To see pictures of a Schiek microscope from 1840—cost, 184 thaler—go see this example from Timo Mappes’ collection, at Go here first to look at the pictures, then come back here.

It’s rather obvious that improvements in microscopy in the early- to mid-19th century were important for the development of Schleiden and Schwann’s cell theory in 1838/39, as well as the process of embrace, criticism, and revision of the same in the 1840s. The history of the microscope as a technology gives us a great deal of insight into how the scientific instruments and practices advanced enough to make cell theory possible.

From the point of view of the technological history of the microscope, 1830 (plus-or-minus ca. 1–2 years) is rightly identified as a major historical turning point:

  1. By the late-1820s a number of microscope makers were making and selling compound microscopes that corrected for both chromatic and spherical aberration; 
  2. By the late-1820s the practice of using test objects to examine microscope performance and defects was well established;
  3. By the late-1820s research on the properties of light and optical design were converging with research on the anatomy the eye and the physiology of vision;
  4. In 1830 J. J. Lister published his foundational paper on the theory of achromatic optical design and human vision;
  5. And by the early-1830s the most demanding botanists and anatomists who had long relied on the predictability and manageability of simple, single lens microscopes made the jump to compound microscopes, which offered both a wider field of view and, eventually, less distortion.

On all of this, see Jutta Schickore’s The Microscope and the Eye (2007).

But here is where the technological and intellectual history of the microscope meets the social history of biology. The late Ilse Jahn once pointed out that in Berlin in the 1830s and 1840s there were a lot of scientists using advanced microscopes, many of whom were clustered around the Gesellschaft naturforschender Freunde zu Berlin. These included: 

  • Most famously, the physiologist Johannes Müller and his students, Jacob Henle, Robert Remak, Karl Reichert, Albert Kölliker, and Theodor Schwann (plus later in the 1840s also Rudolf Virchow, Emil du Bois-Reymond, and Hermann Helmholtz);
  • Botanists Heinrich Friedrich Link, Julius Meyen, and Matthias Jacob Schleiden
  • Schleiden’s uncle, botanist and physician Johann Horkel;
  • The botanical taxonomists Karl Sigismund Kunth, Johann Friedrich Klotzsch, and Karl Heinrich Koch;
  • The protistologist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg;
  • Christian Samuel Weiss, mineralogist;
  • Leopold von Buch, geologist and paleontologist who defined the Jurassic system;
  • …and Johann Lucas Schönlein, anatomical pathologist and prosector at the Charité, as well as his successor, Robert Froriep.

That’s a lot of people in one place doing advanced microscopy, at least by the standards of the 1830s. And Jahn argues that this critical mass of Berlin microscopists who met regularly was a, if not the reason why two relative unknowns, Schleiden and Schwann, felt confident enough to make jump to argue that plants (Schleiden) and animals (Schwann) are all fundamentally cellular.

Further, Jahn and several other historians have noted that all of these microscopists used microscopes that came out of one of two Continental workshops. A few used microscopes from the Viennese workshop of Simon Plößl, but most used (or also used) the slightly cheaper microscopes coming from the Berlin workshop of Karl Pistor and Friedrich Wilhelm Schiek. The above Berlin microscopists all bought instruments from Pistor & Schiek (and just Schiek after he left Pistor’s workshop in 1837). Surely the ability to work with the instrument maker close to home allowed for customization, price negotiation, and opportunities for improvements that would be difficult, if not impossible if the microscope user and manufacturer were far away from each other. There have been some minor attempts to evaluate whether the Viennese Plößl or the Berlin Schiek microscopes were better (Bradbury 1967, p. 202), but there’s agreement that the top-of-the-line microscopes from both instrument makers were similar both in design and performance. When G. G. Valentin prepared the Histiogenia Comparata in 1835 he used his teacher Jan Purkyně’s Plößl microscope, but when Valentin moved to Bern in 1836 he used some of the prize money to buy himself a microscope from Schiek.

How much did these microscopes cost? Historians Sven Dierig and Gabriel Finkelstein have done a lot of the legwork for this, Gott sei dank, and this brings Jahn’s argument into focus. In 1832 Purkyně reported that his Plößl microscope with accessories had cost 200 thaler, paid for by the University of Breslau (Wrocław). In Berlin a powerful Pistor & Schiek microscope could cost as little as 100 thaler, but accessories and additional optical components would easily double that amount. Around 1840, a Schiek microscope with multiple objectives and oculars, screw micrometer, movable object stage, and a condenser could cost up to 220 thaler. The very fine Schiek microscope in Timo Mappes’ collection from 1840 was purchased for 184 thaler. When Müller’s student Henle left Berlin for Zürich in 1840 to become Ordinary Professor of Anatomy and Physiology, he spent 480 francs on a Schiek microscope, out of a 1,000 franc annual salary. In 1859, when du Bois-Reymond was given 975 thaler to equip his new laboratory in Berlin, 120 thaler went to one large Schiek microscope, and 40 thaler each to two smaller ones.

Dierig provides additional perspective in relation to student life:

  • A multi-volume natural science textbook with plates (mathematics, physics, or mechanics) cost up to 6 thaler;
  • The cheapest housing for a student room in a back courtyard house cost 3 thaler a month, with luck, a furnished room fitted for an upper-middle class medical student could be had for 5 thaler a month; 
  • 10 thaler bought enough wood and/or peat to heat that room for the winter;
  • 3 thaler a month could buy membership to a student lunch club at a public house;
  • By 1840 du Bois-Reymond’s christening gift from his grandparents was worth “three- to four-hundred thaler”; 
  • Helmholtz’s father gave him 9 thaler a month for clothes, books, and 2 meals a day;
  • Theodor Schwann earned 10 thaler a month working as Müller’s assistant at the anatomical museum, which supplemented additional income he got from his parents.

We know several of Müller’s students bought microscopes well before they became famous professors. In the 1830s or 1840s this would be equivalent today a medical student’s wealthy parents buying their child an expensive car, on top of paying for their tuition, room, and board. Schleiden’s aunt Anna Sophia Dingwall (Bergeest) purchased his first microscope; in 1840 Emil du Bois-Reymond used at least a quarter to a third of the christening gift given by his grandparents to buy a Schiek microscope; Ernst Haeckel’s wealthy parents bought his microscope in the early 1850s, although by that time the cost of a microscope had dropped some. Schwann was not able to buy his own microscope until he left Berlin for Leuven in late-1839, bringing a new Schiek microscope with him; before then he seems to have used whatever microscopes were available to him, including Müller’s Scheik microscope.

For a broader social comparison, Dierig also points us to Doris Reimer’s book about the Berlin book publisher Georg Andreas Reimer, which includes an appendix, “What the thaler was worth then”: 

  • In Berlin in the 1840s, a typical worker family (2 parents + 3 children) needed an “annual existential minimum” of 200 thaler per year. 
  • A truly impoverished family living outside the city walls could scrape by on 7 thaler a month, of which 2 thaler would go for rent. 
  • A preacher or teacher earned about 500 thaler per year.
  • 3 thaler could buy one of the following: 500 bricks, 45 kg white bread, 58 kg rye bread, 28 kg of beef, or a birthday cake for a wealthy family.
  • 11 thaler could buy 6 bottles of rum; an umbrella cost 10½ thaler.

Dierig and Finkelstein both draw on an old, 1976 dissertation by Axel Genz to set the cost of a microscope in the context of operating a whole scientific laboratory, which in the mid-1800s was a broader and more diverse undertaking than it is today. In the 1830s Müller’s total budget as Ordinary Professor of Anatomy and Physiology and head of the Anatomical Museumwas 2,350 thaler. However Dierig and Finkelstein differ in their presentation of how Müller’s budget was spent:

  • Dierig (2006, p. 18): “The predominant part of the annual budget of 2,350 thaler was used for the expansion and care of the specimen collection of the museum. The ‘skeleton of a Chinese’ cost 65 thaler, 23½ thaler for a ‘tuna fish from Montpellier,’ 300 thaler had to be paid out for a taxidermied ‘Orang-Outang.’ In addition there was the cost of carpentry, glassware, and preservation fluids.”
  • Finkelstein (2013, pp. 44–45): “The greatest part of [Müller’s] income of 2,350 thaler had to be used to run the [anatomical] theater. Not including salaries for his assistants, he spent 540 thaler on cadavers, 200 on fuel, 102 on ‘unforeseen expenses,’ 62 on cadaver transport, 14 on a watchmaker, and 1 on ‘cleaning the royal pipe.’ Of the remaining 675 thaler allotted for preparations, much had to be used for ‘regular costs of alcohol, glassware, glasswork, material for injections, metalwork,…etc.; finally anatomical instruments…’ Over time the ministry raised Müller’s budget to slightly more than 4,000 thaler, but between 1835 and his death in 1858 it granted him only 400 thaler for his physiological researches, a sum that works out to about 18 thaler a year.”

Dierig and Finkelstein give us rather different figures for Emil du Bois-Reymond’s start-up costs in 1859, when he was appointed to be Müller’s replacement in Berlin as Professor of Physiology. 

  • Dierig (2006, pp. 54–55), again drawing on Genz: “In 1859 du Bois-Reymond was granted 975 thaler to equip his laboratory, of which: large microscope, 120 thaler; two smaller microscopes, 80 thaler; vivisection instruments and injections, 75 thaler; a Ludwig kymograph, 150 thaler; a Helmholtz ophthalmometer, 100 thaler; an electric machine with accessories, 100 thaler; a multiplicator, 100 thaler; a small multiplicator, 55 thaler; a Laxton’sche Machine, 60 thaler; a saccharimeter, 60 thaler; a heliostat, 75 thaler.”
  • Finkelstein (2013, p. 173), who looked more carefully at Prussian ministerial sources, notes that du Bois-Reymond’s annual budget from 1859 onwards was 1,140 thaler, plus a one-time grant of 750 thaler for “lecture apparatus.”

To return to microscopes: in the 1830s and 1840s, while a microscope was truly costly, in the context of 1830s laboratory biology and medicine a microscope would have been one of a handful of other costly things. In the laboratory context, we get the sense that in the 1830s the purchase of a microscope became more valued when weighed against, for example, purchasing exotic museum specimens, or buying expensive physiological apparatus. Thus it was not just that the microscope cost a lot in the 1830s and 1840s, but that its relative scientific value was growing rapidly in this period as well.

Note: Dierig gives some comparisons to some smaller, more prosaic items that cost much less than a thaler: e.g., a meal with a single entrée cost 5 groschen, a beer at a public house cost 2 groschen, a trip on the Berlin-Potsdam railroad cost 17 ½ or 12½ or 7½ groschen in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class, respectively. Unfortunately Dierig’s conversion rate of 1 thaler = 24 groschen (aka Silbergroschen) doesn’t add up. In 1821 the Prussian currency law made a half-step towards decimalization, replacing the old 1 thaler = 24 groschen with a new, 1 thaler = 30 groschen conversion. In both old and new Prussian systems 1 groschen remained 12 pfennig, such that in the new Prussian system 1 thaler = 360 pfennig—see, it’s sort-of decimalized! Dierig’s insistence that 1 thaler = 24 groschen thus makes me a little suspicious, especially given that the Berlin-Potsdam railway only opened in 1838 (at a cost of 700,000 thaler), and would presumably be operating under the new currency system. However! It’s possible my skepticism is not entirely justified! Reimer reminds us that, given the post-Napoleonic currency chaos across the whole continent, on top of the already chaotic history of many different currency schemes across the German-speaking lands, it took some industries a long time to fully convert to the new system. Book publishers, for example, stuck to the 1 thaler = 24 groschen system until the mid-1840s! In short, German currency history is complicated, and these numbers should be used only to give us rough estimates of relative worth.

[Update 11 Nov 2022: Added Kölliker and Reichert to the list of Müller’s students.]

Find anything wrong? Please leave a comment below!


The core source here is: Ilse Jahn, “Einführung und Erläuterung zur Geschichte der Zellenlehre und der Zellentheorie,” in Klassische Schriften zur Zellenlehre, ed. Ilse Jahn, Ostwald’s Klassiker der exakten Wissenschaften 275 (Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1987), 6–44.

On the history of microscopy:

  • Savile Bradbury, The Evolution of the Microscope (Oxford: Pergamon, 1967).
  • Jutta Schickore, The Microscope and the Eye: A History of Reflections, 1740-1870 (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

On the cost of the microscope vs. other laboratory costs, and Müller’s students:

  • Sven Dierig, “‘Die Instrumente waren noch theuer und selten’: Schiek-Mikroskope im Umfeld von Johannes Müller,” in Unsichtbar, Sichtbar, Durchschaut: Das Mikroskop als Werkzeug des Lebenswissenschaftlers, ed. Helmut Kettenmann, Jörg Zaun, and Stefanie Korthals (Berlin: Museumspädagogischer Dienst, 2001), 43–47.
  • Sven Dierig, Wissenschaft in der Maschinenstadt: Emil Du Bois-Reymond und seine Laboratorien in Berlin (Wallstein Verlag, 2006).
  • Gabriel Finkelstein, Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany (MIT Press, 2013).
  • Laura Otis, Müller’s Lab (Oxford University Press, 2007).

And on relative value of the thaler in the early 19th century: Doris Reimer, Passion & Kalkül: Der Verleger Georg Andreas Reimer (1776-1842) (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999).

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