Andrea/Cara here, Like my fellow Wenches, I find doing research is an integral part of the creative process for my books. Digging deeper into elements I want to weave into a story and learning little details often spark ideas that embellish the plots. One of the very fun aspects of my summer sojourn to England was the chance to explore up close and personal some of the scientific inventions that I feature in my Wrexford and Sloane Regency-set mystery series.
My current WIP features a voltaic pile (named after Alexander Volta, it was the first electrical battery and could generate a current.) But you’ll hear more about that in the future. I also have Wrexford and his assistant solve a key part of the mystery using a microscope. And as I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford during my trip, I was, as they say, in hog—or rather, lens—heaven!
The Museum, which is located in the Old Ashmolean building, is considered to have the finest collection of scientific instruments in the world (and is the third oldest museum dedicated to a specific purpose.) The array of microscopes is fascinating—they’re works of art in and of themselves—and the chance to actually see how they work was inspiring. The ingenuity and creativity involved in conceptualizing how to solve a problem (i.e. seeing things better than with the naked eye) is a wonderful metaphor for exploration and curiosity, which are core elements of the mystery genre.
So let’s take a closer look at the history of the Regency-era microscope!
There is mention of glass lenses in Roman writing of the first century AD. (The word “lens” is derived from the Latin word for “lentil” as they resembled the convex shape of the bean.) They were used for simple magnification and referred to as magnifiers. (It was also discovered that they could focus sunlight to ignite a flame, and so were also called fire glasses.)
It wasn’t until the 13th century that some clever individual came up with the revolutionary idea of making eyeglasses. This discovery of how to alter the way we see would soon lead to other profound innovations of how we see ourselves and the world around us. In the early 1590s, Zaccharias and Hans Janssen, a Dutch father and son duo of spectacle makers, began experimenting with combining several lenses within a tube. The result was that they see an object at the end of the tube with far greater magnification than could be achieved with a simple magnifying glass—they had invented the compound microscope!
Robert Hooke, one of the great minds behind the birth of modern science in England in the mid 1600s, made some groundbreaking discoveries with an early compound microscope that he designed and had built by notable instrument maker Christopher Cock. He was the first to magnify a plant and name its essential building blocks a “cell.” And in 1665, he produced a book called Micrographia, whose images—like the famous flea—sparked the imagination of the public and stirred interest in looking more closely at the world.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who worked in a store selling fabric, became fascinated with lenses while using a magnifying glass to examine the threads in woven piece of cloth. He started to experiment with making his own lenses and developed one with far more curvature, which allowed for far greater magnification—some were able to enlarge things 270x! He also invented a single lens microscope, which allowed him to view things the previous versions couldn’t—he’s credited with being the first to see, among other things, bacteria, sperm, organisms in water, and the movement of blood through capillaries.
The question of how to focus enough light on a subject light was always an issue with early microscopes. Men of science were constantly tinkering with arrangements of mirrors, lamps and vials of water (to diffuse lamp light.) It wasn’t until the late 19th century that electricity allowed a whole new array of microscopes (modern-day ones use specialized technology that I won’t even begin to try explaining!)
Regency-era microscopes used the same basic technology developed in the 1600s, though the men of science in that time were constantly tinkering with lenses and able to engineer instruments with more precise adjustments. I use just such a tinkering in my WIP to illuminate a key clue in the mystery.
Though I didn’t do much science in school, I remember vividly the amazement and excitement of my first look through a microscope. The idea that things appeared so very different depending on one’s perspective really opened my eyes and had a profound effect on me. I think lenses are one of the transformational inventions in human history.
These days, lenses affect so much of our daily lives and our hobbies, from eyeglasses and digital cameras to binoculars, telescopes and rangefinders. Are you a stamp collector, a bird watcher, a spectator at sporting events? Then I’m sure you’re constantly using lenses. I now need reading glasses so am incredibly thankful for the ability to see my beloved books! So what about you—what lens, if any, do you use regularly? And for which are you most thankful?