CORNING, NY — To closely inspect the evolution of the microscope, the Corning Museum of Glass is highlighting the lens-making behind the optical tool. “No one’s really had glassmakers look into this,” Marvin Bolt, curator of science and technology at the museum and the organizer of Revealing the Invisible: The History of Glass and the Microscope, told Hyperallergic on a recent visit.
Display cases embedded in the walls of the Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library hold 15 historic microscopes, which are joined by archival material from Corning, such as a first edition of Robert Hooke’s 1665 publication Micrographia, which helped introduce the public to microscopy. Micrographia was not the first book to include illustrations representing microscopic views — that distinction goes to Francesco Stelluti’s 1630 Persio, a translation of ancient poetry printed in Rome and accompanied by views of a bee and grain weevil. However, its large-scale fold-out of a flea encouraged widespread curiosity about this tiny world that was impossible to see with the naked eye.
Revealing the Invisible includes one of the few surviving 17th-century Antoni van Leeuwenhoek microscopes. Basically a metal container for a glass orb with a pin to hold a specimen, it was radical for visualizing, for the first time, things like blood cells and bacteria. The exhibition is the debut, according to the museum, of an authentic van Leeuwenhoek microscope in the United States. Artists at the Corning are attempting to recreate its still-mysterious 16th- to 17th-century glass techniques. These were often kept secret by makers to protect their unique products.
“The origins of scientific glass really are connected to the microscope,” Bolt explained, adding that Corning’s question with the exhibition was: “What story can we tell that nobody else could tell? The scientific glass, the engineered glass, is a story that, as far as we know, no one else has told.” With the library’s archives, and the glassmaking experts on-site, “we’ve got the resources here to really add to the scholarship.”
Much of Corning’s exhibitions and collecting in the past has focused on glass as a fine art (although there are exceptions, like the 19th-century glass invertebrate models by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka). In hiring Bolt as the museum’s first full-time curator of science and technology, as well as this exhibition on microscopes, it has a new emphasis on the vital role of glass in the history of science. For example, acquisitions spurred by Revealing the Invisible include an aquatic microscope and a vintage Listerine bottle, its name a reference to Joseph Lister, who introduced sterilizing carbolic acid to the operating room thanks to microscopic discoveries about infection.
After van Leeuwenhoek, other microscopists improved the device, adding multiple lenses (for compound microscopes), designing binocular views to render specimens in three dimensions, and eliminating the color issues (chromatic aberrations) that distorted views. Beautiful objects like Benjamin Martin’s 18th-century drum microscope from London wrapped in blueish ray skin, and Giuseppe Campani’s 17th-century early compound microscope from Rome decorated with gold embossing and finely carved wooden controls, demonstrate how the microscope became a luxury object.
This coincided with European fascination for the natural world, so that, as Bolt said, the “gentlemen of the day would always have one with them to inspect anything.” And then, with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of a middle class equipped with discretionary spending, the microscope became a popular purchase.
What really sharpened the sight of microscopes were alterations to the recipes of glass itself, especially through the work of Carl Zeiss, Ernst Abbe, and Otto Schott in the 1870s (the exhibition text points out that the Carl Zeiss logo still has two differently composed lenses on top of each other). In the 20th century, electron microscopes and other innovations moved microscopes beyond glass, yet Revealing the Invisible singles out contemporary innovations involving glass, like the Foldoscope.
Designed by PrakashLab at Stanford University to cost one dollar and be built like origami, the Foldoscope is intended to make microscopic technology accessible, along with the health benefits and scientific knowledge it facilitates. The microscope is no longer the prized luxury object of the elite, or a spectacle people gather to see (as a few broadsheets in the exhibition bombastically advertise), but it is still a valuable tool in discovery, all supported by centuries of working with glass.
In the video below, you can see a contemporary demonstration at the Corning of 17th-century lens making, in tribute to Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.
Revealing the Invisible: The History of Glass and the Microscope continues through March 19, 2017, at the Corning Museum of Glass (One Museum Way, Corning, New York).