A London optician named James Wilson (fl. 1702-1710) described a simple (single-lens) microscope in 1702. John Cuff (fl. 1731-1770) introduced his version in the early 1740s, terming it a “microscope for opake objects.” The key feature here was a small “Concave Speculum of Silver” that surrounded the lens and threw light onto the specimen to be seen. The idea for this mirror probably came from Johann Lieberkühn, a German physician and microscopist who had visited London in the late 1730s. Henry Baker was enormously pleased with Cuff’s instrument, noting that it “has afforded me more Delight and Satisfaction than I am able to describe.” George Adams, also of London, was selling similar instruments by 1746.
The Smithsonian’s example was owned by Richard Halsted Ward (1837-1917), a noted medical microscopist, or his son, Henry B. Ward, a pioneering parasitologist. It is made of brass, with a wooden handle, iron forceps to hold the specimen, and a small reflector around the lens. It is simpler than those described by Wilson, Cuff, Adams, or other eighteenth- or nineteenth-century makers or dealers. Historians refer to this form as a “compass” microscope, presumably reflecting its resemblance to a drawing compass. Many similar pieces are known, but few are signed.
Ref: James Wilson, “The Description and Manner of Using a Late Invented Set of Small-Pocket Microscopes, Made by James Wilson; Which with Great Ease are Apply’d in Viewing Opake, Transparent, and Liquid Objects,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 23 (1702-1703): 1241-1247.
The Description of a Microscope for Opake Objects; As Made and Sold by John Cuff (London, n.d.).
Henry Baker, The Microscope Made Easy (London, 1742), pp. 26-30, and plate IIII.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Physical Description
brass (overall material)
glass (overall material)
wood (overall material)
overall: 7/8 in x 5/8 in x 5 3/8 in; 2.2225 cm x 1.5875 cm x 13.6525 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Science & Scientific Instruments
Science & Mathematics
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Medicine
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Miss Charlotte B. Ward

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