshwater aquaria' by the Rev. Gregory C Bateman, (2nd edition, 1904; !st edition preface is dated 1890).
This is an impressive collection of pond samples in a fine array of containers. I particularly like the bell jars, which are rarely seen today. How many enthusiasts nowadays have a family understanding enough to allow such a large collection of samples (possibly in varying states of stagnation) to be tolerated in the house or even outhouse!
I'm intrigued by what appears to be a medieval weapon on a hook (left hand side of the table), next to some fearsome looking pincers.
Frontispiece from 'Ponds and Rock Pools with hints on collecting for and the management of the micro-aquarium' by Henry Scherren (1st edition 1894, London).
'Mosses and liverworts' by T H Russell (London, 1910, new revised edition; 1st edition's preface is dated 1908). The macroscopic and microscopic features of these fascinating plants are well described and illustrated with thirteen plates at the back. There's a sheet of fine tissue paper in front of each plate, which seems to give a book a more classy feel!
Plate Va. 'Some of the various forms assumed by the peristome of a moss capsule'.
I recently found this copy of 'Rust, Smut, Mildew and Mould. An introduction to the study of microscopic fungi' by M C Cooke (6th edition, 1898) in a local bookshop. This is a group of fungi I've been meaning to learn more about and the book has lots of practical advice on what types of microfungi grow on common flowering plants. So I look forward to some microscopic fungi forays later this year.
The 16 plates are by J E Sowerby.
Plate III right shows a selection of microscopic fungi.
The image right is a favourite and makes me smile every time I see it. A photomicrography set-up to be proud of! The photographer can be seen holding a long loop of string which goes via a pulley to the fine focus of the microscope.
This Micscape article has some notes on the set-up and photographic techniques as described in Richard Kerr's book.
Figure 8 from 'Nature through microscope and camera' by Richard Kerr (London, 1905). The 65 photomicrographs were taken by Arthur E Smith.
The high power photos of resolved diatoms in Richard Kerr's book above are stunning. But the low magnification images are equally impressive.
Low power photomicrography can be as challenging as that at high power, because of the difficulties with achieving even lighting of macroscopic sized subjects.
Figure 24 from the book shown right is a very well laid out prepared slide of a gnat (Culex pipiens) at x8; note the very even lighting and flatfield.
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Note on images: The plates are from books at least 90 years old, so should be out of copyright. They are intentionally shown at a size less than commercially usable on Micscape, a non-profit making magazine, for interest. They must not be further distributed or used elsewhere off-line or online for commercial purposes.
Published in the January 2002 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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