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Optical Tools: History of Invention and Consequential Development Essay

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Updated: Oct 19th, 2020

Introduction

It would prove impossible to imagine the realities of living today if people in just about all social strata were not able to take practical advantage of such optical instruments (tools) as telescopes and microscopes. Such a state of affairs is fully explainable – it is not only that these tools represent much value, as useful and utilitarian assets, but they are also often referred to as symbols of humanity’s endeavor to remain on the path of expanding its intellectual horizons.

Moreover, the invention and consequential development of optical instruments have also been mentioned in connection with what accounts for the workings of the so-called “Faustian” (Western) mentality, which makes the history of these instruments a legitimate subject for anthropological inquiry. In my paper, I will explore the validity of the latter suggestion at length, while specifying the highlights in the history of these tools’ development and elaborating on the discursive significance of how they came into being.

History

It is a well-established fact that high-quality magnifying lenses are not a relatively recent phenomenon, but began to be made as far back as ancient times. More than a century ago, during the excavation of the ruins of ancient Troy, Schliemann was able to find a large number of skillfully polished crystal lenses, easily used for the purpose of magnifying things visually. Moreover, there are also a number of eyewitness accounts (articulated by the historian Diocles) of how the ancient Greeks would deploy large magnifying glasses for military purposes, such as projecting and intensifying reflected sunlight onto enemy ships in the sea with the consequence of burning them.

Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy, on numerous occasions in their works, mentioned optical devices and optical laws. Unfortunately, we do not know what these ancient optical tools looked like. However, there is little doubt that such instruments did exist, back through the time of Greco-Roman antiquity, and even in earlier times.

For about six hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., Europe remained in a state of barbarianism, which is why there are no historical records of any optical instruments have been in use throughout the historical period in question. Nevertheless, as the socio-cultural progress in this part of the world continued to gain a powerful momentum, the idea of using lenses to create optical devices began to appeal to more and more intellectually advanced (when considered against the backdrop of their time) individuals. The most notable of them was Roger Bacon (1214-1294) – who, for the first time in history (at least, since ancient times), theorized that it should be possible to create a “spyglass” by means of inserting a few lenses into a hollow metal tube.

Nevertheless, it was not until the year 1608 that both a Dutch optician, Hans Lippershey, and an Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei, but Bacon’s idea into practice. The former is credited with conceptualizing the principle of combining lenticular and biconcave lenses within a single optical instrument, which, in point of fact, was intended to enable military commanders to see things at a great distance – something that later came to be known as a “spyglass.” Lippershey is also commonly praised for inventing yet another optical device of great practical value – binoculars.

Even though the functioning of Galilei’s telescope was based on the same principle, his invention is usually regarded as having been much more of a revolutionary breakthrough in the course of the progress of the development of optical instruments. For the first time in history, Galilei showed that an optical instrument (in his case, the telescope) could be used not only to explore the movements of celestial bodies but also to gain analytical insight into what the stars and planets really might be.

The fact that this was indeed the case can be illustrated, with regard to Galilei’s discovery of three moons orbiting Jupiter – a development that contributed substantially toward exposing the fallaciousness of the geocentric model of the universe. As it turned out, this was made possible by the fact that, unlike Lippershey, Galilei was able to find the actual key to making the telescope a practical tool for exploring space. This key involved his unique approach to lens-polishing, which allowed the scientist to succeed in crafting the most advanced lenses in Europe (McCray, 2008).

Nevertheless, Galilei’s telescopes had a major drawback: They tended to distort colors, due to the effect of chromatic aberration, which is caused by the fact that the deflection rate of red light is lower than that of the rest of the color spectrum. What this means is that even a slight imperfection in the shape of a lens will necessarily result in altering the magnified image of a star or planet to some degree, sometimes considerably.

In 1641, Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius came up with a solution to this problem. It had to do with the astronomer’s realization that the effect of chromatic aberration can be reduced to a minimum with the use of lenses having a very long focal length. Hevelius began experimenting with lenses with a focal length of as much as 20 meters, with the longest of his telescopes having a focal distance of about 50 meters. The lens was connected to the eyepiece with four wooden planks, making the structure much more rigid.

Another step on the path of the instrument’s development was the invention of the reflector-telescope by Isaac Newton, which was brought about by that scientist’s quest to eliminate chromatic aberration altogether. Initially, he was going to use two lenses in a tube (positive and negative), which would be opposite in sign to reduce or eliminate chromatic aberration. However, after having experimented with trying to implement his idea in practice, Newton concluded that there was no way to get rid of the problem, as long as the telescope’s construction remained conventional.

As it turned out, this caused the scientist to decide to do away with this problem in a radical manner. Just like many other astronomers at the time, he knew that the achromatic image of distant objects is built around the axis of a concave mirror in the form of a rotating paraboloid. However, attempts to construct reflective telescopes before Newton’s time were not crowned with success. The reason for this was that the geometrical characteristics of mirrors must be strictly coordinated, and this was exactly what the opticians of the time could not achieve. In 1668, Newton constructed his first reflector-telescope with two concave mirrors, one to refract the incoming light, and another to redirect the formed image into the lens on the side of the telescope’s tube.

In 1672, French astronomer Cassegrain proposed his own two-mirror system configuration. The first mirror was parabolic and the second was in the form of a convex hyperboloid, located coaxially to the focus line. Even to the present time, such a configuration principle continues to be used for building reflectors, especially those meant to be purchased by amateur astronomers. Despite the simplicity of the principle, it took Cassegrain fifteen years of applying continual effort, with the aim of trying to improve reflector-telescopes, before he was able to come up with a practical, working design that he found satisfactory.

It took nearly another century for astronomers to realize the error of Newton’s assertion that it is impossible to create an achromatic lens. In 1751, a British optician, John Dollond, with his son Peter undertook a series of experiments with prisms made out of the Venetian glass krona and English flint glass, which at the time were used for making jewelry. As it turned out, these two varieties of glass could be used for crafting lenses that effectively suppressed a color halo around the magnified images of stars and planets, as seen by an astronomer. As a result, refractor-telescopes were brought to a whole new level of complexity.

Moreover, Dollond’s invention resulted in increasing the affordability of telescopes, which in turn contributed to the popularization of astronomy in eighteenth-century Europe, hence, adding momentum to the pace of scientific progress in the West.

Throughout the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, telescopes continued to be perfected in a variety of ways. One of the most notable improvements took place in 1948 when a Soviet engineer named Ponomariov drew attention to the fact that the telescope’s design could be improved by means of making it possible for the optical instrument in question to rotating around all three azimuthal axes – the so-called “azimuthal mount.” This mounting principle is used in all modern portable telescopes.

As of today, the word “telescope” refers to so much more than merely an optical tool. The invention of radio telescopes and the launch of the space-telescope Hubble proves the validity of this suggestion better than anything else. There is even more to it; the history of the development of the telescope falls within the notion promulgated by the term “Western industriousness.” After all, just about every important breakthrough in the way of perfecting telescope-making technology has been achieved in Europe. Therefore, it is thoroughly appropriate to suggest that the invention and development of telescopes cannot be referred to in terms of a “thing in itself” but rather, it has been dialectically predetermined. In the paper’s following sub-chapter, this idea will be discussed at length.

Just as in the case of the invention of the telescope, the invention of the microscope was brought about by continual progress in the field of optics throughout the sixteenth century. Nowadays, it is commonly assumed that Dutch optician Zachariah Jansen created the first microscope ever in 1595, by the means of mounting two convex lenses in a metal tube – something that allowed Jansen to achieve the magnifying resolution of the small objects under observation up to ten times. Focusing on the object was done by means of sliding the tube up and down its vertical axis.

Nevertheless, it was not until 1681 that the microscope achieved full recognition as a tool for exploring the microscopic world, unseen to one’s unaided eye. At that time, Dutch scientist and tradesman Antonie van Leeuwenhoek presented the British Royal Society with a microscope that had a magnification rate of 270. With this instrument, Leeuwenhoek discovered the flow of blood in the capillary vessels of a tadpole and the existence of microscopic single-celled algae and bacteria. He also revealed the actual mechanics of photosynthesis in plants.

In 1702, Havel introduced a micrometer screw and proposed that a mirror should be placed under the microscope to serve as its table. This development resulted in microscopes beginning to acquire their classic appearance, now familiar to just about every student who has taken a biology class.

The year 1824 marks another important development in the history of the microscope. This had to do with the fact that the French optical firm Chevalier began to produce prisms that combined two to three achromatic lenses together, which in turn allowed the increase of resolution in microscopes by as much as a thousand times. Therefore, there is nothing accidental about the fact that the historical period in question is associated with a number of truly revolutionary breakthroughs in the field of microbiology.

In 1830, Joseph Lister has found a way to reduce the rate of spherical aberration (bending of light due to the curvature of a lens) in microscopes: “He (Lister) discovered that by putting lenses at precise distances from each other, the aberration from all but the first lens could be eliminated” (History of the Microscope, 2015, para. 23). This development made it possible to enhance the resolution capacities of a microscope rather substantially.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the progress in microscopy attained nothing short of an exponential momentum, which allowed microscopes to continue in their progress of becoming ever more precise and sophisticated. Among the most significant developments, during this time, can be mentioned the increased limit of magnifying resolution (from half to one-tenth of a micron).

This, in turn, allowed scientists to explore the construction of physical matter on deeper levels, all the way to a molecular level. During this historical period, it was also found that there still exists an irrevocable obstacle that stands in the way of increasing the magnification capacity of a microscope: the actual wavelength of visual light. According to the diffraction theory, it is impossible to see objects smaller than half a length of the light wave, which means that the smallest objects that can be perceived by a human eye, with the help of an optical microscope, may not be of a size less than one-fourth of a micron.

Nowadays, the most advanced microscopes fall in the category of SEMs (scanning electron microscopes). They use a beam of electrons, projected at the scanned object, to obtain information about what accounts for this object’s atomic subtleties. The magnification rate provided by this type of microscope reaches 500,000 times. It must be understood, of course, that the magnified images of microscopic objects seen through SEMs are digital.

In its turn, this implies that, as of today, microscopy can no longer be discussed in terms of a purely empirical pursuit – quite the contrary to what used to be the case from the time of the early seventeenth century up until comparatively recent times. In this respect, a certain parallel can be established between modern microscopy and modern astronomy – both of these scientific disciplines are now concerned with obtaining highly abstract and often counterintuitive insights into the nature of the surrounding micro and macro reality.

Discussion

Even though these optical instruments, the telescope, and the microscope, are now being used all over the world, there is a certain rationale in discussing them as the physically embodied extrapolations of the so-called “Faustian” (Western) psyche, and consequently suggested that the invention of both tools was bound to take place in Europe and not anywhere else in the world. The logic behind this suggestion is as follows:

It represents a well-established fact that the representatives of different races differ in the manner they perceive the surrounding socio-cultural/natural niche and their place in it – something that can be discussed in terms of one’s endowment with a specific “national mentality.” For example, East-Asians have traditionally been known for their tendency to think and act “holistically” – that is, without trying to exercise any control, powered by the will, over the objectively existing environment around them, which in turn predetermined these people’s strongly defined sense of collectivism and perceptual utilitarianism.

As De Mooij and Hofstede (2011) noted, “In the collectivistic (Asian) model the self cannot be separated from others and the surrounding social context, so the self is an interdependent entity who is part of an encompassing social relationship” (p. 183). This partially explains why the Chinese have always been relatively slow in the pace of invention and application, one example being the time involved in realizing the military implications of their invention of gunpowder. Apparently, the people living in this culture never experienced an unconscious desire to impose mastery over things while aspiring (unconsciously) to attain the status of demigods – contrary to their Western counterparts.

Being highly egocentric and individually minded, Westerners have never ceased being preoccupied with trying to discover the most fundamental laws of nature – an activity that they innately felt was keeping them on the path of existential empowerment. Unlike Asians, Europeans do not strive to blend with nature, but rather to be in the position of exercising full control over nature and natural forces. Therefore, they are naturally predisposed toward trying to desacralize the “ways of God” rationally, as something that allows them to experience the sensation of becoming ever more powerful.

Hence, the significance of the invention of the telescope and the microscope: These inventions are insightful, in the sense of revealing what accounts for the forming of one’s self-identity as a Westerner. Probably better than anything else, the historic developments under consideration advance the legitimacy of the suggestion that being a Westerner (European) means acting in accordance with the idea that the “individual’s willpower must never cease combating obstacles… and that the conflict is the essence of existence” (Greenwood, 2009, p. 53).

The reason for this is apparent – both mentioned inventions imply that the so-called “Faustian soul,” associated with the ways of the West, seeks to attain self-actualization through cognitive reductionism and particularization. As Forsberg (2015) noted: “To use a microscope is to isolate an object, to take it out of circulation and to place it on a slide. One tear a thing from out of its context, dissects that thing, and de- and re-categorizes it.

As the microscope magnifies an object, it simultaneously demagnifies everything around it” (p. 639). Such a cognitive approach is fully consistent with the strongly analytical (object-focused) workings of the “Faustian” psyche, extrapolated by the affiliated people’s tendency to be concerned with trying to discover the essence of things: “In a variety of reasoning tasks… (Westerners) adopt an ‘analytic’ perspective.

They look for the traits of objects while largely ignoring their context” (Bower, 2000, p. 57). Apparently, it is indeed appropriate to suggest that the invention and consequent development of the telescope and the microscope were bound to take place in Europe – an area populated by people who are both analytically-minded/capable of operating with highly abstract categories and driven to subject alive themselves within the surrounding environment.

Therefore, it will not be much of an exaggeration to propose that the invention of the optical instruments under consideration was the most important contribution toward the rise of scientific positivism in Europe throughout the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries (Rasmussen, 1996). After all, being able to discover new stars and planets, on the one hand, and to explore the bacterial and molecular realms, on the other, will inevitably lead one to assume that there is nothing truly phenomenological about the works of nature.

Thus, it indeed makes much sense in referring to the telescope and microscope as unmistakably “Western” tools, in the sense that they were brought into existence by the very spirit of Western civilization, concerned with conquest and trying to uncover the actual mechanics behind the observable workings of the universe. It is understood, of course, that many of the earlier articulated claims appear rather speculative. This, however, does very little to undermine the validity of the idea that the history and societal significance of a particular tool cannot be discussed outside of what were the objective social and psychological preconditions for it to be invented in the first place – especially if it happens to be a technologically advanced concept.

Conclusion

I believe that the line of argumentation, employed in the defense of the idea that there are strongly defined discursive overtones to the history and development of both optical instruments, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, in mentioning telescopes and microscopes, one not only refers to the instruments that are used to achieve a visual magnification of macro and micro-objects but also to some of the most notable artifacts of Western intellectual legacy as we know it.

Consequently, this implies that it is indeed fully appropriate to expect that, by applying inquiry into the history/development of a particular tool, we should be able to enlighten ourselves on what accounted for the qualitative aspects of its creator’s mentality. The anthropological/ethnographic relevance of this suggestion is obvious: It should be possible to anticipate possible developments in the way of continual scientific progress by assessing the ethnocultural characteristics of those who push the acquisition of knowledge forward. It is understood, of course, that the process of Western societies becoming increasingly multicultural does undermine the prospect’s plausibility to some extent.

This, however, has very little effect on the methodological soundness of the claim that tools not only serve some purely utilitarian purposes but that they also reflect the manner in which the affiliated individuals aspire to achieve self-actualization – just as was suggested initially. Thus, it will be in order to conclude this paper by restating, once again, that there is so much more to the optical instruments in question than one might think.

References

Bower, B. (2000). Cultures of reason. Science News, 157(4), 56-58.

Forsberg, L. (2015). Nature’s invisibilia: The Victorian microscope and the miniature fairy. Victorian Studies, 57(4), 638-666.

Greenwood, S. (2009). Anthropology of magic. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

History of the Microscope. (2015). Web.

McCray, W. (2008). The telescope: Its history, technology, and future. Technology and Culture, 49(3), 789-791.

Rasmussen, N. (1996). Sociology of culture – the invisible world: Early modern philosophy and the invention of the microscope. Contemporary Sociology, 25(1), 123-129.

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