The Messter/Berlin Universal Bacteria Microscope

by Fritz Schulze, Canada


Early in 2007 when I planned our trip to Germany and mentioned this to one of my old friends there who was on the visiting list, I got a letter back saying that a nice old microscope was waiting for me. It had belonged to his father-in-law who perished in WW II and he felt it would find a more deserved place in my collection than gathering dust in his basement. A picture of a fairly unusual brass stand was included. What more of an incentive did I need to speed up our trip?

As it happened I never met my friend due to conflicting travel schedules, but he arranged with my brother to leave the instrument there for me to take home. Since then I have learned that it had belonged to my friend’s father-in-law’s uncle who was a ship’s surgeon in the China Trade (others of the family were missionaries in China).

The manufacturer is Eduard Messter of Berlin, Germany. Unfortunately very little seems to be known about him. Brian Bracegirdle in his book “Notes on Modern Microscope Manufacturers” shows but three lines, listing the address and that “the catalogues of this firm are lengthy…and contain some microscopes” 1.

The optician Eduard Gustav Colmar Messter founded his Optical-Mechanical Institute in Berlin N.W., Friedrich-Strasse 94-95, in 1859. In 1868 he moved to Friedrich-Strasse 99. Still later, ca. 1914, the address changed to Schiffbauerdamm 18, Berlin N.W.6. His wife was Marie Wilhelmine.

On November 1866 their second child Oskar Eduard was born. Oskar followed his father’s career: after finishing school he received his training as optician in his father’s workshop and as an unpaid volunteer at the optical-mechanical workshop of Paul Waechter, Berlin-Friedenau (another well-known German microscope maker), and joined his father’s business in 1891. He took over the firm in 1894 (the dates differ somewhat in the available sources). Oskar Messter became the German pioneer in cinematography, is considered the inventor of the portable camera, the aerial camera, and the movie theatre. He started the first newsreel of WW I in 1914.

Eduard Messter also seems to have had some other interests: he owned and became famous for the largest dog kennel in Northern Germany, breeding Great Danes (1878 – 1890)2.

A catalogue of the firm dated 1896 lists “Ophthalmological, Laryngological, and Electro-medical Instruments”. Price list No. 40, dated 1914, lists “Microscopes and Ancillary Items”.3

Few of Messter’s microscopes are known to exist, yet the serial number of one rather modern, all black stand in the Billings Collection (Second Edition 1974) 4 is 38516. He must, therefore, have produced quite a number of instruments. The Catalogue of the Microscopy Collections at the Science Museum, London (Brian Bracegirdle)5 doesn’t even list Messter. Dr. Timo Mappes, Karlsruhe, Germany,6 has two models in his private collection, one similar but without the eyepiece turret and one “Abattoir” or trichinae-microscope. According to Dr. Mappes there is one more Messter instrument in the Deutsches Technikmuseum, Berlin. One Messter microscope of almost identical design, again without eyepiece turret but with a coarse focusing control, was auctioned off by the Dorotheum, Vienna,7 in October 2007, for 685€.

Messter’s price list describes this instrument as follows:

This new patented Universal Bacteria Microscope guarantees also the less experienced microscopist an easy and sure way of finding bacteria and other objects. The particular advantageous design of this instrument eliminates the time consuming changing of oculars and objectives for the various magnifications by means of coarse focusing and micrometer screw, as well as the difficult searching for the finest objects (micrococcae, bacillae etc.) at the highest magnifications, and, therefore, enables even the less experienced to perform his examinations with this latest Bacteria Microscope (G.M. No.1045) not only faster but also more exactly and more comfortably than with any other instrument”.

It goes on to describe how the objectives are precisely adjusted so that the image stays in focus for all nine magnifications and that the quick-lift lever facilitates the changing of the objectives and the changing of slides particularly of those with thick lacquer-rings.

According to Dr. Wilhelm Kaiser in his book “Die Technik des Modernen Microscopes” 8 he finds after testing this instrument that it is well worth its price of 130 fl Austrian currency (incl. freight and duty).

The instrument, dated approximately from before 1868, appears very tall for a European-style microscope: 375mm minimum and 405mm with draw tube extended. This is because the eyepiece turret adds about 60mm in height. It weighs ca. 4kg. Apart from a few spots indicating wear, the paintwork is in excellent condition. The base is a black lacquered cast-iron horseshoe with a 40mm spur at the back for stability. At the top of a tuning-fork shaped vertical stanchion is the hinge which allows the instrument to be tilted. This hinge features a tongue at the bottom that fits neatly downward into a space between the column halves and seems ready made – or originally intended – to carry the mirror gimbal. However, in this case the plane/concave mirror is mounted on a separate slotted swing arm and can actually be moved vertically in the slot. The stage, 100 x 105mm, is covered by a thin layer of hard rubber and has two long stage clips. On its underside it carries a swing-out condenser sleeve (28.7mm I.D.) with a simple unmarked condenser with iris diaphragm. An extension of the stage carries the limb that incorporates part of the fine focusing mechanism which consists of an equal-arm lever (36mm each), one end of which is acted upon by a fine ungraduated screw (pitch 0.5mm), the other moves the objective turret up or down, the vertical range being about 6mm. Interestingly, this arrangement gives a 1:1 ratio and not a reduction as expected. There is no coarse focusing rack-and-pinion adjustment on this microscope, however, the said quick-lift lever protrudes 15mm at the back and by pushing it down, the objectives can be lifted easily and sufficiently to change the specimen.

The objective revolver is rather neat, only 45mm in diameter, and carries the three slim objectives which have a female thread of 13.5 x 0.5mm. They are a #3, a #7, and an oil immersion. All three are mounted on individual intermediate tubes of different length in order to parfocalize them. Within the main tube is a large spring held in place by three screws visible on the outside to counteract the fine screw. This tube also carries the distinctive identifying plate: Ed. Messter Berlin, N.W. Friedrichstr. 94 u.95 . There is no serial number. The keyed ungraduated draw tube extends 32mm and carries at its upper end the unusal eyepiece turret of 66mm diameter with its three 24mm I.D. sleeves for the Huyghens eyepieces #1, #3, and #4. Both the objective and the eyepiece turret move smoothly – almost like new.

The carrying case is in form of a horizontal box with lock and key and measures 195 x 420 x 130mm high. A handle is fitted to one end. An identical identifying plate is attached above the lock. Inside the case are fittings for two condensers (one occupied by a diaphragm sleeve 12mm I.D. ) and two diaphragm inserts (missing). Beneath those fittings is a small box-space with a loose lid for accessories (which would fall out when the box is carried by the handle!).

The #3 objective consists of two components with a stop in between. The magnification is 7x. The front lens has a diameter of 6mm and the free working distance is 7mm.

The high #7 has three components with a stop above and a magnification of ca. 35x. Its front lens has a diameter of 3mm and the free working distance is >0.1mm.

The oil immersion (engraved: Oel I ) has 4 components (their individual knurls are covered by an additional outer sleeve) with a stop above. The magnification is also 35x, which is somewhat puzzling, I expected it to be around 90x. The front lens has a diameter of ca. 1mm and a working distance of >1mm.

The three eyepieces # 1,#3, and #4 have magnifications 3, 5, and 7x respectively.

As far as I could establish the magnifications range from 21x to 280x and the field of view from 1.87mm at the lowest to 0.25mm at the highest magnification (with the draw tube in lowest position).

My own examination of the optics revealed some peculiarities I can’t quite explain. The most obvious oddity is that the so-called “high dry” has virtually no free working distance. When focused on a covered slide I could not slip even a thin piece of paper in between. Then again, the oil immersion objective was parfocal and rendered a reasonable image even without oil. It did require an inordinate amount of oil as its working distance is > 1mm. Furthermore, its front lens is recessed ca. 0.2mm which makes it difficult to clean and likely to catch an air bubble. There is no possibility of the objectives having been screwed into the wrong position on the turret (i.e. the extension sleeves) as the high dry has a slightly different thread. Parfocalization was good between the higher powers but changing the eyepieces with the #3 objective required some refocusing. The image quality was overall good, the achromatic correction excellent. The contrast is somewhat affected by internal reflections on the extension tube below the eyepieces.

Messter’s Universal Bacteria Microscope is definitely an unusual instrument with some pioneering innovations indicating that its designer was not averse to try an unconventional approach. I am rather proud to have such a fine instrument – with an intriguing provenance – in my collection.

All comments to the author Fritz Schulze are welcomed.


Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Dr. Timo Mappes who provided much of the historical information and the relevant pages of Dr. Kaiser's book.



1 Brian Bracegirdle Notes on Modern Microscope Manufacturers, Quekett Microscopical Club 1966, ISBN 0-9514441-7-4, available from Savona Books, Seawall Lane, Haven Sands, North Cotes, GRIMSBY DN36 5XE, UK.



4 The Billings Microscope Collection, Second Edition 1974, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C. 20306, USA.

5 CD: A Catalogue of the Microscopy Collections at The Science Museum. London – Brian Bracegirdle, 2005, available from Savona Books (see under 1)

6 Museum Optischer Intrumente, Dr. Timo Mappes, Karlsruhe, Germany (


8 Die Technik des Modernen Mikroskopes Dr. Wilhelm Kaiser, Wien 1906, Verlag von Moritz Perles k.u.k. Hofbuchhandlung



Fig.1 + 2 The Messter Universal Bacteria Microscope

Fig.3 The parfocal objectives

Fig.4 The eyepiece turret

Fig.5 The trade mark


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