Project (2016-2017)

Beauty and the Microscope: The Use, Design, and Values of Fashionable Instruments in the Enlightenment

Ian Lawson's new project investigates the fashion for microscopes, and other optical instruments, in the eighteenth century—after their initial popularity among natural philosophers. It will look at, rather than through, the instrument, and focus on engraved tubes and the delicate fingers of fashionable users, rather than optical quality and the visions of experimental philosophers. Microscopes were set up in parlours or carried in pockets on walks, as entertainment and conversation pieces. Instrument makers and showmen, rather than naturalists and philosophers, were often the designers and popularisers of these instruments, and through advertising material, accompanying texts, and the forms of the instruments themselves, they created new roles, spaces, and ways of behaving with and towards nature.

By considering "non-philosophical" microscopy Ian Lawson demonstrates that the microscope was not only a scientific instrument but also a social and political one that was crucial in crafting identities and social spaces for its users and critics.