by Roy Winsby

An article which was first published in the Manchester Microscopical Society's Newsletter No. 26, August 1993

The story of John B. Dancer, 1812-1887, Manchester optician and instrument maker, who pioneered the making of microphotographs mounted on slides for viewing through the microscope, was the subject of an article in the Society's Newsletter No. 15, January 1990.

Dancer sold over 500 different microphotograph slides and many microscopists have one or more of these. If you have any microphotograph slides by any of the old mounters, take good care of them as they are collectors items. Old microphotograph slides in good condition bearing a label with the name or initials of J.B.Dancer, Richard Suter, W.Hislop, J.H.Sidebotham, Herbert Watkins and others command a price of around 20 to 25 each. Often J.H.Sidebotham used the initials J.S. on his labels.

 Many microphotograph slides abound without a mounters name or initials, or even without a label, and here identification can be difficult. Some mounters in Victorian days favoured covering the top surface of the slide with decoratively bordered green paper, the centre circle cut out for the mount. If you have one of these turn the slide over because mounters sometimes put their initials on the underside of the green paper. Sometimes green paper was also put on the underside of the slide, in which case you will need to hold the slide up to the light to see if any initials are written on the reverse of the top piece of green paper.

 Generally Dancers slides are identifiable by the initials J.B.D. in the bottom right hand corner of his labels. Mr. Arthur Barron sent me a photocopy of a slide with the label PHOTOGRAPH, 1st of May 1851, The Birthday Present, unnumbered, with the usual initials J.B.D. On this right hand side of this slide, however, there is an fancy label, J.B.DANCER, Optician, MANCHESTER, the word Optician being in Old English type text. Mr. Barron said he can recall seeing only one other example of one of these fancy labels. The date of 1st May 1851 mentioned is the date of the photograph, not of the slide. Dancer did not commence making microphotograph slides in quantity until 1852 following Scott Archer having invented the collodion process in 1851, though he had experimented with them as early as 1839 using the daguerreotype process but as this produced an opaque background unsuitable for microscopic viewing he did not proceed with it at the time.

 I have two microphotograph slides, one a Dancer No.16 with printed label The Departure, Second Class of a painting by A. Solomon. The other, no name, hand-written label, 1,000 bank note. The 1,000 note dated 1867 is just like the old large white paper 5 note we used to know some 30 or 40 years ago except for the 1,000. Even only 40 years ago if you took one of the large white 5 notes into a shop they were likely to ask you to write your name and address on the back. Only the other day I saw in my local newsagents a notice saying This shop does not change 50 notes. Presumably over 100 years ago 1,000 notes were used for overseas trade and currency transactions. I do not know what the current inflation figure is for an 1867 1,000 but I would guess it to be well in excess of 50,000. Actually 1,000 notes were not rare and were in fact in use until 1943. W.Hislop produced a microphotograph slide of a 1858 20 note.

 Dancer did not have any mass production method for turning out his micro-photograph slides and though it must have been very time consuming he is reported as having made many thousands. The method employed was explained by Mr.J.F.Stirling writing in Watsons Microscope Record No.45, Oct.1938, p.16. A glass negative of the photograph to be reduced was placed in a lantern illuminated by a flame. The image of the photograph was projected through a microscope objective mounted horizontally on to the sensitized collodion film supported on a glass sheet. Dancer speeded up production slightly by duplicating the contraption with two lanterns placed back to back with one illuminating flame in the space between the two lanterns, the whole assembly being covered over with a canvas tent to keep out the light. The exceedingly small piece of collodion film containing the positive microphotograph image was mounted in balsam beneath a cover glass on a standard 3 x 1 slide.

 In her recently issued booklet Scientific Instrument Making in Manchester, 1790-1870, Mrs. Jenny Wetton, Curator of Science at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, states that by 1871 Dancer was employing eight men and about four apprentices. He is therefore likely to have delegated the tedious making of microphotographs to one of his employees.

 There is an old wives saying that misfortune often comes in threes, and for Dancer it did. It was tragic for a man so gifted and full of life to lose his sight. He started to suffer from Glaucoma when he was only 58, and eight years later in 1878 because of failing sight coupled with business and family worries resulting in the decline of the business due to competition from other microscope makers, and a corresponding lessening demand for his products, he had to give up his work in the business. He lived another nine years until he was 75 in blindness, obscurity and near poverty. Yet one of the Dancer stereoscopic cameras made around 1856 was sold at Christies for 21,000 in 1977. However, he had taught his two daughters, Eleanor Elizabeth and Catherine, the process of making microphotograph slides and they continued the microphotograph side of the business under the name of E.E.Dancer & Co. I do not know what happened to Catherine but the daughters produced slides under the label of E.E. and A.M. Dancer, the A.M. presumably being Dancers third daughter, Anna Marie.

 Though Dancer had known such men of genius as James P.Joule, Sir David Brewster, Charles Darwin, Faraday, Dr.W.B.Carpenter, Revd.Dr.W.H.Dallinger, William Sturgeon, James Nasmyth, A.S.Herschel and others, few men of prominence kept in touch with him during his forced and lonely retirement of privation. After his death Dancer was forgotten for some 40 years but following Henry Garnetts paper read before the members of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society various articles have since been written about him.

 In 1896 Dancers daughters sold the entire stock of microphotograph slides and the negatives from which they had been made, as well as the instruction of making quality microphotograph slides, to Richard Suter, a well known London microscope dealer and slide mounter for the sum of 50.

 The English Mechanic, in its issue of 7th July 1882, carried an advertisement by E.& A.Dancer & Co. offering a list of 350 microphotograph slides for sale. This was only four years after Dancers daughters took over the business from their father and until a few days ago I was not aware of anyone who has actually seen any slides bearing their label and had begun to wonder if they were in fact still selling their fathers slides rather than producing any slides themselves. The circulation of these Newsletters is approaching 200 copies per issue but the note at the end of the previous Newsletter, No. 25, that Dr.McCormick of Chicago is interested in purchasing or borrowing any such slides did not produce one response.

 Richard Suter died on the 3rd May 1959 and, like Dancer, he died in blindness, though he was aged 95 when he died. After his death Suters sister, Mrs. Pierce, handed over to Mr.Barron the collection of negatives from which Dancer had made his positive microphotograph slides. The negatives were mostly on 4 x 5 glass plates and had been in Suters attic for around 60 years, with the result that they were covered with layers of accumulated dirt and soot. Mr. Barron cleaned the negatives with jets of compressed air in order not to damage the collodion coatings. In his article On J.B.Dancer and the

 discovery of his Microphotographic Negatives which appeared in The Microscope, 1960, Vol.12, pp 234-238, Mr.Barron states that Mrs.Pierce had told him that her brother had never made use of the negatives. It appears therefore that Suter acquired a stock of finished slides in the purchase from Dancers daughters and had applied his own labels to them.

 Amongst the slides listed in Suters first catalogue dated 1900 are the following -


No.406. Emperor and Empress of Russia, crowned May 27th 1883.


No.455. Jubilee photograph of Her Majesty the Queen.


No.462. The Royal Jubilee Exhibition, Manchester.


As 1887 was the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee, the year that Dancer died, and in any case his last 10 years were spent with failing vision, this was my first confirmation that Dancer's daughters had produced any micro-photograph slides themselves.

 Much information is unrecorded or, if it is recorded, is not always to be found very readily, and often as people die off much information gets lost forever. It is surprising what some of us know to which we attach little importance but which will be lost when we die. Even if such information is already recorded it will no doubt be in a place where most of us are not aware of how to get at it, so if you have any information, no matter how little, please put your pen to paper.

 Member Mr.G.W.Lee of London kindly provided me with a printed copy of a catalogue issued by Suter and dated 1900. Originally it had 24 pages, though the front cover with page 2 on the reverse was missing. Mr.Barron kindly let me have a photocopy of the front cover, which states that page 2 contained testimonials, though he had not photocopied page 2 when a copy of the catalogue was loaned to him many years before. However, the fact that page 2 is missing is not of much detriment, particularly as the listing of slides does not commence until page 4.

 The line printed at the start of the listing of the microphotograph slides on page 4 of the catalogue that Mr. R. Suter is now the only preparer of Micro- Photographs is open to question for two reasons. The first is that he does not appear to have produced any microphotograph slides himself other than affixing his own labels on to the stock of slides he had bought from Dancers daughters. The second is whether J.H.Sidebotham, Herbert Watkins, W.Hislop or any of the other microphotograph slide mounters were alive at the time.

 Although he appears to have simply sold off the stock of Dancer slides, Suter did not take over Dancers numbering altogether. Whereas my Dancer slide mentioned above of a painting called The Departure, Second Class, painted by A. Solomon bears the initials J.B.D. and is numbered 16, microphotograph slide No.16 in Suters list is of Fountains Abbey. Suters No. 58 is The Departure, Second Class, by A. Solomon.

 However, just before going to press with this Newsletter, Mr. Barron sent me a photocopy of a slide he had only recently come across with the label on the right hand side stating MICRO- PHOTOGRAPHS of Views, Portraits, Printing, &c. Prepared by E.E.& A.M.DANCER, 436 Stockport Road, Manchester, which he says is the only daughter label he has seen. Unless many more daughter slides are going to materialize after the publication of this Newsletter, because of the scarcity factor the value of this slide as a collectors item must be well in excess of the 20-25 I mentioned earlier in this article for ordinary good condition named microphotograph slides.

 What is also of interest about this particular slide is the descriptive label on the left hand side - THE NATIONAL ANTHEM, Contained in the space of an eye of a needle, and numbered 400. J.B.Dancer's slide labels usually have the initials J.B.D. in the bottom right hand corner, though many are not numbered. Presumably therefore Suter used his own descriptive labels in place of those with the initials J.B.D. In this case, however, because the right hand label contained the daughters names, the left hand label did not have any initials, so Suter would not have to remove it, but in this case he kept to the same listing number, because No. 400 in Suters list is The National Anthem, contained in the eye of a needle.

 For its age and the use it has no doubt had, this copy of the Suter catalogue is in reasonably good condition, it understandably coming apart at the centre fold and also partly where it has been folded horizontally. Mr.Lee says it was in this condition when it came into his possession in 1973. He says that after his first perusal and checking of his slides he was almost afraid to handle it further. Some repair was needed but as can be seen by the extract it has photocopied well. The last page shows the most wear and some discoloration, but with the whole being folded horizontally the last page was in effect the outer cover. However, the last page has still made readable photocopies.

 The particular copy though dated 1900 must have been handed out some years after that date because on the top of page 3 is written N.B. All prices in this List are cancelled, and signed R.Suter. On page 4, at the commencement of the list of microphotograph slides, Discontinued has been written. The whole of page 9 listing histological slides is crossed out and marked Cancelled. The top half of page 19 listing unmounted microscopic objects has been crossed out and marked Cancelled.

 Trade catalogues issued around the turn of the century are often found with prices cancelled, indicating that they survived a number of years, probably into the war years of 1914 to 1918 when inflation will have taken off. Suters catalogue of 1900 probably lasted 10 years or longer. The 1900 catalogue was his first and I am not aware of him having issued a later dated catalogue, but please let me know if you have any information on this.

 Changes in amateur microscopy over the last 70 years or more have been relatively minor. Microscopes have changed from all brass to black and brass, then black and chrome, then in grey or light green enamel. Now some recent Zeiss instruments look very nice in cream enamel. Between the two main wars the tube length changed from 250mm to 160 mm but the quality of the optics has not changed a great deal. A 45 mm standard objective has been introduced in the last few years, but one cannot see much more detail with many a modern instrument from that which can be seen with a 50 years old microscope with lenses in good condition.

 This was admirably summed up by Mr.I.C.Fitch in writing the obituary on our member the late Stanley Meakin in 1988 when he said that in his 84 years Mr.Meakin had seen many remarkable events, including the replacement of the horse by the motor car, the coming of aircraft and the introduction of electricity to our daily lives, of radio, television, plastics, men landing on the moon, but in microscopy he had seen little improvement in the best that optical microscopy could achieve except that the best became more readily available.

 The things we look at, whether pond life, crystals, etc. have also not changed. Where we are lacking is that many accessories which were made 80 to 100 years ago, such as the Travis stop, are no longer available. Information on many of the old microscopists, of their inventions and their slides is not always easily to be found in books. If you have knowledge of such items do please consider writing a note on them for the Journal or Newsletter of any of the microscopical societies.


 John Benjamin Dancer, Instrument Maker & Inventor by Henry Garnett, a paper read before the Manchester Lit. & Phil. Society, 16th Oct.1928.

 A Forgotten Genius, John Benjamin Dancer by J.F.Stirling, Watsons Microscope Record, Issues Nos. 44 to 47, May 1938 to May 1939.

 On J.B.Dancer and the Discovery of his Microphotographic Negatives by A.L.E. Barron.

 The Microscope No.12, 1960, pp 234-238.

 Scientific Instrument Making in Manchester, 1790-1870 by Jenny Wetton, Curator of Science, Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester, 1993.

 Other references as mentioned in the article John Benjamin Dancer, 1812-1887, M.M.S. Micro Miscellanea No.15, January 1990.

 Editors note: The Micscape Editor thanks Roy Winsby for allowing this article to be reproduced on the Web. Also thanks to Mike Samworth for preparing the Web version of the article.


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