Rare Antoni van Leeuwenhoek microscope auctioned

– Dec. 19, 2023

Small but mighty, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, thanks to his homemade microscopes, was the first person on Earth to explore microscopic life. He crafted hundreds of these microscopes, tailoring each one for specific observations. While most of them have been lost to time, an exception arose last week when one was auctioned for over €150,000.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) is seen by many as the Father of Microbiology. He was the first person ever to see microscopic life. Driven by his curiosity, he examined himself, his blood and semen, but also the world around him. He discovered 'small animals' that we now know as microbes. To see these microbes he made his own microscopes. These microscopes were by far the best microscopes of that time, even after his death it took a long time before microscopes that came close came onto the market. Following his death, it remained unknown for a long time how he was able to make microscopes of such high quality. During his life he made hundreds of microscopes. Most of these have been lost. Right now we know about the existence of about a dozen of his microscopes, most of them in museums.

It is not very surprising that these microscopes were lost when you know what they looked like. The microscope that was auctioned last week consisted of two silver plates measuring 6 cm by 2.5 cm, held together with some screws and with a glass lens to look through. You can consider it to be a simple and small, but super powerful device. The lens of the auctioned microscope could magnify as much as 285x. The most powerful lens known from that time period could only magnify 266x and was also made by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. On average, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek microscopes were 10 times more powerful than other microscopes at the time.

Because the anonymous seller could not remember how he/she obtained the microscope, the origin of this microscope is unclear. It cannot be determined with 100% certainty whether it was actually made by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Nevertheless, this microscope still was sold for €160.000 at the auction. How much money would you be willing to spend on a piece of history?

Author: Eline van Bloois