“A Visit to the Shops”: James W. Queen & Co.

On entering the shop of James W. Queen & Co. at 924 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, a customer in need of a microscope may have felt overwhelmed by their choices. Founded in 1853, James W. Queen & Co., retailer and manufacturer of scientific instruments of all kinds, stocked simple microscopes (little more than magnifying glasses), compound microscopes, including monocular and binocular instruments, and microscope accessories made by American, English, French and German manufacturers. Customers could choose among watchmaker’s glasses, simple flower microscopes, linen provers (“for counting the threads in linen fabrics”), school and student’s microscopes, dissecting microscopes, portable travelling microscopes, family microscopes and clinical microscopes.

The instrument of the customer’s choice could then be fitted with technical accessories ranging from turn-tables for making specimen slides to watered dissecting troughs and polarising prisms for mineralogical analyses. In 1888, the Scientific American praised James W. Queen & Co. as the “largest and most comprehensive [business] of its kind in the United States or the world.” Their production of scientific instruments had “reached proportions which can hardly be appreciated without a visit to the shops.” Still, the Scientific American tried to recreate the experience of visiting James W. Queen & Co. by walking its readers through the different steps of making scientific instruments. The front page of the journal was covered with illustrations of the various departments at James W. Queen & Co.: The company had its own brass foundry, machinery for grinding lenses and spacious, bright rooms for its designers.

Illustration of James W. Queen & Co.’s factory published in the Scientific American (1888). Image from HathiTrust.

It is unclear if James W. Queen & Co. produced most (or some) parts of their microscopes themselves or if they merely reassembled pieces of instruments produced by other manufacturers. Whatever James W. Queen & Co. did, they did it very successfully. One of the best customers of the company was the US government. The US Army Medical Museum, the Bureau of Animal Industry and the Department of Agriculture were just some of the US departments that relied on microscopes for their daily work. When the article on James W. Queen & Co. was published in the Scientific American, the government had just ordered several Acme microscopes, a series of inexpensive instruments produced by James W. Queen & Co. since 1881. Two years later, Thomas Taylor, official microscopist of the Department of Agriculture, used his Acme microscope to exhibit tea leaves and an embryo tapeworm at the Annual Soirée of the Washington Microscopical Society. Microscopy soirées like this – exhibitions of the latest microscopes, specimen slides carefully prepared for the occasion, or stunning photomicrographs – were often more entertaining than strictly educational. Apparently, governmental microscopical work could also be entertaining. The soirée drew 500 visitors, many of whom “called forth exclamations of delight and wonder.”

Illustration of James W. Queen & Co.’s Acme Microscope No. 4 published in Simon Henry Gage’s (1899) The Microscope and Microscopical Methods. Image from the Internet Archive.

While making microscopes was a difficult task in itself, advertising them was another hurdle microscope manufacturers faced. In addition to circulating regular trade catalogues listing products and prices, James W. Queen & Co. issued a publication that was half trade catalogue and half scientific journal. The Microscopical Bulletin and Optician’s Circular, later The Microscopical Bulletin and Science News, was published from 1883 to 1902 and ingeniously combined price lists, adverts and microscopical news from the US and abroad. Moreover, the wry comments occasionally inserted by the editor, Edward Pennock, made the bulletin a remarkably good read for a trade catalogue turned scientific journal. In 1882, a correspondent of the bulletin enquired: “I want to know if you have a glass that I can see through paper or leather, and if you have one, please to be kind enough to send me the price of it at once.” “Punch a hole in the paper or leather,” Pennock replied.

Since the bulletin was digitised by Google and is not included in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, it will not be uploaded to Worlds of Wonder. Still, it is a delight to read and you can do so in the HathiTrust library.

Further reading

Padgitt, D. L. (1975). A Short History of the Early American Microscopes. London and Chicago: Microscope Publications Ltd. http://www.mccroneinstitute.org/uploads/A_Short_History_Early_American_Microscopes.pdf

Getting to Know the Books and Periodicals on Worlds of Wonder

Philip Henry Gosse: Evenings at the Microscope (1859)

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888)

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) was an English zoologist and a prolific author of popular science books. In the early 1850s, Gosse set out to write a book on rotifers, microscopic animals that he collected in ponds and puddles. However, “it proved difficult to popularize so abstruse a subject [as rotifers]” and Gosse abandoned the project. 1 He went on to publish Evenings at the Microscope in 1859, which contains a chapter on rotifers, or “wheel-bearers.” His book was widely read and made rotifer research more popular. In 1897, the illustrations Gosse made for Evenings at the Microscope were reprinted in an American children’s book, Clara Kern Bayliss’ In Brook and Bayou.

Mary Somerville: On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869)

Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a renowned Scottish astronomer and mathematician, and a celebrated science author. Her On Molecular and Microscopic Science, however, was not as well-received as her books on astronomy and physics. The Popular Science Review called it “a mistake,” its arguments being “crude” and “undigested.” Still, the reviewer admitted that the book’s illustrations were of “great beauty, attractiveness, and effect.” 2 Mary Somerville borrowed heavily from other microscopy handbooks, which makes her On Molecular and Microscopic Science an interesting case of texts and images moving among publications, and possibly being adapted to different audiences.

Thomas Bolton: Hints on the Preparation of Living Objects and Their Examination Under the Microscope (1879-1882)

Thomas Bolton (ca. 1830-1887) was a Birmingham microscopist, who sent living microscopic specimens to microscopists all over Europe. His specimens were accompanied by “flyleaves,” brief descriptions and illustrations of the specimens, often copied from microscopy journals and handbooks. Bolton’s flyleaves were bound and published at intervals. We uploaded a collection of flyleaves circulated between 1879 and 1882. After Bolton died in 1887, his son seems to have taken over his business and continued to send specimens to Europe and North America: There is an advert for “Thomas E. Bolton’s Living Microscopic Specimens” in the American Monthly Microscopical Journal (1898).

The American Monthly Microscopical Journal (1880-1902)

The American Monthly Microscopical Journal was founded by Romyn Hitchcock (1851-1923), a many-sided author, scientist, museum curator and photographer. Originally, the American Monthly Microscopical Journal was associated with the New York Microscopical Society, but in 1887 it was moved to Washington. It contained reports on the meetings of many American microscopy societies, correspondence of its subscribers, descriptions of microscopes and manuals on how to prepare and observe microscopic specimens.

Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science (1853-1966)

When the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science was founded in 1853, it contained the transactions of the Microscopical Society of London and combined them with reports on microscopy in Britain and abroad. However, many members of the London society felt that they should have their own journal and when the society obtained its royal charter in 1866, the quarterly was dissociated from the new Royal Microscopical Society (RMS). The journal continued to be widely read and its successor, the Journal of Cell Science, still exists today.

A “World of Wonder and Beauty”: Exploring Nineteenth-Century Microworlds

Agnes Catlow (1851) “Drops of water; their marvellous and beautiful inhabitants displayed by the microscope”

In his popular book Evenings at the Microscope (1851), the British microscopist Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) described the microscope as “the key that unlocks a world of wonder and beauty” and promised to lead his readers down “the path to the myriad wonders of creation, which . . . are made cognisable to sight by the aid of the Microscope.” 1 Like most nineteenth-century microscopy handbooks, Gosse’s work was richly illustrated. Gosse’s father had been a miniature painter and Gosse himself was a gifted illustrator. His illustrations accompanied several articles he wrote for the Popular Science Review and they featured in his major work on aquatic microorganisms, The Rotifera (1886/1889). 2

Gosse’s illustrations appeared in a whole range of publications aimed at very different groups of readers. Consequently, his illustrations were interpreted differently, depending on the texts that surrounded them and the people who read them. And although Gosse mostly illustrated his articles and books himself, the illustrations that his nineteenth-century readers saw were the result of a collaboration among several people, including the illustrator, lithographer, printer, editor and publisher of a scientific handbook or journal. The sketches Gosse made for his The Rotifera contain instructions to the lithographer, who transferred Gosse’s illustrations to a stone or metal plate and prepared them for printing. 3

Our Worlds of Wonder project seeks to find out more about the ways in which the various people involved in the making of nineteenth-century microscopy illustrations collaborated. Did most microscopists illustrate their own works? How did the decisions made by the editor or publisher affect their illustrations? Did the illustrations change when they were reproduced in another publication? And when did microphotographs start to appear in microscopy publications? With your help, we hope to be able to answer these questions.

Just like Philip Henry Gosse asked his readers to join him on his journey into a “world of wonder and beauty”, we invite you to explore nineteenth-century microscopy publications with us. At the moment, our Zooniverse project contains five publications to choose from, three handbooks and two journals. In our next blog post, we’ll tell you more about these publications and how some of them managed to travel to places all over Europe and America – stay tuned!

Every Book a Compilation: Tracing Microscopy Illustrations

In 1857, the North American Medico-Chirurgical Review published a critique of a microscopy handbook written by the British physician and microscopist Jabez Hogg. The journal criticised Hogg’s publication for copying entire paragraphs “verbatim et literatim” from an American microscopy manual, Joseph Wythe’s The Microscopist (1851). Although the anonymous reviewer admitted that every microscopy handbook was, to some extent, a compilation of previous works, Hogg was attacked for plagiarising Wythe’s book without even mentioning it as his main source – “a Hogg-ish proceeding certainly.”1

The North American Medico-Chirurgical Review was not the only journal to voice such criticism. Reviewers of microscopy handbooks often exposed and condemned plagiarism. Since international copyright laws were only enforced after the signing of the Berne Convention in 1886 and the passing of the American Chace Act in 1891, the mid-nineteenth-century periodical press and book trade thrived on reprinting material. And some editors publicly defended copy-and-paste practices, arguing that carefully selecting and recombining articles was the true art of editing. Edward Pennock, editor of the Philadelphian Microscopical Bulletin and Science News, outright declared that he could “write much better articles with the scissors than with the pen.”2

As a result, microscopy texts and illustrations travelled between books, periodicals and trade catalogues. Illustrations published in a religious work on microscopy, testifying to the beauty of even the most minute of God’s creations, were reprinted alongside medical illustrations. Likewise, an extract from a textbook for students of biology could appear next to a lively account of infusoria living in a microscopist’s garden pond. Often, microscopy texts and illustrations were adapted to target different audiences. Editors shortened texts, added chapters or prefaces, had photos reproduced as engravings or multiple illustrations combined into one. By the time the North American Medico-Chirurgical Review published their scathing review of Hogg’s microscopy manual, the frontispiece of Hogg’s book had already reappeared in a German publication.


Jabez Hogg’s The Microscope (1854) and Moritz Willkomm’s Die Wunder des Mikroskops (1856)

The Worlds of Wonder Zooniverse project aims to reconstruct the travels of nineteenth-century microscopy illustrations by tracking their reproductions. It builds on the idea that circulating illustrations were a vital factor in the formation of a microscopy community in the nineteenth century. Microscopists were an exceptionally diverse group ranging from amateur and professional scientists in various disciplines to opticians, engineers and medical practitioners. There is reason to believe that the success of microscopy publications depended on their ability to address their readership by combining texts and images which, on their own, would have been relevant only for subgroups within the microscopy community. By reconstructing the routes microscopy illustrations took and documenting the changes they underwent on their way, we hope to better understand strategies of community-building in nineteenth-century science, technology and medicine.

We invite you to join our research team on Zooniverse and help identify and classify microscopy illustrations. Identifying the content and contributors of these illustrations will allow us to get a better idea of who was involved in the nineteenth-century microscopy print trade and to find and analyse reproductions of illustrations. We look forward to meeting you all and having a great time researching microscopy books, periodicals and catalogues together!