Microscopic reforms

A British re-think of a 400-year-old design brings both portability and style

The basic design of the optical microscope has gone unchallenged in 400 years – until now. A British designer has lately done a make-over on this classic instrument, and come up with a new, hand-held device, not much bigger than a CD player.

The basic design of the optical microscope has gone unchallenged in 400 years – until now. A British designer has lately done a make-over on this classic instrument, and come up with a new, hand-held device, not much bigger than a CD player.

Zacharias Janssen is credited with building the first microscope, in the Netherlands in the 1590s. Most microscopes have two sets of glass lenses set in a barrel-like chamber, an eyepiece and a source of light to illuminate the specimen. These compound microscopes use one short focal length lens – the eyepiece – to magnify the image created by a second lens, the objective lens, which is placed closer to the object.

Save for a few refinements here and there, the basic idea has remained unchanged. As any microscopist will tell you, however, the big problem with such a design is that these heavy "line-of-sight" microscopes that look down on the specimen are best suited to a laboratory bench, so that anyone working outside usually has to bring samples to the microscope, rather than taking the microscope into the field.

Now, Rick Dickinson, the former head designer for Clive Sinclair, the computer entrepreneur, has come up with a microscope that uses folded optics to create an instrument that is both portable and surprisingly stylish. The specimen is held in place with a magnetic disc, and the lenses and mirrors are built into a circular case that fits neatly into the palm of the hand. The object is lit by a small, angle-poised light that slides across the top of the object, and the rubber eye piece can be reversed to suit either left or right-eyed people.

Enhelion, the Cambridge company behind this new Micron microscope, has already won a clutch of design awards for its product, which it says is no toy, even though it has proved a hit with schoolchildren who have road-tested it (one 10-year-old I know wants to take it on holiday with him). Vets in Australia have used the Micron to diagnose animal diseases on remote farms from blood and urine samples, vets in Korea have used it to check sperm before artificial insemination, and horticulturalists in the UK have found it useful for identifying plant pests in the field.

Pete Whitbread-Abrutat, the senior scientist on the Eden Project in Cornwall, is another enthusiast. "Our science team road-tested the Enhelion Micron and found it to be a very valuable piece of equipment. Its lightweight, compact and ergonomic design, and ease of use, made it very practical," he said.

A small fitting to the eyepiece allows the microscope to be attached to a digital or SLR camera for photographing whatever is being viewed. Magnification is to a professional standard, with a choice of either x80 or x160. Unfortunately, the price (about £85) is also professional, although Enhelion is developing a lower-magnification version for about half the price.

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