How to Identify Antique Microscopes

By Trina Arpin
An antique brass monocular microscope
mikroskop image by Birgit Reitz-Hofmann from

Whether you find one in a dusty attic, a flea market, or a website, searching for antique microscope can be great fun, a learning experience, and (maybe) profitable. Many of these microscopes work as well as the day they were made and can be used to examine insects, coins, flowers, or just about anything else. Some can fetch high prices in online auctions. Before buying, selling, or using an antique microscope, though, it is a good idea to learn more about it.

Identify the type of microscope. Even magnifying glasses are considered microscopes and the earliest of these models are from the 13th century. Many other microscopes consist of a single tube with an objective on one end and an eyepiece on the other, these models can date from the 17th to the 19th century. The type of microscope that most people used in school, with two eyepieces and a stage for holding samples, was first made in the mid 19th century. You can search online museums for microscopes (such as the Florida State University site listed below) to look for comparable models.

Identify the manufacturer and model. Many microscope makers included their name and sometimes the model on their microscopes. Finding the maker's name can make identifying the model and date of a microscope much easier. Even some of the earliest microscopes from the 16th and 17th centuries can be identified by their makers. For the 19th century, some of the most well-known makers include Beck, Leitz, Powell and Lealand, Ross, and Zeiss. Well-known American microscope makers include the Grunow Brothers, James W. Queen, and Ezra H. Griffith.

Identifying the materials used in a microscope can help identify it and help with determining its value. While the lenses are always made of glass, the rest of an antique microscope, including the barrel, eyepiece, and focusing screws, can be made from a variety of materials. In very early models from the 16th through the 18th centuries, wood, pasteboard and leather were often used, but sometimes microscopes were made of ivory. By the 19th century, most microscopes were made of metal, usually brass.

Inventory the microscope's accessories. Antique microscopes were sometimes sold with carrying cases and, by the 19th century, different objectives that could increase or decrease magnification. Some antique microscopes may still have slides that were used by students or even in research.

Determine the value of your microscope. As with any antique, the value of a microscope can vary widely depending upon both the supply and its popularity among collectors. Check online dealers or auctions to look for prices of models comparable to yours.

About the Author

Trina Arpin has more than 10 years of experience writing and editing on a variety of topics including, archaeology and earth and environmental sciences. She had written for a variety of university publications, including "Research" at Boston University and "Triplepoint," and has degrees in archaeology.