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On the Issue of Clarity and Light: Van Leeuwenhoek’s Lenses

Because the grinding of a droplet-made spherical lens can increase the clarity of the glass in use, and as this reflects upon the hypothesis that Spinoza’s equipment may have rendered Christiaan Huygens’ new microscope more feasible, and considering the fact the known users of glass-bead lenses – Van Leeuwenhoek, Hudde and Hooke did grind them – we add the testament of the young Irish doctor Thomas Molyneux, who “waited” on Van Leeuwenhoek, on the behalf of the Royal Society:

…he fixes whatever object he has to look uppon, then holding it up to the light…but in one particular [after viewing many disappointingly low magnification glasses] I must needs say that they far surpass them all [several Glasses I have seen in both England and Ireland], that is in their extreme clearness, and their representing all objects so extraordinary distinctly. for I remember that we were in a dark rome with only one Window, and the sun too was then of a that [off to the window], yet the objects appeered more fair and clear, then any I have seen through Microscopes, though the sun shone full upon them, or tho they received more then ordnary LIght by help of reflectiv Specula or otherwise: so that I imagine tis chiefly, if not alone in particular, that his Glasses exceeds all others, which generally the more they magnify the more obscure they represent the Object; and his only secret I believe is making clearer Glasses, and giving them a better polish than others can do (Dobell 58).

Though this account is for a lens much latter in design than the 1677/78 microscopes under immediate consideration, Molyneux’ description seems to place great weight, even at that date, upon the importance of polish (and glass quality), allowing us to focus on the possibility that the Huygenses affection for Spinoza’s polishing techniques may have had an influence on their purchase of his remaining Estate, and a consequence upon the design of their July 1678 microscope.

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