Last week I was talking about how much I always wanted to own a microscope, knowing the chances of it were very slim. A decent one cost a year’s pay.
Let me put that in perspective for you.
In the 1930s, when I saw my first scope, 11 cents would buy a loaf of bread, or quart of milk, pack of cigarettes, or gallon of gas. Our rent was $16 dollars a month for a large three bedroom apartment. The average job — if you could find one — paid $15 to $30 dollars a week with no benefits of any kind whatsoever.
Even in 1946, my sophomore year in high school, a plain old student microscope was a rare thing. In our entire 1,100 student high school we had just one — inside a locked glass case in the biology classroom. In my four years, I never so much as once saw it taken out and used. Nor was the sole balance in the chemistry lab ever taken out and used. Of telescopes we had none.
Compare that with today’s classroom. Fifteen microscopes. Our kids working in pairs. Real hands-on learning. How great!
Even before I ever got my hands on a microscope or telescope, I had a deep and abiding interest in the kind of things seen best through a lens. In those days cars had running boards, and I can remember many nights I spent lying on a running board up on Pike Street, a block from our house on Staten Island. I spent hours and hours gazing up at the sky. Before I was 8, I could point out the planets that were in the sky on any night, knew the names of some of the stars, and of most of the northern constellations.
We had a little pair of three power opera glasses, and I can remember the night I looked at Jupiter with them and saw four tiny moons circling a giant planet. No one had ever told me you could see them and I thought I had made a great discovery. What a night! I thought I was famous. I learned better the next day in a book my brother Bill had, but the names of those four moons stuck in my head and are still there. Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
If you have young children or grandkids, and you want to give them a thrill, take them outside some night and show them those four beautiful moons with a pair of binoculars.
It’s one thing to read about things like that, or to see them on television. It’s another thing to step outside at night with an ordinary pair of binoculars and see them for yourself. It’s like eating strawberries instead of reading a seed catalog.
When I left off last week, I was going to tell you about the first microscope I ever owned, one I made myself. I was also going to tell you how to make a microscope lens in just minutes. I’ll do that, but first let me tell you about one crafty Dutchman.
I have a very good microbiology textbook. On page 3 it says, “The birth of microbiology occurred back in 1674 when Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch merchant, peered at a drop of water through a glass lens which he had carefully ground.”
Sorry. Wrong! Leeuwenhoek did NOT grind his lens. That’s what he wanted people to think. Why? So he could sell the microscopes he had learned to make.
He kept his method secret and became (a) the first person to describe a whole new world, (b) the Father of Microbiology, and (c) one very wealthy Dutchman. Around 1957 — 300 years later! — someone thought he had discovered his method. I read an article which gave vague hints but no details. I thought hard, felt a light bulb go on, smiled, and said, “Hey! If some Dutchman could do it 300 years ago, why can’t I do it now?”
Which to my amazement, I did. And so can you. Here’s how ...
Take a clear glass stirring rod. Heat up a spot near the middle until it glows. A plain old alcohol lamp will do the trick. Pull the ends of the rod.
You’ll get a long thin glass thread. Take a two inch segment of the thread and put one end back in the flame. Hold it as vertical as possible. A perfect sphere will form on its end. Let it cool. Take any thin card (cardboard, plastic, metal, whatever), preferably black, and drill a hole in it the size of the sphere. Tape the thread onto the card with the sphere in the hole. Put it up to your eye (very close), look at something (very close). You have a crystal clear microscope which, depending on one thing or another, usually turns out to be about 100 power. The one you used in school was probably 40 power.
Ain’t that a blast!
I made the rest of my microscope out of a purse mirror set to swivel and catch the light, a couple of black painted scraps of wood, and a piece of clear plastic to lay a slide on. With it I saw critters that absolutely knocked my socks off.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek was one crafty Dutchman. He made, and sold over 400 hand microscopes, was appointed chamberlain of the Lord Regents of Delft, and Fellow of the British Royal Society.
All with a bit of glass, some ingenuity, and some good old Dutch ... um-m-m-m, frugality. As in “Dutch treat.”
I loved that little handmade microscope of mine. Around 1968 I finally managed to buy a regular little scope, a Sears Roebuck $30 kid’s model. Nowhere near as powerful as mine, but prettier.
About that same time I came across my first copy of the Fisher Scientific Catalog. In it was an American Optical Microstar Series 10 microscope, the ultimate impossible dream, at a price just about equal to my entire year’s pay.
I tell you I sat looking at pictures of that thing — it can go up to 1,000 power — for hours on end. They offered a manual for it. I couldn’t afford the microscope, but I could afford the manual, so I sent for it. The introduction said, “The AO Microstar is the finest and most advanced laboratory microscope ever made.”
Can’t argue with that.
About 15 years ago down in the Valley, I drove over to a microscope repair and refurbishing place on business for the school district. While there I looked around and saw — I could hardly believe my eyes — an American Optical Microstar, 25 years old, used, looking perfect, and on sale for $950 dollars.
And yes, I bought it, and I have it right here in front of me as I type this. Dreams, you see, do come true — once in a while.