More than a Few Words About the Microscope: The Microscopical Writings of H.G. Wells
George Herbert Wells, better known as H.G. Wells is regarded by the general public as the “Father of Science Fiction.” He was also, in fact, an exceptionally well-trained microscopist, and prolific writer on microscopical subjects.
My own first encounter with Wells came at an early age. My uncle, who is an avid comic book collector, gave me my first comic book, a Classics Illustrated version of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. The comic book and its contents were likely my first exposure to the science fiction genre and probably my first encounter with microscopy, or at least a photomicrograph. On one of the last pages of the comic book, there is a microscopical field of view depicting the microbes responsible for bringing down the alien invaders–something that a well-equipped and trained army had failed to do.
Wells’ short stories, essays, and classic novels, often include references to the microscope and microscopy, sometimes used for character development, or in the case of The War of the Worlds, to provide the reader with an unexpected plot twist.
“The Martians had been slain by disease bacteria against which their systems were totally unprepared. There are no bacteria on Mars, and as soon as the invaders arrived on Earth, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow.”
Wells embraced the writer’s adage “write what you know,” and he certainly knew his way around a microscope. Below are some well-known and a few not-so-obvious references to microscopy in his work.
Let’s begin with Wells’ non-fiction works, which establish him as a serious scientist and microscopist.
Wells began using the microscope working as a proctor in a comparative anatomy lab while attending Imperial College, London. He was fortunate in his early science career to have studied under some of the most respected names in science, including Thomas Henry Huxley. Wells was deemed as brilliant by his instructors, and we see evidence of this in his early writings. We also see his interest in microscopy emerge as an element in his writing.
In 1891, Wells published an essay titled “The Rediscovery of the Unique.” In this essay, Wells reminds the reader that no two things are alike, each has its own set of unique qualities if one only looks hard enough and is adequately trained to do so. As Wells develops these ideas, the essay begins to distill the essence of forensic observation, becoming more and more specific with each example. As I read further, what caught my attention was his mention of looking at crystalline precipitates resulting from microchemical reactions using a polarized light microscope…
“Again, the little crystals of a precipitate seem identically alike till we test them with micrometer, microscope, polarizer, and micro-chemical tests; then we find quite acceptable individualisms of size, imperfection, strain, and so on.”
I asked myself: where did Wells develop the skills to speak so knowledgably about the practice of microchemistry and polarized light microscopy? My first hunch was that he had read one of the classical books on microchemistry and was just referring to the subject as an example, but which one?
To answer my questions, I consulted John Gustav Delly’s comprehensive article, “The Literature of Classical Microchemistry, Spot Tests, and Chemical Microscopy“. In making my way down Delly’s chronological list of microchemical texts, I landed on Professor H. Behrens. Behrens’ work in microchemistry, A Manual of Microchemical Analysis, nearly fit the timeline, but was published in 1894, three years after Wells published “The Rediscovery of the Unique.”
As I continued reading Delly’s article, I noticed that under the portrait of Behrens there is mention made of a Professor John W. Judd. Delly tells us that all of Behrens’ articles on microchemistry had been written in Dutch, German, and French; nothing had been published in English. Behrens wanted to translate his book A Manual of Microchemical Analysis into English, and turned to Professor Judd for help. As it turns out, Wells studied geology under Professor Judd at the Royal College of Science, London, and would have had the opportunity to not only learn the techniques of microchemistry, but to also carry them out under Judd’s direction.
From Delly’s article…
“Professor John W. Judd, of the Royal College of Science, London had been using microchemical methods for mineral identification in the Geological Laboratories of that institution. He learned of them when he met Boricky while on a visit to Prague in 1875, two years before Boricky’s monograph appeared. Later, Professor H. Behrens decided to translate his own book on microchemical analysis into English, and asked Professor Judd for his cooperation in bringing out this new edition. Thus far, there had been no books in English on this subject except for Wormley’s American treatise, which was devoted to poisons, and so Professor Judd did not hesitate to accede. And, thus, in 1894, we see the publication in English of A Manual of Microchemical Analysis [Behrens, H. (1894)], to which Professor Judd contributed an Introduction.”
Vertebrata Classes (1892)
It was pointed out to me by a super fan of Wells’ writing that he published a textbook of biology in 1892. The book is titled Textbook of Biology, Part 1: Vertebrata, and Part 2: Invertebrates and Plants.
The book’s intended audience was for “the solitary worker”; students who were not afforded the good fortune of in-person instruction, but those working independently. Wells recognized the challenges of working alone and trying to learn the methods of dissection and anatomy, which he addressed in the book’s preface…
“One of the most manifest disadvantages of book-work, under the conditions of the solitary worker, is the rigidity of its expressions; if the exact meaning is doubtful, he can not ask a question. This has been kept in view throughout; the writer has, above all, sought to be explicit—has, saving over-sights, used no uncommon or technical term without a definition or a clear indication of its meaning.”
What’s remarkable about these two volumes is that the writing on the subject is scholarly, yet accessible to the beginning student, and the drawings are quite good too—all done by Wells.
Microscopical drawings from Textbook of Biology, Part 2: Invertebrates and Plants, including chlorophyll grains after light exposure, upper right, and cross-section of a leaf, mid-page.
I was interested in knowing what microscope Wells recommended to the remote students going through his biology curriculum. His recommendation appears at the bottom of a list called “appliances” under the heading of Syllabus of Practical Work in Textbook of Biology, Part 1: Vertebrata. Below are Wells’ general specification of a common student microscope.
“(j) A microscope, with low power of 1 inch or 1/2 inch, and high power 1/6 inch or 1/4 inch.”
I wasn’t sure how to convert inches into magnification, so I asked our Scientific Advisor, John Delly, to break it down…
“When the focal length of an objective is given in the metric system, e.g., 25 mm, you divide it into 250 mm, the standard viewing distance, to get 10, or 10X. If you have an objective labeled 1 inch, you divide it into 10 inches to get 10X, for a 1/2-inch objective: 10/ 1/2 20X, 1/4-inch objective: 10/ ¼, 40X.”
For those of you interested in accessing these works, here is a link to Textbook of Biology, Part 1: Vertebrata available through The Project Gutenberg eBook program, and Part 2: Invertebrates and Plants available through Open Library.
The War of the Words
With Wells’ description of the microscope, I consulted The McCrone Group’s onsite Brooks Collection of Antique Microscopes and searched for student microscopes from the late 1800s. I wanted to know what a student microscope from that era looked like. I soon found a monocular brass microscope designed by Henry Crouch, an English microscope manufacturer. This microscope was available in the 1880s and had 1” and ¼” objective lenses.
Additional research on Henry Crouch, brought me to Brian Stevenson’s most excellent website. Included in the Stevenson’s description of Crouch’s microscope was an 1896 reference from The Saturday Review, it was a response from Crouch to an article Wells had written a week earlier, titled “Cheap Microscopes and a Moral.” I went back and found the original piece published by Wells, along with his follow-up to Crouch’s response. I have arranged the back-and-forth between Wells and Crouch in chronological order. The articles span a period of three weeks. First is Wells’ original article as it appeared in The Saturday Review, which begins toward the bottom of the page.
Here, Wells points out the lack of inexpensive, good-quality English microscopes (and chemical balances) available for medical and science students of botany, biology, and amateur pond-life studies. He argues that this lack of cheap, high-quality microscopes has deterred people from pursuing biological studies. The piece goes on to point out that German microscope manufactures have been able to meet the needs of the student microscope market with high quality optics at reasonable prices. Wells also explains that the Germans now own this market, and the English instrument maker is unlikely to take it back. Bear in mind, he is writing this critique a year after the publication of his classic novel The Time Machine.
In the following week’s edition of The Saturday Review, Henry Crouch counters Wells’ assessment by pointing out that over the course of more than seven years, English manufacturers have addressed the student microscope market. Crouch brings to Wells’ attention that not only have the English served this market well, but they “recently expelled his cheap German rivals’ microscopes from one of the principal laboratories of the country.” Crouch pays homage to Ernst Abbe and Carl Zeiss, citing their recent breakthrough of superior optics, but without naming names,
Wells has the last word in this entertaining correspondence and refers directly to Carl Zeiss as not only making superior microscope optics, but also pointing out that they have provided good quality microscopes at reasonable price for students. It’s here that we learn for the first time what make of microscope Wells probably used while working on Textbook of Biology, Part 1: Vertebrata, and Part 2: Invertebrates and Plants.
Wells goes on to roast Crouch by saying that he and the other English microscope manufacturers are out of touch with the needs of the student microscope market…
“Mr. Crouch, still unaware that there are two points of view in every market, still satisfied that the merchant can only understand the trade…”
These non-fiction examples illustrate how Wells was not simply a microscope user, but an accomplished microscopist capable of holding his own with anyone in the field. With this groundwork laid, let’s turn our attention to some of his short stories. Wells’ deep knowledge of microscopy is on display, and he sprinkles it about as a means of entertainment for the reader.
Through a Microscope: Some Moral Reflections (1894)
Through a Microscope begins with the narrator referring to the main character, a microscopist, as a “dabbler person”:
“This dabbler person has recently disposed of his camera and obtained a microscope — a short, complacent-looking implement it is, of brass — and he goes about everywhere now with little glass bottles in his pocket, ready to jump upon any stray Polly Woggle he may find and hale it home and pry into its affairs.”
You immediately get the sense that the narrator doesn’t care for the dabbler’s interest in microscopy and characterizes the microscopist as a “Peeping Tom of Coventry.”
“You look down his wretched tube, and there, bright and yellow with the lamplight in the round field of the microscope, is a perfect riot of living things.”
In the end, Wells gives the reader something to ponder, as the dabbler watches undetected by all of the creatures moving about in his field of view, perhaps the dabbler is equally unaware of someone watching him?
“He sees them, and they do not see him, because he has senses they do not possess, because he is too incredibly vast and strange to come, save as an overwhelming catastrophe, into their lives. Even so, it may be, the dabbler himself is being curiously observed… The dabbler is good enough to say that the suggestion is inconceivable. I can imagine a decent Amoeba saying the same thing.”
The Very Fine Art of Microtomy (1894)
This is more of an essay rather than a short story. Here, Wells gives props to the microtomists of the world, stating that microtomy “is really the finest of all fine arts” and acknowledges that the public is largely unaware of this art form. He makes a prediction that soon people will begin collecting professionally prepared microscope slides and goes on to describe the art of microtomy in general terms and how the final product is to be viewed.
“A day will come, however, when slides for the microscope by the early masters who are even yet living will be as eagerly sought and fondly treasured as were ever book-plates or violins…Moreover, the thing must be mounted cunningly on a glass slip, for the end for which the section exists is to be examined under a microscope.”
Wells describes the beauty one experiences of both biological and geological sections when viewed with the microscope:
“Under the microscope it has the air of a circular stained glass window; the “cells” of the liver form an interlacing tracery of golden pink, and the diverse blood-vessels, of which these are three sorts, appear, in injected, as branching shapes of crimson, blue, and other and pure colors…”
“…It is almost impossible to convey an idea of the appearance of sections of some granite rocks when seen in polarized light.”
In a final remark, he tells the reader that there is not one serious collector of professionally prepared slides, but this will soon change. Wells was correct in his prediction. During a recent search on eBay, I noticed several prepared microscope slides from this era, each fetching hundreds of dollars.
The Stolen Bacillus (1894)
This story features the microscope in the opening sentence and is about a Bacteriologist and the breach of a deadly sample from the lab.
“This again,” said the Bacteriologist, slipping a glass slide under the microscope…”
The person responsible for taking the sample from the lab, gets more than he bargained for in the end.
The Moth (1895)
“The Moth” is about two scientific rivals in the field of entomology, with plenty of references to the microscope and diatoms. The narrator points out to the reader how a microscopist can avoid eye fatigue.
“Like all experienced microscopists, he kept both eyes open. It is the only way to avoid excessive fatigue. One eye was over the instrument, and bright and distinct before that was the circular field of the microscope, across which a brown diatom was slowly moving…”
Good technique for sure!
A Slip Under the Microscope (1896)
Of course you don’t have to go far to find the microscopical reference in this short story; it’s in the title. Set in a university comparative anatomy laboratory, one of the students, Hill, finds himself in a predicament after sitting down to adjust his microscope during the course’s final exam.
“Hill…sat down on the little stool before the microscope, turned the mirror to get the best light, and then, out of sheer habit, shifted the slips.”
As any practicing microscopist will tell you, the first thing you do when you sit down at a microscope is adjust it, especially if you are using an instrument shared among multiple analysts. This proved not to be a good move for Hill.
The Grisly Folk and their War with Men (1921)
In “The Grisly Folk and their War with Men”, Wells puts forth a theory that the Mediterranean Sea was a desert, based on the migration patterns of swallows and other birds. Wells’ hypothesis was proven to be true, decades later, by geology researcher Kenneth Hsu, and referenced in Hsu’s book The Mediterranean Was a Desert.
I would describe the quotes below as oblique references to microscopy by Wells, reminiscent of the themes from “The Rediscovery of the Unique.” The story begins with a question, “Can these bones live?” to which the narrator, at the outset, explains, yes, but only to the trained eye…
“Few of us realize yet how much the subtle indefatigable cross-examination of the scientific worker has been extracting from the evidence of these rusty and obstinate witnesses during the last few years.”
“Seventy or eighty years ago a few curious savants began to suspect that there were hidden memories in certain big, chipped flints and scraps of bone they found in ancient gravels.”
These quotes suggest to me that the “hidden memories” Wells speaks of in these artifacts are only revealed with the aid of magnification.
Now for the novels…
The Invisible Man (1897)
Anyone who has learned how to “chase down” the refractive index of an unknown glass particle will appreciate these quotes from the novel The Invisible Man, particularly the chapter titled “Certain First Principles.” In this chapter, the invisible man schools his visitor, Mr. Kemp, on the principles of light and refractive index…
“If a sheet of glass is smashed, Kemp, and beaten into powder, it becomes much more visible while it is in air; it becomes at last opaque, white powder…But if the white, powdered glass is put into water it forthwith vanishes. The powdered glass and water have much the same refractive index, that is, the light undergoes very little refraction or reflection in passing from one to the other…You make the glass invisible by putting it into a liquid of nearly the same refractive index; a transparent thing becomes invisible if it is put in any medium of almost the same refractive index.”
The invisible man goes on to illustrate his point, this time with particles, citing paper, cotton, linen, wool, wood, and bone…
“Oil white paper, fills up the interstices between the particles with oil so that there is no longer refraction or reflection except at the surfaces, and it becomes as transparent as glass. And not only paper, but cotton fibre, linen fibre, wool fibre, woody fibre, and bone…”
In the chapter that follows, the invisible man resumes his explanation with Kemp, using examples of his invisibility experimentation on a stray cat. This time Wells draws on material from his Textbook of Biology, Part 1: Vertebrata—the anatomy of the eye…
“In two particulars. These were the claws and the pigment stuff, what is it?—at the back of the eye in a cat. You know?”
“Yes, the tapetum. It didn’t go. After I’d given the stuff to bleach the blood and done certain other things to her, I gave the beast opium, and put her and the pillow she was sleeping on, on the apparatus. And after all the rest had faded and vanished, there remained two little ghosts of her eyes.”
Talking about the anatomy of a cat’s eye is familiar territory for Wells. Below is his description of the anatomy of a rabbit’s eye along with drawings from Textbook of Biology, Part 1: Vertebrata.
“The eye (Figure 8, and 9) has a tough, dense, outer coat, the sclerotic (sc.), within which is a highly vascular and internally pigmented layer, the choroid, upon which the percipient nervous layer, the retina (r.) rests.”
Love and Mr. Lewisham: The Story of a Very Young Couple (1900)
Venturing outside of his comfort zone, this novel is one of Wells’ first not within the science fiction genre, but even so, we still see the microscope make an appearance. This novel is considered autobiographical, so it’s not at all surprising. In Chapter 16, a description is made one of the character’s bedroom.
“Miss Heydinger sat in the room her younger sisters called her ‘Sanctum’. Her Sanctum was only too evidently an intellectualised bedroom, and a cheap wallpaper of silvery roses peeped coquettishly from among her draped furniture. Her particular glories were the writing-desk in the middle and the microscope on the unsteady octagonal table under the window.”
In the following chapter we are brought back to a setting familiar to Wells—the biology lab…
“It was nearly three o’clock, and in the Biological Laboratory the lamps were all alight. The class was busy with razors cutting sections of the root of a fern to examine it microscopically…Behind Miss Heydinger, jaded and untidy in her early manner again, was a vacant seat, an abandoned microscope and scattered pencils and note-books.”
Marriage is another Wells non-science fiction novel. In this story, one of the main characters, Mr. Trafford, is a crystallographer. Here we find Trafford speaking to the other protagonist, Marjorie, briefly touching on the topic of polarized light microscopy…
“Think what a clear solution must be if only one had ultra-microscopic eyes and could see into it, see the extraordinary patterns, the swimming circling constellations. And then the path of a ray of polarized light beating through it! It takes me like music. Do you know anything of the effects of polarized light, the sight of a slice of olivine-gabbro for instance between crossed Nicols?”
As microscopists, we are familiar to varying degrees with these technical aspects Wells continually revisits in his writing. However, knowing a subject deeply is one thing, but being able to write about it eloquently while keeping the reader engaged is entirely another. Wells never gets too technical, always keeping the story interesting and moving along. You don’t get the sense of him overplaying his hand when it comes to his microscopical references. The reader doesn’t think “Oh, here he goes again with this microscope stuff.”
World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia (1937)
Toward the end of his writing career, Wells develops a keen interest in the utility of microphotography. Microphotography is the practice of making microscopic photographs. This term is often confused with photomicrography, the making of photographs of microscopic specimens viewed through the microscope. In a collection of essays titled World Brain, Wells envisions what we now know as the internet.
Forever a microscopist, he puts forth the idea of using microphotography as a means of collecting, storing, and condensing large amounts of data, all captured on a microscopic piece of black and white film…
“A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date. Concurrently, the resources of micro-photography, as yet only in their infancy, will be creating a concentrated visual record…”
Wells carried these ideas about microphotography forward in his last two books, All Aboard for Ararat (1940), and You Can’t Be Too Careful (1941).
In All Aboard for Ararat. the reader is treated to a back-and-forth between two characters discussing the topic of microphotography…
“If he thought he had discovered the possibilities of microphotography, by all means let him have that satisfaction…
“I have ascertained this, that now it is possible and practicable to make these microphotographic films, to multiply and distribute them, so that anywhere in the world it is possible to project and examine the pictures they give in comfort and detail at a charge that beside the cost of a modern battleship is trivial.”
Published the following year, we find microphotography mentioned again in You Can’t Be Too Careful…
“At present such encyclopaedias as our world possesses are in the hands of unscrupulous salesmen, they are a century and a half antiquated and blinkered in outlook, but the facilities afforded by microphotography, modern methods of multiplication, modern methods of documentation, open up the clear possibility of putting all the knowledge in the world, brought right up to date, within easy reach of every man everywhere on earth, within a couple of days.”
After reading these microscopical writings of Wells, my perspective has shifted with regard to describing what I’m really seeing through the microscope. Most of us are inclined to report the results, similar to that of a reference text—size, shape, color, etc. What if we all took a bit more time to appreciate the structure, colors, and reactions taking place on the slide? Of course, I think Wells says it best:
“Is there anything else so rich and beautiful in all the world? And every different mineral and every variety of that mineral has a different phase of colours, a different scheme of harmonies—and is telling you something.”
Wells was a prolific writer and I’m certain I haven’t uncovered all the references to microscopy within his works. If you find others, please send them my way.