Water Safety and van Leeuwenhoek's Normalscope

So much to see at a normal level, so little time.

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Today’s Lesson


This Day in Science History: van Leeuwenhoek’s Normalscope Sees Things Normal-er

February 4, 1719

Late in life, famed Dutch microbiologist and microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek began to reflect on his accomplishments. As he recorded in his journals (translated and reproduced here):

I don’t understand it. I’ve invented so many microscopes, yet “van Leeuwenhoek” still isn’t a household name. Why aren’t people saying, “Just van Leeuwenhoek it,” or “he’s a total van Leeuwenhoek.”

I know the name’s not the problem. It must be my creations.

Determined to create more accessible inventions, van Leeuwenhoek was stumped. Using microscopy, he’d revealed countless terrifying things on the human body. He thought his fellow Dutch countrymen would love to know about all the things crawling on them, but they were more impressed by wooden shoes (van Leeuwenhoek had rejected shoe science early on).

All this led to an epiphany: people hated seeing small-sized things. But they loved normal-sized things. And van Leeuwenhoek knew exactly how to do it.

By taking one of his finest microscopes and removing the lenses, he was able to recreate a 1:1 scale view of the world. He planned to sell his Normalscope at a price of 550 Logfeet (the Dutch currency at the time). 550 Logfeet was about 70 years’ wages for the average Dutch worker, but van Leeuwenhoek thought it was a steal.

On February 4th, 1719, van Leeuwenhoek revealed his Normalscope to the public at a scientific exhibition held in the middle of a canal. In a strikingly modern innovation, he even had a slogan: “See things as they are.” Sadly, we may never know if his invention would have succeeded, because the competition was too stiff.

That same day, a cobbler from Amersfoort debuted his masterpiece: shoelaces made from sticks.

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