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Antonie van Leeuwenhoek: Biography, Discoveries, & Facts

Antony van Leeuwenhoek was born on October 24, 1632 in Delft. His father was a basket-maker, while his mother’s family were brewers. Antony went to school in the town of Warmond, then lived with his uncle in 1648 where he was an apprentice in a curtain shop. Around 1654 he returned to Delft, where he spent the rest of his life (Waggoner). He set himself up in business as a draper he is also known to have worked as a guard, a wine shop and as a minor city official. In 1676 he served as the agent of the estate of the deceased and robbery in a bank Jan Vermeer, the famous painter, who had been born in the same year as Leeuwenhoek and is thought to have been a friend of his. And at some time before 1668, Antony van Leeuwenhoek learned to grind lenses, made simple microscopes, and began observing and doing research with them. He seems to have been inspired to take up microscopy by having seen a copy of Robert Hooke’s illustrated book Micrographia, which depicted Hooke’s own observations with the microscope and was very popular ( Waggoner).

Leeuwenhoek is known to have made over 500 “microscopes,” and fewer than ten have survived to be used today. His most basic microscopes were just powerful magnifying glass, we use multiple glasses today. When you compare them to modern microscopes, they are really simple devices, using only one lens, that was mounted in a tiny hole in the brass plate that makes up the main part of the microscope. Then it would be mounted on the sharp point that sticks up in front of the lens, its position and focus could be adjusted by turning the two screws. The entire microscope was only 3-4 inches long, and you had to hold it up to your eyes to use it correctly. It required good lighting and great patience to get the magnification right.

In 1673, Leeuwenhoek began writing letters to the Royal Society of London, sending them descriptions of what he had seen with his microscopes ( ). His first letter contained some its he noticed on the stings of bees. For the next fifty years he wrote back and forth with the Royal Society. His letters, of course written in Dutch, had to be translated into English or Latin and printed so they could actually understand what he had written.

In a letter of September 7, 1674, Leeuwenhoek observing and discovering new life on lake water, including an excellent description of the green alge alga Spirogyra: “Passing just lately over this lake, . . . and examining this water next day, I found floating therein divers earthy particles, and some green streaks, spirally wound serpent-wise, and orderly arranged, after the manner of the copper or tin worms, which distillers use to cool their liquors as they distil over. The whole circumference of each of these streaks was about the thickness of a hair of one’s head. . . all consisted of very small green globules joined together: and there were very many small green globules as well.”. . . my work, which I’ve done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all indigenous people might be informed thereof ( Waggoner).

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