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  • The Microscopic World
  • Bernard Lightman (bio)

In Drops of Water (1851), the popularizer of science Agnes Catlow invited her readers to follow her into the invisible world of the minuscule. "My readers must fancy themselves spirits," she advised, "capable of living in a medium different from our atmosphere, and so pass with me through a wonderful brazen tunnel, with crystal doors at the entrance" (x). Catlow expected that her readers would react with astonishment to their first glimpse of the microscopic world. "Your minds are bewildered with the variety of new beings and forms you behold," she wrote, "all gliding and moving about without noise and at perfect ease" (xi). The popularizer of natural history Philip Henry Gosse also depicted the microscope as providing access to a hidden, wondrous world. "Like the work of some mighty genie of Oriental fable," he declared, "the brazen tube is the key that unlocks a world of wonder and beauty before invisible, which one who has once gazed upon it can never forget, and never cease to admire" (v).

The Victorians were excited by the new world revealed by the microscope. Beginning in the 1850s, the microscope became one of the most important instruments of the life sciences in the Victorian domestic parlour. Cheap instruments had become more widely available; specialist organizations, such as the Microscopical Society and the Quekett Club, held frequent soirees and public exhibitions; and popular scientific periodicals began to promote microscopy. At the same time, the practitioners of the life sciences were endorsing the microscope as the definitive laboratory instrument. In The Microscope: and its Revelations (1856), the biologist William Carpenter pointed to the "rapid increase which has recently taken place in the use of the Microscope,—both as an instrument of scientific research, and as a means of gratifying a laudable curiosity and of obtaining a healthful recreation" (v). Even novelists were caught up in the excitement. George Eliot, for example, was drawn into the culture of amateur microscopy through her relationship with George Lewes, and, as a result, her novel Middlemarch participates in the discourse.

We have scholarly studies on technical improvements to the microscope during the nineteenth century, on social interest in the microscope, and on its use by literary figures. But we have little on how the microscopic world itself was perceived. When treated as an amusing optical gadget, the microscope was often seen as providing entertainment for the Victorian reading audience. The work of scholars on the visual culture of Victorian science might profitably be applied to an understanding of how reading audiences were introduced to the microscopic world. The microscope was, after all, an optical device like the stereoscope, kaleidoscope, and zootrope, all newly invented as part of the reorganization of vision that, Jonathan Crary has argued, created a new kind of [End Page 46] observer. Optical illusions, panoramas, and spectacle were the popular amusements corresponding to this shift in visual culture.

Authors of books on the microscope often tapped into the discourse surrounding the new visual culture. In Microscope Teachings (1864), Mary Ward proposed to exhibit the wonders of the microscope "in the manner of a panorama" (vii). More common was the comparison between a spectacle and various scenes in the microscopic world. As the public lecturer Dionysius Lardner declared, "No person can witness without the highest degree of admiration the spectacle presented by certain parts of the structure of the more minute members of the animal kingdom, when viewed with a powerful microscope" (50). Indeed, science writers used the term "spectacle" to describe a large number of diverse animal structures viewed under the microscope, from a frog's foot to barnacles, sea-urchins, and gnats. Some authors drew attention to even smaller beings, referring, for example, to the wheel-like motion of the cilia of infusoria as a wondrous "spectacle" (Catlow 28). Many of these books on the microscopic world are richly illustrated, and the strategies for representing spectacle in pictorial form would be worth investigating.

The use of the term "spectacle" in relation to the microscopic world seems somewhat surprising, though not in light of Iwan Morus's recent work on the use of the oxyhydrogen microscope in magic lantern extravaganzas...


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pp. 46-49
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