Return Return to overview

Can you see bacteria?

Welcomme Collection/ Science Museum, London

You can see great masses of bacteria with the naked eye, but not single bacterial cells. These are far too small. If you want to see a bacterium, you need a really powerful magnifying glass. In other words, you need a microscope. The Dutchman Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was the first person to make high-quality microscopes.

Lenses are an important part of a microscope. These are pieces of glass that magnify objects. The reason Antoni was good at making lenses had to do with his work as a trader dealing in clothing fabrics. He wanted to be sure that the fabrics he bought were of good quality, which meant he had to check every piece of fabric properly. For this purpose, he used a magnifying glass – which is also a lens.

Antoni became very interested in lenses. After trying out various ways of processing glass, he became very good at it. He used the glass he made to produce wonderful, high-magnification lenses. He also built a microscope that could magnify objects hundreds of times. That was how he became the first person to see individual bacteria.