The day the microscope got it’s name

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On this day, 13 April, back in 1625, Giovanni Faber (also known as Johannes Faber) first suggested the word ‘microscope’ for an enlargement viewing device developed by Galileo Galilei in order to see tiny objects that are too small for the naked eye (Galilei himself called it an ‘occhiolino’ or ‘little eye’). Faber used the term in a letter to Federigo Cesi, founder of the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynx) in Italy, one of the earliest academies of science.

Once the term ‘microscope’ became accepted, this also resulted in the coining of the term ‘microscopy’ for the science of investigating tiny objects through a microscope. The term ‘microscopic’ is used for something that is too small to see unless viewed through a microscope.

Microscopes - impossible to imagine science without them. (© All Rights Reserved)
Microscopes – impossible to imagine science without them.
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The microscope is another of those devices that is synonymous with science – it is impossible to imagine a scientific lab, and science in general, without microscopes. From the first optical microscopes (still in use), further developments and technological innovations led to the development of more powerful microscopes including the electron microscope (using electrons rather than light to generate an image) and scanning probe microscopes such as the atomic force microscope (AFM).

The AFM is an extremely high resolution device that can achieve a resolution of the order of fractions of a nanometer. The increased resolution achieved by this device opened up amazing new research possibilities in the nanosciences. To acknowledge this, the developers of the AFM, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM Research, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986.

While only a very select few of us will ever have the opportunity to see one of these incredible pieces of scientific equipment, let alone experience using it, I am sure many out there remember the magical world that opened up when you got your first hobby microscope. I certainly remember the wonder of first getting to use a little microscope handed down to me by my dad – it was old and worn and not fancy at all, but man, was it amazing to look at anything and everything, from a fly’s wing to a drop of blood.

Did you have a microscope when you grew up?

Celebrating the legacy of Carl Zeiss

Today we celebrate one of the great names in optics – it’s the birthday of Carl Zeiss, born on 11 September 1816.

Zeiss studied mathematics, physics and optics, among other subjects, at the University of Jena, before he started experimenting with making lenses. By 1847 he founded Carl Zeiss AG and started manufacturing microscopes full time.

Carl Zeiss built the Zeiss empire through the manufacture of innovative, high quality optics for use in microscopy.
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Zeiss real contribution came from his realisation that, to differentiate himself from other manufacturers in the optics industry, he had to significantly up the ante in terms of quality and innovation. He first teamed up with the physicist Dr Ernst Abbe, who calculated that the optical quality of lenses at the time left much room for improvement, but also found that the optical glass available was not up to his manufacturing requirements. Zeiss then brought on board glass chemist Dr Otto Schott, who established a glassworks at Jena where he produced new, better quality glass that was able to meet and exceed Abbe’s requirements.

While the lenses produced by Zeiss were initially primarily used in the manufacture of microscopes, the glass produced at Jena also opened up possibilities for the creation of much improved photographic lenses, for use in still and video cameras. Zeiss’ early innovations in photographic lenses happened mostly through the contributions of Dr Paul Rudolph, who was responsible for many classic Zeiss lenses around the end of the 19th century including the famous Planar® in 1896. Later famous Zeiss lenses included the Tessar® (1902) and the Sonnar® (1931). In 1935, Alexander Smakula developed an innovative anti-reflective coating for camera lenses, known as the Carl Zeiss T-coating, which opened up totally new possibilities in lens design, and is a key component in modern photographic lens design.

Even though much of the photographic contributions made by the Carl Zeiss AG company only happened after the death of its founder (Carl Zeiss died on 3 December 1888), his name will always be inextricably linked to top quality photographic optics. Zeiss lenses were used extensively in the cameras manufactured by Zeiss Ikon, one of the companies in the Zeiss group, who started producing the classic Contax cameras in the mid-20th century. The Contax rangefinder was the first 35mm camera to pose a serious challenge to the iconic Leica M-series of the time.

Zeiss lenses have been used by many of the great camera brands, including Voigtlander, Hasselblad, Rollei and Sony.

Even in the 21st century, the name Carl Zeiss remains synonymous with quality optics, and brands sporting Zeiss lenses proudly flaunt the fact.
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Aside from microscopy and photography, the optical innovations created by Carl Zeiss and his company have found a use in a wide range of applications, from medical solutions to sports optics to industrial metrology.