Nineteenth Century British Microscopy

and Natural History: Part 9

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA

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


This time we’re going to look at the October 1889 issue of the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society. Immediately after the table of contents, there is a plate labeled “Plate X: New Peritrichous Infusoria from the United States.” However, there is no corresponding article so, at first, I thought that some pages were missing, but then I found a note informing me that this plate had been inadvertently omitted from the August 1889 issue, which unfortunately I don’t have. However, it is such a fine plate, done by the superb illustrator Tuffen West, that I will include it here for you to see.

The drawings are remarkable in that they show the striations on the outer envelopes, the coronas of cilia, vacuoles, the curved “C”-or “S”- shaped macronuclei, a clear indication that the species # 1,2,3, and 4 are colonial peritrichs, and in # 7 the myoneme (spasmoneme) or contractile fibril is shown.

As usual, this issue is chockful of interesting reviews and I’ll mention some of those which caught my fancy and there are also some remarkable bits of Victorian apparatus as well as a brief article on a new species of rotifer which we shall begin with. It has the slightly forbidding title: “Description of a New Species of Megalotrocha” by Surgeon V. Gunson Thorpe, R.N.

Thorpe was serving aboard the H.M.S. Paluma from 1886-89 during a survey of the east coast of Queensland and the Great Australian Barrier Reef and he gives us a wonderful description of part of the area.

“The localities in which Rotifera are to be found in Queensland are few and far between; water except at certain times of the year, being scarce in that tropical climate. In May, soon after the rainy season, one occasionally comes across, in the midst of the dense Australian bush, a charmingly secluded little pond, shaded on all sides by Eucalypti, grass trees and acacias, with lilies, ferns, and orchids growing in great profusion around ; brightly coloured dragon-flies and other insects flitting across its surface; parakeets [sic] and cockatoos screaming overhead. The water of such a pool teems with various species of Floscularia, Melicerta conifera and ringens, Limnias annulatus, Brachionus militaris and many other kinds. Three months afterwards, the same place may be found completely dried up, and the ground fissured in all directions by the fierce heat of the sun; and yet, in the following year, the same locality is as prolific as ever.”

This splendid description gives us an insight into the extraordinary adaptability and tenacity of certain life forms. These organisms, over millions of years of evolution, have developed ways of surviving and even thriving in what we might, in many respects, regard as conditions that are hostile to life.

There is a very nice plate of the new species which I will include here.

“Explanation of Plate XII.

a, dorsal surface; b, ventral surface; c, side view; d, corona contracted; e, view of head from above; f, mastax; g, male.”

For the feminist microscopists, it should be noted that the male is very much smaller than the female. It should be further noted that this organism is colonial or perhaps it is better to accept Thorpe’s description: “Cluster spherical, free-swimming, consisting of many adults and their young.”

Thorpe devoted two full pages to a careful, impressive, and knowledgeable description of the morphology of this organism. Clearly he knew his way around the rarified world of rotifers.

Now let’s take a look at some of the reviews of research going on at the time.

There is a brief note titled: “Cultivation of Bacillus tuberculosis on Potato.” I offer the following advice: Don’t try this at home!

Another note follows which is titled: “New and rapid method of staining the capsule of Bacillus pneumoniae.” I offer the following advice: Don’t try this at home!

There is also a brief note announcing the publication of Wallace’s book on the theory of Natural Selection for which he claims “the position of being the advocate of pure Darwinism.”

Nearly an entire page is devoted to a review of the article “Development of Nail in Human Foetus” which focuses on the nail of the thumb. More excitement follows in Mr. Beddard’s article on the “Structure of Gaafian Follicle in Didelphys” which is a genus of Opossum.

As usual, the section of reviews of researches on invertebrates is full of fascinating tidbits. For example we learn in the article on the “Secretion of Sulphuric Acid by Marine Gastropods” that there are certain marine snails and slugs who like to nosh on echinoderms which tend to have lots of calcareous plates, spines, and spicules which discourage most creatures from trying to make a meal of them. So, amazingly, these gastropods have evolved a means of converting the calcium carbonate to calcium sulfate which is readily broken up and excreted thus exposing the tissue of the echinoderms so that the grastropods can dine on them. The acidity level to accomplish this is not insignificant and very likely has the additional advantage of helping to protect the gastropods from predators, since a mouthful of sulfuric acid is generally not regarded as a good way to begin a repast–rather like expecting to have a fine French meal and ordering an expensive bottle of Chateau Margaux which ends up tasting like vinegar.

There is also a review of an article devoted to another group of mollusks: “Nudibranciata of Liverpool District.” And you thought that the Liverpudlians only claim to fame was The Beatles.

A bit further along, there is a fascinating little note on “Insects supposed to be distasteful to Birds.” This review is only one paragraph and raises some serious doubts about popular beliefs on this subject, so I shall quote it in its entirety.

“Mr. A.G. Butler, who keeps a large number of birds, has observed that no insect in any stage was ever refused by all birds; what one bird refused, another would eat. He is of the opinion that metallic colours are not a source of protection to birds; a bird knows nothing of the nature of metal, but whatever is brilliant and shining he makes for at once to see whether it is good to eat. It appears to him that certain species of Lepidoptera and of other insects may become abundant in certain years owing to the temporary scarcity of their enemies, but they never enjoy perfect immunity from destruction. The spider-like appearance of the larva of Stauropus is not a protection against birds, for, if there is anything that all insectivorous birds love it is a spider. The sting-like tentacles of the larva of Dicranura vinula are likewise no protection; three young nightingales never hesitated for a moment to use the tentacles as handles to assist in knocking the life out of the caterpillar before eating it.”

If we accept Mr. Butler’s account, it is instructive in several respects.

1) It reminds us that we are always well-advised when we are inclined to make sweeping generalization to instead qualify, delimit and stipulate the specific rage of application for our remarks. (How’s that for a sweeping generalization?)

2) It also reminds us that we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions on the basis of a few limited observations.

3) As well, we are reminded that we should always actively look for exceptions to any tentative thesis we are formulating, especially when a large, diverse group of organisms is involved.

There are many other notes regarding new species of bryozoa, parasitic arthropods, colonial pelagic tunicates and on and on, but now I am going to shift to the sections on microscopes and apparatus where we have plates that again reveal the ingenuity of Victorian microscopists.

At first Holmes’s Isophotal Binocular Microscope looks rather ordinary, but if you look at the base of the right tube where it joins the stand, there is a small gap just below the ring. The tubes are made in such a manner that they can rock from side to side on a socket. What this meant is that the instrument could be used both as a binocular and monocular microscope, since this clever arrangement allowed one of the tubes to be aligned with the optical axis when it was employed as a monocular microscope.

Why anyone would want to do this, I am not quite sure. However, it gets even better; for the truly lazy louts like myself, one could acquire a second body tube with three tubes.

The outer ones are aligned with the binocular prisms and the central one is for monocular examination. The whole thing seems to me rather awkward and unnecessary but, what do I know? Nonetheless, I do have to admit that it is ingenious.

Next in line is “Blix’s Microscopes for measuring the radii of the curved surfaces of the eye.” I am assuming that this had an application for making eyeglasses. Whenever I go to my optometrist, I am impressed with all of the expensive optical equipment that swings in and out. Nonetheless, for 1889 the Blix microscope is rather impressive itself.

Another ingenious piece of apparatus was the McIntosh Microscope-Attachment. A major challenge in the 19th Century was achieving proper intense illumination for photography or projection at lecture and this was especially a problem with opaque specimens. At this time, McIntosh cleverly contrived an apparatus which could use solar illumination, electric, or oxy-hydrogen, this latter as you can imagine could be rather dangerous. In fact, precautions had to be taken to diffuse the heat so as to avoid damaging or melting parts of the apparatus.

In the figure below, we see the mirror and microscope apparatus.

Directly below is a drawing of the stereopticon for projection

followed by a figure showing the stereopticon where the microscope can be swung into the light path for projection. Certainly, for those times, a useful, but rather cumbersome device.

A much simpler instrument, but one which has a certain elegance of design, is an old Italian microscope which is the Museo Copernicano in Rome.

Oh, how complacent, smug, and supercilious we become when we ignore history. I present for your delectation:

This seemingly insignificant tube device was invented by Dr. J. Taylor as an aid to prosecute violation of the Butter Laws of the District of Columbia. It was known as an Oleomargariscope. I had always thought that oleomargarine was a post-World War II creation and became popular sometime in the 1950s. I can remember my mother buying sticks of white margarine which would come with packets of yellow coloring so that one could mix them up and create the visual impression of butter.

Dr. Taylor’s instrument was a simplified polariscopic microscope which could be used in trials, so that the judge, the jury, and the attorneys could all see for themselves whether a particular sample was pure butter or not. The reviewer describes the process as follows:

“When the object is held up to a strong light, if the butter is pure and free from adulteration, an even green or red colour only will be observed, depending upon the character of the selenite used. If ‘oleo’ or lard is used instead of pure butter, a fine display of prismatic colours will be observed.”

For those who wanted to be on the cutting edge of technological innovation, there was the Radiguet battery and lamp of Professor Engelmann as seen below:

Generating electricity through a battery was in 1889 no simple matter and, for that matter, it still isn’t’ today. Now there are hundreds of kinds of batteries and we are so accustomed to them as a part of our everyday lives that we hardly give them a second thought except when our TV remote stops functioning or the flashlight won’t turn on.

To power this eccentric-looking bit of apparatus, each cell or element consisted of “a stoneware jar, a carbon cylinder, a porous pot, and an amalgamating support reservoir”. In addition, it involved mercury with traces of zinc, copper and sodium bichromate. Few of us today would stoop to such complicated and primitive means to generate a bit of EMG (Electro-Motive Force) which the reviewer estimates to be about 2 volts!

Today, because we can mass produce a remarkable variety of batteries in astoundingly compact forms, we are no longer much impressed by them. However, if they were instantaneously all to disappear, we would certainly notice then. Your laptop computer wouldn’t work, no flashlights, your car wouldn’t run and you might have to rifle through one of your drawers to find an old watch that you could wind. We are often so smug about our wonderful technologies, but pick out 10 people and ask them to explain to you how batteries work and, I would be surprised, if even one of them comes close. (No fair picking 10 electrical engineers or technicians for a battery manufacturing company.) In part, this is the problem of living in a culture which actively promotes “dynamic obsolescence” (waste). People are mightily proud of their TV sets, but only a fraction of 1% of individuals who own one understands, even vaguely, how they work. And when it breaks down–why, you simply call a repairman. No way! Or at least almost never anymore. Many electronic devices are now sealed units which are not designed for repair. Even if a large device like a TV can be repaired, the cost is often prohibitive, especially relative to all of the technological improvements and updates which can be found in a brand new set.

As I write this, I am sitting at the kitchen table keenly aware of the issue of technological dependence. It has been raining for over 24 hours and at 2:00 this afternoon the emergency sirens went off. I turned on the television to the local community channel to learn that the National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for Laramie. There were strong wind gusts, dark clouds, heavy rain, and hail, so that now, four hours later, our lawn looks like it was covered in snow. However, that snow came a few hours later–-3 or 4 inches of it. Ten minutes after I turned the TV on, the power went out and, of course, the furnace is electrically controlled and the outside temperature is 44 degrees F. The power company reports simply tell us–the telephones are still working–that the outage was a result of wind damage from a tornado which touched down on the eastern and northern edges of Laramie and that crews were out working to restore power. I am writing this by the feeble light trickling in through the windows. Also, I should mention that we have an electric stove, so I suspect we will be having a cold dinner tonight. O.K., O.K., it’s not like what’s going on in Burma in the aftermath of the cyclone nor is it like the disaster of the earthquake in China, but it is inconvenient and it underscores our dependence on technologies over which we have virtually no control. Without electricity, no hot meal, the furnace doesn’t work, no TV (and the British Antiques Road Show is on tonight), no hot water (our hot water heater is electric too), no microscopy since my illuminators are all electric, no reading without lamps. I have now had to turn on a large flashlight here to be able to continue giving you this minute by minute captivating report.–Ah, what we suffer in the name of science! All of this is, of course, trivial, but whenever a power outage occurs, it underscores for me a sense of loss of control, a kind of impotence, and an unpleasant realization of how dependent we are on the whims of nature, technological failures, and those humans who desire to disrupt our comfort and complacency through violent actions.

Personally, I would like to see us go back to a modernized version of an old model–the farm (prior to mega-conglomerate agribusiness). I would like to have lived in a house which was largely independent of grids from the outside. I would like to have been able to generate my power primarily from the sun, wind, and water.

If we would start to de-urbanize and use technologies to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency, we might be able to improve the health of the planet and achieve saner lifestyles for ourselves. Ah well, all of that will have to wait until I am elected Emperor of Earth.

Another handy bit of apparatus is the microtome and microtomy is essentially a subdiscipline of microscopy. Microtomes are designed to cut extremely thin sections of botanical and animal tissues. A Mr. J.D. King produced a compact instrument for such purposes.

The reviewer tells us that: “Mr. J.D. King claims for his microtome no superiority over other first-class instruments for ordinary histological work in animal tissues, but it is designed especially for hard service in botanical work or for cutting any hard material which requires absolute rigidity in the instrument.”

Notice how cleverly that is phrased: “ no superiority over other first-class instruments...”! [Emphasis added] Mr. King designed two versions of this microtome: #2 which could be set to cut sections of 1/2000th of an inch #1 which could be set to cut a very impressive 1/10000th of an inch or approximately 2.5 microns. However, setting the instrument to cut such thin sections was by no means a guarantee that you would get them.

Much depends upon the proper preparations of the specimens, the embedding techniques, and the use of the appropriate embedding medium. The science of microtomy is both demanding and challenging, but successful results are highly rewarding.

I have decided against discussing the notes on technique in this issue as they are either too specialized or overly elaborate to be of much interest to the general reader. Some of the methods employed have been supplanted either by new reagents and procedures or by new technologies. As I read through some of the more elaborate procedures, I was once again impressed by the dedication to detail and the pertinacity of the Victorian microscopists. Some of these techniques demanded an almost fanatical dedication. Me–I’m lazy; if a procedure involves more than 3 steps and takes longer than 15 minutes, then I go take a nap.

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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