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The aquatic microscope is a simple low-power instrument so designed that the lens can move back and forth and from side to side, to follow the movements of small creatures swimming on the stage. The form was developed in the mid-1740s by a London artisan named John Cuff, at the behest of a Swiss naturalist named Abraham Trembley. This example fits into and stands on a wooden case covered with sharkskin. The inscription on the stage reads “I. CUFF Londini Inv. & Fec.” There are six lenses (# 1, 2, 3, and 4, and two unmarked), some brass slides and some bone slides.
In 1752, Cuff modified the microscope for the naturalist, John Ellis, and Ellis included an explanation and illustration of that instrument in his popular Essay Towards a Natural History of the Corallines (London, 1755). That instrument, known as “Ellis’s aquatic microscope” and made by others, remained popular for years.
Ref: Savile Bradbury, The Evolution of the Microscope (Oxford, 1967), pp. 97-98.
Julian Holland, "John Cuff (1707?-after 1772: 'the best Workman of his Trade in London'," Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 141 (2019): 2-14; and 142 (2019): 4-18.
Deborah Warner, "The Oldest Microscope in the Museum," https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/microscope
Currently not on view
Object Name
Other Terms
microscope; Medicine
date made
Cuff, John
place made
United Kingdom: England, London
Physical Description
wood (case material)
brass (microscope material)
glass (microscope material)
velvet (case material)
microscope: 12.4 cm x 6 cm x 7.7 cm; 4 7/8 in x 2 3/8 in x 3 1/16 in
case: 4.7 cm x 22.4 cm x 13.8 cm; 1 7/8 in x 8 13/16 in x 5 7/16 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Medicine
Science & Mathematics
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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