Microcosm of Wonders

Highlights from the Lentz Collection


The invention of the microscope in the 17th century offered an enrapturing spectacle to the human eye. Through its magnifying lenses, even the smallest and most insignificant creatures—such as fleas, mites and lice—showed a structural complexity that baffled and fascinated the earliest observers. The microcosm of wonders revealed by the microscope was sensational. With evermore powerful instruments, the human eye ventured into the domain of the invisible, observing a relentless activity of germs, globules, cells and other microorganisms. Microscopes became conversation pieces and material symbols of one’s love for natural knowledge.


In 2012 Thomas Lentz, Professor Emeritus of Cell Biology at the Yale School of Medicine, donated his microscopy and histology collection to the Yale Peabody Museum. The collection consists of more than 200 microscopes and other optical instruments, along with thousands of microscope slides and preparations that illustrate the history of microscopy from the 1600s to the present. With this acquisition, the Peabody now has one of the finest microscopy collections in the world. This display highlights a small selection of some of the oldest and most valuable items in the Lentz collection.

Campani-type Tripod Compound Microscope, Italian, c1660

Lignum vitae, ivory, glass



This 17th-century microscope is one of the earliest surviving microscopes. Unsigned, it may have been made by Giuseppe Campani (1635–1715), a prominent Italian optician and astronomer, or by Eustachio Divini (1610–1685), another well-known maker of optical instruments. The microscope produces an image of about 10x magnification. A good light microscope today can magnify up to 1,000 times.

Culpeper Tripod Microscope and Sliders, c1730

Lignum vitae, boxwood, brass, glass, pasteboard, marble paper, shagreen (rayskin), ivory



Around 1725, the English instrument maker Edmund Culpeper designed a compound microscope that became extremely popular. His design modified the Campani-type tripod microscope by raising the stage (the platform underneath the lenses that holds the specimen) above table level and by inserting a concave mirror below it. These two improvements made the stage more accessible and allowed for the illumination of specimens from below.


This impressive Culpeper microscope was a typical conversation piece in its day.  It produces an image of about 200x magnification. Coarse focus is achieved by sliding the body tube up or down in the sleeve, and fine focus can be obtained by screwing the sleeve with the body tube in or out of the collar. The black-painted ivory sliders have four compartments that can be moved successively under the microscope. A manuscript lists the specimens they contain.

Nuremberg Sentry-box Microscope and Slider, c1765

Oak wood, pasteboard, fruitwood, paper, glass



In the 18th century, the German city of Nuremberg specialized in the manufacture of inexpensive microscopes made of wood and paper, often sold as toys. On display here is a typical example of such manufacture, and it testifies to the popularity of the microscope. The wood slider was also made in Nuremberg.

Cuff-type Side Pillar Compound Microscope, c1770

Signed “G. ADAMS At No 60 Fleet Street LONDON.”

Brass, mahogany, glass



In 1743 the London maker John Cuff (1708-1772) modified the then design of microscopes by attaching the body tube to a sliding upright side pillar. His model, soon imitated by other makers, was easier to focus and offered unobstructed access to the stage. Coarse focusing was achieved by unclamping the body tube and sliding the assembly up or down, while a small thumbscrew that moved the sliding pillar in small increments provided fine focus adjustments. This item presents six objectives with different focal lengths that provide magnification from about 3x to 250x.

Culpeper Tripod Compound Microscope, c1810

Brass, mahogany, glass



This microscope is an elegant representative of the final form of the Culpeper-style microscope. It is a decorative piece of craftsmanship made of shining brass with elegantly curved legs and a wealth of accessories, all housed in a shapely pyramid case of mahogany that presents the maker’s trade card. An unusual detail is the Egyptian revival brass piece at the top of the case.

Culpeper Screw-barrel Microscope and Sliders, c1710

Brass, wood, bone (or ivory)



This screw-barrel microscope consists of a small brass cylinder with an external thread at both ends. Once a specimen is inserted through an opening in the side of the tube, the microscope is held up to the light for viewing. Screwing the outer tube in or out focuses the image. The specimens for observation are carried by bone (or ivory) sliders.

Henry Baker, The Microscope Made Easy (London, 2nd ed. 1743)



First published in 1742, this text was a best seller among microscope amateurs. Beautifully illustrated, it explained how to use the microscope and what to observe. Starting from 1743, the book was sold in the workshop of John Cuff, inventor of the Cuff microscope.