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All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

All photographs copyright Howard Lynk | Image Permalink

The Pre-Electric Slide

By Veronique Greenwood / February 25, 2010

Advances in lens-making technology in the early 1800s brought a whole new world into view for science enthusiasts—with better lenses came cheaper microscopes, so that cells, tissues, and even multicellular microorganisms could suddenly be seen in the comfort of one’s home. An industry of microscope slide-makers sprang up to feed this new demand, and as they searched for the best way to thin-slice a kidney or mount a cluster of diatoms, they advanced the science of microscopy while creating objects of unusual beauty. Here, selections from the collection of Howard Lynk, a hobbyist who researches the slide-makers of the 1840s-1860s, show some highlights of their oeuvre.

E. Wheeler

Mounters often covered their slides with signature lithographed papers—these are by Edmund Wheeler, a natural history lecturer who started his mounting business in the early 1860s. These slides have cover slips of thin glass, which was very expensive and difficult to produce before the 1840s—early mounters more often used sheets of mica, which was far from transparent. The use of Canada balsam sap (which preserves structures and eliminates air and water from samples) as a mounting medium also vastly improved the view. “ There was a period of twenty to thirty years where things were changing rapidly, in terms of technology, and you can imagine how excited these people were,” says Lynk. “Everywhere they looked they were able to see things that had never been seen before.”

C.M. Topping

Charles Morgan Topping, whose name decorates these slides, was a significant mounter who pioneered an early method for thin-slicing tissue. He garnered awards at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London for his work, and though he produced many medical slides, he also prepared some whose purpose was primarily entertainment, as was the case with these samples of mummy cloth and fossilized wood. Topping’s son, Amos, began working with him at the age of twelve and eventually took over the business. The medallion labeled J.H. Steward indicates that the slide was bought at an optician’s shop of the same name—such shops were middlemen that sold microscopes and slides.

W. Darker

William Darker mounted this slice of fossilized ichthyosaurus bone around 1840. Even at 170 years old, the mount is little changed, and Howard Lynk has imaged the sample at 100x in polarized light. Using filters to polarize light produces vivid colors in the samples, an effect that slide-preparers exploited to their benefit—some slides were marked “Polariscope,” indicating that they were best viewed through filters.


While there was plenty of wonder to be found in samples of wood, cloth, or fossils, slide-preparers soon began to arrange diatoms, butterfly scales, radiolarians, and other tiny objects into designs and patterns. These particular slides are dry mounts—each piece is stuck directly to the slide using albumen or gum. “If you take the cover slip off, you’re looking directly at those little shells,” Lynk says. The two red slides were prepared by Amos Topping, the son of Charles Morgan Topping.


In this slide, Amos Topping has arranged the minuscule shells of radiolarians—a kind of protozoa—into a radial pattern reminiscent of a mandala. Looking through a microscope, a mounter would maneuver the diatoms or shells using a boar bristle or a cat’s whisker, trying to keep them all in place long enough for mounting.


This star of diatoms may have been arranged by Ernst Thum, who specialized in diatoms, Lynk says. Mounters sometimes made these designs on an industrial scale, passing patterns around and making hundreds at a time. “You’ll find almost identical slides—I would imagine there are a number of unknown mounters employed by the larger firms who just sat in a back room somewhere cranking these things out,” Lynk says.

Diatoms, Butterfly Scales, and Spicules

This arrangement includes diatoms, rainbow-hued butterfly scales, and tiny spicules from sea sponges, which mounters call “ anchors and plates.” These spicules act as the skeleton of the sponge, the frame from which tissues are suspended—here they are used to great advantage in a miniature nautical theme.

Butterfly Flower Basket

Collecting expeditions to the tropics, like those undertaken by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, contributed to the palettes of mounters who specialized in pictures made from butterfly scales—new species with new colors were always pouring in. Some mounters, Lynk says, even financed naturalists in hopes of getting new materials. “ They were combing the Earth, looking for interesting things to make these.”

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