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The Simple Microscope in the Hands of Van Leeuwenhoek and Huygens

Spinoza’s Microscopology: a prospective comparison of context

It strikes me that there is a subtle, yet important contrast between the single lens microscope that Christiaan Huygens ended up offering by the Fall of 1678 and the design which was consistently used by Van Leeuwenhoek, a contrast that points up a branching out of conception of the relationship between instrument and observation, one that perhaps help position Spinoza’s own view of lens use. 

At the end of 1678 the Huygens, Rømer, Hartsoeker microscope resulted in this design:

Its “strength” is that it was that it was equipted with a revolving wheel, into which six different preparations could be placed, enabling a kind of frame by frame, one might even say, nearly cinematic comparison specimens which could be flipped before a small grain of a lens. This designed was very quickly put into widened production by the instrument maker Herbert Butterfield. When compared to Van Leeuwenhoek’s essential model, there is a notable difference:

For Van Leeuwenhoek the specimen is placed fixed, suspended [atop the pictured needle], in the most elementary of relations. Further, in his use of the microscope Van Leeuwenhoek seemed to express a very different idea of the relationship of the device to what is seen. For instance, of the 26 samples that were sent to the Royal Society upon his death, they consisted of a pairing: each microscope came with a matched specimen which was placed ready to view. The device was not conceived apart from the staging of the observed. (And these devices were for Van Leeuwenhoek private, personal, not conceived to be widely reproduced.)

This contrast is a small point, but I think that the kind of looking that Van Leeuwenhoek was famous for, the intensified examination and preparation of the moment of witness, came out of his conception of device and specimen. And Huygens’s incredibly rapid development and “improvement” of this device, marks a difference in the act of looking, a mechanized and rotational expression of specimen interface, one where the device stands as a kind of medium between the facts of the world (and not a particular event) and an investigating mind. I make no judgment of course between these two conceptions, other than to say that their contrast perhaps provides a backdrop upon which Spinoza’s conception of lensed observation may be made more clear. He looked somewhat obliquely at Huygens’ complex machinery of automated ends (again, Letter 32), perhaps sensing that the means of witnessing color and shape help establish the quality of what is seen. The Huygens “enhancement” of the Van Leeuwenhoek design, the speeding up of the relation between the witness of one specimen and another, and they bodily experience of an intricate, mechanized interface with various phenomena, marks out a significant difference. 

These thoughts are a continuation from an originary thought begun here: Van Leeuwenhoek’s View of Technology

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2 responses to “The Simple Microscope in the Hands of Van Leeuwenhoek and Huygens

  1. lawrencia November 4, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    how has the microscpe its self change over the years,since it was first made.

  2. Pingback: Spinoza and Leeuwenhoek « Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Centraal

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