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The Lost Hobby of Microscopy

Carol found some very small insects crawling around on Dash’s neck yesterday while she was brushing him. She dropped several of them into a pill bottle followed by some alcohol. These were tiny bugs; I’m guessing the biggest one wasn’t quite two millimeters long, and most were at best a millimeter. We squinted and used the magnifying glass that I keep in my desk drawer, and the best we could say is, Yeah, that’s a bug.

I knew what I had to do next, and it took me way back. For Christmas when I was eight (the end of 1960), my father bought me a microscope. It was small and lacked a fine focus knob, but it had an iron frame and decent optics. For the next two years until I discovered electronics, looking at very small things was one of my main hobbies.

My father helped me get the hang of it. He had had a simple microscope himself in the early 1930s, and I still have it somewhere: A black crinkle-finish tube about five inches high, with an eyepiece at the top, a slot for inserting slides, and a tilting mirror in a large milled cutout toward the bottom. He bought me a book called Hunting with the Microscope, by Gaylord Johnson and Maurice Bleifield (1956) and I spent a couple of years hunting for all the microscopic things the authors had painstakingly drawn on its pages.

Many of the drawn microorganisms were said to be found in rivers and ponds, and my friends and I haunted the banks of the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers in the summer with mayonnaise jars in hand, scooping up slimy water and the even slimier mud on the riverbottom beneath it. Holding up the jars against bright light showed them to be absolutely crawling with minuscule thingies in constant motion. I had a well slide and managed to corral some of the little monsters in it, but they didn’t slow down long enough for me to identify them. None followed the corkscrew path that paramecia were said to exhibit. We saw no volvoxes nor stentors, cool as that would have been. Water bears too were AWOL. Most heartbreakingly, we never cornered an amoeba, which we longed to see eat something by engulfing it, which would be akin to watching The Blob in miniature–always a draw for ten-year-olds.

No, most of the critters that moved slowly enough to identify were microscopic worms. When my mother heard us talking about worms from the corner of the family room when my friends and I were gazing into my microscope, she made us dump the mayonnaise jars into the toilet and wash our hands. My mother was an RN, and although we didn’t learn it first-hand until we were 13 (another story entirely, though a good one) both rivers were flood relief for Chicago’s and suburban sewers. After even a modest rain, runoff would cascade from overflowing sewer mains right into the rivers, carrying raw sewage with it. So these weren’t exactly earthworms we were watching.

I’m honestly not sure what became of my little microscope. The good news is that Carol received a much better one she when was fourteen (a Tasco 951 with a fine focus knob) and earlier today, I pulled her microscope down off the high shelf and set it up on the kitchen island where the light was good. I looked at a few of the pickled-in-alcohol bugs, but they had been picked off Dash with a tweezers and were not in good shape. We cornered Dash and hunted until we spotted a live one. I carefully snipped the little tuft of hair to which the bug was clinging, and with some prodding managed to tack the bug to the sticky strip on a white Post-It. (Gaylord Johnson would have been proud.) Under the microscope, it was unmistakable: Linognathus setosus, the dog louse. The tacky Post-It strip kept it from walking around, and we were able to see how it clung to a strand of dog hair with its hooked legs.

Dash got a prompt treatment with the usual doggie bug meds, and in a day or two whatever lice remain will be gone. In the meantime, I have to wonder what happened to the microscopy hobby. Astronomy and electronics are both big business, but beyond some Web sites (like this one) I don’t see much to indicate that anybody is digging through river mud looking for water fleas anymore. The instruments are cheap compared to good test equipment or telescopes. You can get used stereo microscopes on eBay for $250 or less, and used student microscopes like Carol’s for under $50. Rivers are a whole lot cleaner than they were fifty years ago, and I’m thinking that if I sampled the Chicago River today I might score a stentor or two, and maybe even an amoeba. Granting that Google is a much better way to identify the stuff you’re looking at, I might order a copy of Hunting with the Microscope, just for fun. No, I don’t really need another hobby, but I want to be ready the next time something really small comes calling, and I need to know what it is.


  1. Tom R. says:

    After I was 10 and we moved to a more suburban area there was a creek that actually had craw fish living in it, but I never thought of dredging it for microscope specimens. I was more often trying to get anyone I met to donate a drop of blood for inspection under the microscope. I think it was a very inexpensive Tasco in a nice wooden box with slides, a scalpel, a fine pointed needle thing in what I think is a Bakelite handle and some other things. It is probably still somewhere in the basement, but I am not sure where.

    A hobby shop I frequent (you know the one) has a small section of microscopy accessories, but I don’t remember seeing any microscopes there. However, I did see a fairly nice web-cam microscope in a Camera Store (since closed) a few years ago and I see toy versions around Christmas from time to time.

  2. Bob Fegert says:

    A good stereo microscope is invaluable if you do a lot of surface mount work. IR BGA re-work stations usually come with a good scope already on them. My needs are more modest and just a simple hot air station and a cheap stereo scope is adequate.

  3. Fran says:

    I also remember using the book “Hunting with the microscope” I loved searching in ponds and exploring with my microscope. I am now retired and want to pick up this hobby again

  4. Don says:

    I worked as a Registered Medical Technologist (Lab Tech), and eventually Lab Director, in a hospital lab for 40 years. I am retired now for the past 7 years, and am considering the purchase of a good used microscope to pursue microscopy as a hobby. I have 7 antique microscopes that are amazing to look at, but the optics are not very good. I hope to pick up a more modern, used scope for about $150 – $200 on e-Bay.

    1. We still have my wife’s student microscope, which isn’t bad at all. I’m still thinking about getting a stereo microscope, but there arises (as always) the question of where I’ll keep it!

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