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A History of Early Spherical Microscope Lenses – Spinoza’s Place in Optics

Spinoza’s Microscope

In view of organizing the possible context for Spinoza’s lense-grinding and instrument making, here is a brief timetable of spherical lens use, such that surrounds Spinoza. Spherical lens making was the use of tiny spheres of melted glass, some of them ground and polished. The smaller the sphere, the greater the magnfication, surpassing all compound microscopes at the time, making at a times very minute magnifying glass to which one pressed one’s eye [see here for Van Leeuwenhoek’s example]. This history is quite approximent.

1628 Harvey sees the heart of a flea.
1629 painter de Gheyn II dies at age 64, before Constantijn Huygens, Sr. can convince him to illustrate microscopic views for the proposed “The New World”.
1644 Odierna uses a chickpea sized globule, Toricelli as well.
1646 Kircher sees flea’s leg and hair with spheres no bigger than the smallest of pearls; (Cardinal Medici’s gift).
1646+ Bettini uses a sphere smaller than a millet seed.
1654-1663 Hudde studies under van Schooten, working on Descartes’ Geometry, with J. de Witt, at Leiden.
1656 Borel sees the nerves, feet and eyes of a mite.
1657 Schott uses “transparent atoms”
1657 Hudde writes of plans to study generation microscopically, letter to Van Velthuysen
1658 Kircher sees worms in the blood of fever victims.
1659 Van Leeuwenhoek claims (40 years later) to have produced bead glass lenses, in Delft.
1659 Spinoza begins periodic studies at the University at Leiden.
1660 Blaes influential speech at the Athenaenum of Amsterdam, addresses the microscopes use in anatomy.
1661 Spinoza said to be a maker of telescopes and microscopes, Borch’s Diary
1661-1662 Enrolled at Leiden University studying medicine Swammerdam, Steno, Kerckring, de Graf, Ruysch
1661-1663 Spinoza lives in Rijnsburg grinding lenses and making instruments, a couple of miles from the University at Leiden and the young anatomists.
1663 Spinoza moves to Voorburg, five minute walk from Huygens’ estate, a few miles from The Hague.
1663 At The Hague Vossius shows the French diplomat Monconys his simple microscope of a little hemispherical lens mounted in woodframe behind black board (Journal).
1663 Hudde in Amsterdam shows to visiting Monconys his technique of forming lenses by melting beads of glass, and polishing them with salt (Journal).
1664-5 Hooke‘s influential Micrographia, wherein he describes his beads from threads of glass method. Likely seen by Spinoza in visits to the Huygens’ estate in the summer of 1665 when he also saw Huygens’ machine for grinding lenses.
1666 Vossius, Spinoza’s associate, writes that smaller sphericals of glass best. De Nihi et aliorum…
1666 Spinoza in correspondence with Hudde over the nature of God and technical questions of optics and lens grinding (Letters 34 to 36).
1667 Spinoza speaks to Vossius about an alchemical matter.
1667 Huygens twice writes his brother, complimenting the polish that Spinoza is able to achieve by “the instrument” in small lenses for his microscopes. (Parenthetically, also writes to his brother about Spinoza‘s collaboration with Hudde on calculations on a40ft lens which would have been among the largest in Europe.)
1668 Swammerdam declares sphericals best lenses.
1668 May 11, Christiaan Huygens admits to his brother in letter that he agrees that Spinoza was right, smaller objectives in microscopes represent objects much finer fashion.
1670 Spinoza moves to The Hague.
1670 Kerckring (Spinoza’s former classmate), declares he has seen vascular bundles with Spinoza’s microscope, and organs teeming with minute, possbily symbiotic animals [post-mortum microorganisms or “still active cilliated surfaces”?, Ruestow 265]: yet declares that things viewed solely by microscope should be held suspect. Spicilegium anatomicum.
1671 Kerckring claims to have seen, and draws a tiny, tiny human inside a 3-day old fertilized human egg [seen with Spinoza’s microscope?], Anthropogeniae ichnographia.
1674 Hartsoeker makes beads of glass lenses after his father visits Van Leeuwenhoek.
1677 Johan Ham, a student a Leiden, possibly with a bead-lens, first sees spermatozoa and brings them to Van Leeuwenhoek.
1677 Hartsoeker, a student at Leiden with a bead-lens, later claims to be the first to see spermatozoa.
November 1677 The Huygenses purchase Spinoza’s lens-grinding equipment at auction.
March 1678 Huygens makes his first bead-glass lens microscope aided by Hartsoeker.


The importance of this time table is that it builds a net of associations with the bead-like, small spherical lens techniques which made up some of the most powerful yet simply microscopes of the day, in part through the person of Hudde around Spinoza. Hudde taught at least two persons his technique of microscope lens-making, and possibly many more. It also places Spinoza in the context of the anatomist debates of the early 1660’s, as a microscope maker and a Cartesian living in Rijnsburg. The role of Kerckring in this debate (glands vs. vessels and preexistence) under the authority of Spinoza’s microscope also is suggestive of Spinoza’s connection to this group, and the possible powers of his instruments.


Van Leeuwenhoek’s View of Technology and Spinoza

Part of this process of looking into the lensed conception of Spinoza’s metaphysics is understanding how at the cusp of a change in the technological interface – that is, with Descartes, an increased mathematization of nature and its corresponding instrumentization of devices – there also existed alternate conceptions of what viewing, observing and measuring entailed. The idea that a device could be of a fixed nature, a neutral embodiment of mathematics, and thus could be pointed in any direction, and at any number of objects, revealingly, is an imaginary simplification. Such a conception of device implies a certain invisibility of the mechanism in that the phenomena is simply shown for what it “is”, denuded. It is my sense that Spinoza, in his metaphysical grasp of the consubstantiality of the material and the ideationalas informed by his experiences as a maker of representational devices, and therefore instruments of both the micro- to macrological sort, conceived of instrumentation in a different kind of way. It was a way which may help inform us of our own potentiated relationship to technology. Rather than experiencing the object as simply being “revealed” it perhaps is better understood as staged, framed, part of an assemblage of observation and use. This is what alternate conceptions of technology may help us see.

In the personof van Leeuwenhoek, praised by history for his explorational conception of the micrological, a man who shared with Spinoza a merchant class origin, shunning for the greater part the fame of Scientific standing, we have a clue to something of the inveterate possibilities of instrumental use. I suggest below the example of the intimacy involved in van Leeuwenhoek’s experience of both his devices and his specimens. The “microscope” for him, was not understood, nor felt to be, a mechanism without context.

Pictured here is a composite drawing of van Leeuwenhoek’s “microscope” bringing together the significant features from the few surviving devices examined by Clifford Dobell. It shows boththe rod upon which a specimen needle is mounted, and the parallel plates between which a very fine lens would be inserted. The height of the specimen needle, and its proximity of it to the lens-plates, could be exactly and stably secured by the turn of screws. These devices are incredibly small, actually smaller than is pictured. What is significant about this device, other than its simplicity and size, is that the lens was so very small, its focal length could be less than 1/30th of an inch. The eye must be placed so as to be nearly touching the lens.

Van Leeuwenhoek made nearly five hundred of these palm-sized instruments, and famously was able to achieve magnification so as to vividly see bacteria and protozoa, the first of humankind to do so. Many of the plates were made of silver, and three of them are known to be made of gold, but none of them are in their material finely crafted in detail. They were tiny work-tools by van Leeuwenhoek’s conception. But there is something more about his concept that is important to dwell upon. After his fame had spread, some of the most important personages of Europe came to his merchant’s house in Delft to see these wonders. What is compelling is that he would let people view specimens on devices of only moderate magnification, and not sell a one. The most profound of his glasses, those upon which he made his most spectacular discoveries, he would not even allow a glimpse. People would ask him, bewildered, why would he make so many devices and never sell any. Various theories have arisen to explain this relation between van Leeuwenhoek and the number of his microscopes. Was he saving them up for sale by his daughter when he had passed? Was he secreting away the most precious facts of his observation capacities, making something of a mystery of it?

I think a clue to the number of devices is provided in the 26 samples he had sent to the Royal Society by his devoted daughter upon his death. None of the 26 are actually capable of the serious magnification that he must have attained in other devices, but each arrived, notably with their specimen already attached (the same is true for most of those auctioned off after his passing). The embryo of a Cochineal, or a thread of sheep’s wool, or the spinning organ of a spider’s abdomen was glued upon its requisite needle, perfectly positioned before its lens. One need only hold it up to light. I believe that far from conceiving of his microscopes as neutral devices which could be made machinically in relationship to laws of nature, and therefore could be turned ubiquitously upon any number of phenomena, each device was handmade for what was to be observed. He made so many devices because he had so many things to look at.

Why Did van Leeuwenhoek Refuse to Let Others Look?

Key to this device/object dyad is understanding that the viewing itself must have been a personal, intimate event. The staging of the specimen, the vice-like recursivity with which it was positioned to its glass, a minuscule glass sometimes ground just for that specimen, was an experiential revelation. As mentioned, the eye must be pressed so close as to practically touch the lens. In his most minute observations his microscopes and their specimens formed a circularity of object, means and eye that was physically closed.

There might be very good explanations why van Leeuwenhoek did not allow others – with the possible exception of his daughter, hired draughtsmen, and perhaps even anatomist Ruysch – to look into his strongest microscopic glasses, the obvious being his stated desire for secrecy; but beneath secrecy, most concerting was the likely intensive intimacy involved in these witnessings. And constitutive of this intimacy were two points. First was that Van Leeuwenhoek’s conception of minute observation was dioramic: frame and object met such that the frame was part of the view. It was an engagement. Secondly, because the device was small and could be held in the hand, and the eye was pressed so near, the consciousness of the viewer was a participation with the frame (metal plate and lens) as much as with the object viewed, so much so that there was no anonymity of vision. In a sense, perhaps van Leeuwenhoek came to feel that viewer could no more easily be exchanged with a particular device, than could its specimen. Individual glasses and individual objects matched, as did the eye, and as the magnification became more intense, so did the investment. This, I suggest, is what van Leeuwenhoek was protecting. One could say, just as one could not share dental braces, nor would not share contact lenses, van Leeuwenhoek refused to share the smallest of scopes. They fit his eye and his vision, prosthetically, and in terms of experience, privately. The math was thus affect-rich and context dependent.

(Could it be that there is closely related reason why van Leeuwenhook may have denied the privledge of looking into his strongest lenses? He was, admittedly, very sensitive to criticism. The game of assertion and denial was quiet unpleasant, and it was in part because of this sensitivity that he did not relish the thought of publishing his findings with the Royal Society at first opportunity. It could have been that this sensitivity extended itself to personal experiences as well. Van Leeuwenhoek was gifted. He had not only diligent powers of observation, but also incredibly acute eyesight, far better than even above average. It may have been likely that he had shown others, early on, his strongest glasses, and others simply could not see in them what he could see. His observations were, in a way, personalized to a more specific degree than even already mentioned, not just by context, but by capacity; he could not afford being told that what he saw simply was not there. They were is own assemblage.)

“…you then hold the microscope toward the sky…as though you had a telescope and were trying to look at the stars in the sky through it,”

he wrote of the process of illuminating a specimen. In such a view the conceptions of the linked Macrocosm and the Microcosm collapse into a single relational whole, (for one knew that optically a telescope could be turned into a microscope through a rearrangement of the lenses). But holding a specimen glass up to the light was more than this, it was a person’s investment in observation and device, and the one-to-one context between the specimen and its process of viewing that is exhibited by van Leeuwenhoek and his microscopes. This reflexivity of concept is shown everywhere in his staging choices, but perhaps none so evident as when he had carefully ground a grain of sand in order to see a smaller grain of sand, seeing sand with sand: 

The two grains, one a lens, the other fixed in ratio, were viced into exact proportion. This speaks strongly to a closed and event-specific notion of technology, one which involves the viewer as well. The sand-sand-eye-sky’s light looping form an intimacy which opens up an alternate understanding of what observation is, one where what is being looked at cannot be cut off from its mechanism of viewing, nor from who is viewing. Instead it is a putting of objects, including one’s eye, into relation.

Van Leeuwenhoek, Technology and Spinoza

Van Leeuwenhoek lived but 4 miles from Spinoza in the summer of 1665, and it is not at all certain that he had even invented his viewing glasses at that point in time (the earliest record of his observations come during a trip to England in 1668; and some [Ford for instance] propose that he was originally inspired by Hooke’s Micrographia which would have barely reached Delft in 1665). Yet one imagines that it is quite likely that the history of van Leeuwenhoek’s experiments with glassblowing and lens-craft go back further than our first record of them in regard to his English, chalk-gazing holiday [Ruestow suggests that A.v.L. intimates a date as early as 1659]. It is conceivable that the two lens-grinders were both making lenses contemporaneously, a few miles apart. But the point really is not to establish a personal contact point between van Leeuwenhoek and Spinoza, though they do share a matrix of possible relations, it is rather to suggest a conceptual contact point. They are physically proximate and they are both of merchant families (not a small cultural fact). Each pursued knowledge in a hermited, semi-private way. Mostly, though, they likely embody a conception of technology and lens which was not part of the dominate instrumental conception of device; theirs was one where what is personally made (even if it is an instrument) is not divorced from the circumstances of its use, either by its object, or its witness. What van Leeuwenhoek’s technological conception potentially reveals for the Spinozist, is the thought that despite the prevailing mathematicization of Nature, brought forth by Descartes’ lead, the combinatory experience of observer, device and object remains a determining factor in the meaning of what was discovered. This is something that Spinoza brings out when he speaks of our experience of the Sun being only 200 hundred feet away despite our knowledge that it is much farther and larger (Ethics 2p35s): our essence and the sun’s essence interact to produce the affect of a meaningful, imaginary experience, a kind of phenomenal knowledge, a knowledge which, though inadequate and confused, makes up a greater portion of our world. Simply the crystalizing of the phenomenal image into clarity, making it large and sharp, was not enough for “knowledge” in Spinoza’s view. This was not the “clear and adequate” idea. 

Spinoza’s notion of technology – in that he can be said to have one that we can conclude from his philosophy and assumed to be given through his experiences of lens and instrument making – calls our attention to the continual circumstance of our use, including our affective investments, and to the notion that object, device and eye are part of an assemblage of perception organized by our ideas. More than an ever more crispening of the image is the relation of that precision to our own exactness, and therefore for Spinoza, our own power. The conception is really Cybernetic.


Monconys’ Visit: Six Degrees of Separation for Spinoza


The Distance from Spinoza’s Tydeman home, just 5 minutes walk from the Huygens Estate, and The Hague is just over 2 miles. The distance from the Huygens Estate and Vermeer’s House, just about 4 miles.

Veermer, Van Leeuwenhoek, Huygens, Hudde, Monconys, Oldenburg

A selection from Philp Steadman’s Vermeer’s Camera, which works to establish a fine net of painterly and optical relations to which Spinoza was connected in 1664-5. :

Six years previously, in 1663, Vermeer had received another distinguished visitor, the French diplomat and traveller Balthasar de Monconys. Monconys records in the Journal of his travels how he went to Delft briefly on August 3 where he admired the tombs of Admiral Tromp, Piet Hein, and William of Orange. Eight days later, on the 11th, he was back again with the sole purpose of visiting Vermeer. The meeting was not, by Monconys’ account, a great success. He was disappointed in his hopes to buy a painting…

…Broos notes that how, before going to Delft,  Monconys had been to see the Huygens family in The Hague, and had passed by again after this meeting with Veermer. “One gains the strong impression,” says Broos, “that it was thanks to his contacts in The Hague that the French diplomat had been able to take note of the most famous Dutch artists of that era, such as van Mieris and Dou in Leiden, and Johannes Veermer in Delft…”

…[and then on Monconys’s optical concerns, in addition to his pursuit of high art] Indeed, while he was with the Huygens family in The Hague, Monconyswas comparing their designs of telescopes with his own, and admiring the clarity and sharpness of the images produced by their lenses. On this same trip he went on to call on the mathematician Johan Hudde in Amsterdam and on the scholar Vossius in The Hague to see their microscopes…Both men’s instruments had single lenses. Hudde demonstrated to Monconys his methods for melting glass bead lenses and polishing them with salt. He also described his techniques for illuminating specimens (55-56).

Steadman makes this chain of associations part of a story of the possible optical resources for Vermeer, concluding that Constantijn Huygens is a candidate [earlier in the text he strongly considers a van Leeuwenhoek influence], but it also works as a roadmap for the web of relations which characterize Spinoza’s own artisitic and lense oriented connections. Monconys’ visit to Delft and Voorburg occurred only a few months after Spinoza had moved to that quite village in the Spring. Spinoza’s Voorburg landlord was a “Master painter”, [as would be his next one] and If indeed Spinoza had some reputation for either lenses or instruments, as is possible, his coming to the neighborhood must have been noted with special interest by the Huygens Three. Spinoza may have meet mathmatician and lens-grinder Johannes Hudde several years before while living at Rijnsburg, through the Leiden Cartesian Circle, as suggested by Klever to Nadler, or he might have met him later through Christiaan Huygens himself (although F. J. Dijksterhuis attempts to minimize the connection between the two, Ruestow tells of how Huygens actually translated some of the Micrographia for Hudde); in any case Spinoza was in correspondence with him in early 1666, and took his optical theories largely to be right ones. This net of contacts and friendships both in the arts and optics circles rather tightly around Spinoza’s person. If we allow Philip Steadman’s groupings of influences, we can see that they indeed are more those for Spinoza, than for Vermeer. The Guild of Luke tensions between Delft and The Hague artists notwithstanding, if the Huygens House was a confluence of paintings and optical knowledge, we can assume to some degree Spinoza too was touched.

 As Steadman concludes, if it was not Van Leeuwenhoek who introduced Vermeer to lenses and cameras, it likely was Huygens senior, quoting Heinrich Schwartz,

…the evidence makes it rather possible that one of Monconys Dutch scientist friends may have called his attention to a painter in Delft who used with some amazing results an optical contrivance and that, therefore, his paint may have had a particular interest and appeal for him (58 )

Just as the conflation of paint and optics occurs in the figure of Vermeer, so too it does with Spinoza, who taught himself to draw (camera obscura? reflecting concave mirror?) and associated with painters of the Guild.