Galileo and Microscopy

Galileo's World at a Glance | Gallery at the Exhibit Website
Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (Spring/Summer 2015).
What is it like to reveal the wonders and marvels of the very small?
“I have contemplated a great many animals with infinite admiration; among them, the flea is most horrible, the mosquito and the moth are beautiful; and with great satisfaction I have seen how flies and other tiny creatures can walk attached to mirrors, and even upside down.”
Galileo, letter to Cesi, 1624

Galileo and the Academy of the Lynx were responsible for the first published report of observations made with a microscope (Apiarium, 1625), as well as for the telescope. At the same time Galileo was making his telescopic discoveries, he was also experimenting with lenses to magnify the small. Another member of the Lynx, Johann Faber, named Galileo’s new instrument a microscope.  In antiquity, the lynx was renowned for possessing sharp eyesight at night. The founder of the Academy of the Lynx, Federigo Cesi, believed that the eyes of the Lynx would peer more deeply into the secrets of nature than ever before. The keen eyes of the Academy of the Lynx stretched the boundaries of European thought in the life sciences just as with Galileo’s discoveries in the physical sciences.

The Academy of the Lynx

A new phenomenon characterized science in the 17th century: the scientific society. One of the earliest and most important was the Academy of the Lynx (Accademia dei Lincei). Federigo Cesi, Duke of Aquasparta, founded the Lynx in 1603. Galileo soon became the best-known member. For the rest of his life, Cesi provided Galileo and other Lynx with crucial intellectual, financial, and moral support. The works of the Lynx spanned all fields of science, including the most important early natural history of America.

In founding the Lynx, Cesi was inspired by another society, the Academy of the Secrets of Nature (Accademia Secretorum Naturae), established by Giambattista della Porta in Naples. Della Porta in turn became an early member of the Lynx. Della Porta’s works and his relationship with Cesi throw light on the Lynx’s formative years.

1. Giambattista della Porta, Phytognomonica (Naples, 1588), "Plant Anatomy"
2. Giambattista della Porta, Magiae naturalis (Naples, 1589), "Natural Magic"
3. Giambattista della Porta, Natural Magick (London, 1658), "Natural Magic"
4. Giambattista della Porta, De furtivis literarum notis (Naples, 1563), "On Secret Writing"
5. Lettere di Galileo Galilei al Principe Federigo Cesi (1629?), "Letters from Galileo to Prince Federigo Cesi"
6. Giambattista della Porta, Della Fisonomia di Tutto il Corpo Humano (Rome, 1637), "Human Anatomy"
7. Francesco Stelluti and Federigo Cesi, Trattato del Legno Fossile Minerale (Rome, 1637), "Treatise on Fossil Mineral Wood"
8. Giambattista della Porta, De aeris transmutationibus (Rome, 1610), "On the Transformations of the Atmosphere"

Apiarium: The Lincean Explorer

“so, to make it capable of being minutely investigated with the eyes, we applied the Lincean explorer, that is to say, the microscope, a small viewing glass enclosed in a tube.” G.B. Ferrari

In 1623, Galileo’s supporter and friend, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, a patron of the Academy of the Lynx, became Pope Urban VIII. Barberini’s election seemed to assure Galileo of support from the highest level in the Catholic Church. To honor Urban and cement their relationship, the Academy of the Lynx published several works featuring the Barberini family crest of three busy bees. One of these works, a study of bees called the Apiarium, was the first published report of observations made with a microscope.  Just as Galileo's telescope brought near the distant Moon and stars, the microscope enabled the Academy of the Lynx to fathom the secrets of the small, and portray a world never seen before.  

9. Galileo, Il Saggiatore (Rome, 1623), "The Assayer." 1st ed., usual state.
10. Francesco Stelluti, Persio (Rome, 1630). "Persius."
11. Giuseppe Campani Microscope replica (Museo Galileo).
12. Giovanni Battista Ferrari, Flora, seu, De florum cultura (Amsterdam, 1664). “Flowers, or, On the Cultivation of Flower Gardens”
13. Giovanni Battista Ferrari, Flora; overo, Cultura di Fiori (Rome, 1638), “Flowers, or, On the Cultivation of Flower Gardens.”
14. Francesco Stelluti and Federigo Cesi, Apiarium (1625), "On Bees."

Marvels and Wonders

“So, naturalists observe, a flea Has smaller fleas that on him prey; And these have smaller still to bite 'em, And so proceed ad infinitum.” Jonathan Swift, “On Poetry: a Rhapsody” (1733)

As an instrument of discovery, the microscope revealed unseen worlds of surprising wonder and complexity. Anything placed under its lens became something new and different. The common flea and other specimens were transformed into fantastic otherworldly creatures which observers captured in detailed illustrations many thousands of times larger than life. As microscopy advanced, progress was made in optical design, lens grinding, and the mounts that held the parts together. In some cases, more complex designs were preferred for “refined intellectual entertainment.” The simple designs proved more effective for research, especially when examining specimens out in the field.

15. Robert Hooke, Micrographia (London, 1665), “On Microscopy."
16. Robert Hooke, Philosophical Collections (London, 1679).
17. Johann Francisco Griendel, Micrographia nova (Nuremberg, 1687), “The New Micrographia.”
18. Philippo Buonanni, Observationes circa viventia... cum micrographia curiosa (Rome, 1691).
19. Antonio van Leeuwenhoek, Arcana naturae (Delft, 1695).
20. Antonio van Leeuwenhoek, Continuatio arcanorum naturae detectorum (Delft, 1697).
21. Antonio van Leeuwenhoek, Microscope replica, Boerhaave Museum (Leiden, 2015).

Inquiries and Investigations

Innovations in microscopy supported sustained research in diverse subject areas. Microscopic investigations of human anatomy led to discoveries of red blood cells, papillae on the tongue, alveoli in the lungs, ova, and spermatozoa. The microscope facilitated study of the embryological development, yielding knowledge about life cycles of insects and aquatic animals and the development of the chick embryo. It made visible the processes of metamorphosis, the remarkable “death cycle” of tardigrades, and how hydra reproduce and feed. Microscope usage exceeded mere observation of the small. Naturalists developed advanced techniques for microscopic dissection, controlled experimentation, and measurement.

22. Jan Swammerdam, The Book of Nature, or the History of Insects (London, 1758), “Natural History of Insects”
23. Marcello Malpighi, Dissertatio epistolica de formatione pulli in ovo (London, 1673).
24. Francesco Redi, Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl'insetti (Florence, 1668).
25. Nicolas Hartsoeker, Essay de dioptrique (Paris, 1694).
26. Lazzaro Spallanzani, Opuscoli di fisica animale, e vegetabile (Modena, 1776), 2 vols.
27. Abraham Trembley, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire d'un genre de polypes d'eu douce, a bras en forme de cornes (Leiden, 1744).

Small Worlds Everywhere

minima cura si maxima vis
“Take care of small things if you want to obtain the greatest results”
Motto of the Academy of the Lynx

During the eighteenth century, microscopes became more affordable and widely available. George Adams’ Micrographia Illustrata (1771) and Philip Henry Gosse’s Evening at the Microscope (1859) show microscopes served both as research tools and as sources of refined intellectual “edutainment.” Today, health care workers in remote areas diagnose diseases using inexpensive smartphone-based microscopes, while advanced-generation Scanning Electron Microscopes serve as key research tools in state-of-the-art laboratories. At the University of Oklahoma, researchers at the Sam Noble Museum and the Noble Electron Microscopy Lab push forward the frontiers of knowledge and bring microscopy to schools across Oklahoma.

28. George Adams, Micrographia Illustrata (London, 1746).
29. George Adams, Micrographia Illustrata (London, 1747).
30. George Adams, Essays on the Microscope (London, 1787).
31. Culpeper Microscopes (40 cm and 30 cm).
32. Philip Henry Gosse, Evenings at the Microscope, or, Researches among the Minuter Organs and Forms of Animal Life (London, 1884).

Further reading:
  • Federigo Cesi and Francesco Stelluti, Apiarium (Rome, 1625); trans. Clara Sue Kidwell, 1970
  • Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (Walker, 1999)
  • David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx (Chicago, 2002)
  • Clara Pinto-Coreia, The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation (Stanford, 2002)
Curators: Kerry Magruder, James Burnes, Tom Luczycki, Katrina Menard, Brent Purkaple. Links are to the exhibit website, For more information, download the comprehensive, free Exhibit Guide from the iBook Store. Open Educational Resources are available at and ShareOK.