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A compound microscope draws back the curtain on invisible things. But what is a compound microscope?
A compound microscope is a bit of magic. It’s like The One Ring. You look at the world through it and everything is different (but the dark lord Sauron doesn’t sense your presence when you do, so it’s a lot safer).
Cells from the inside of a human cheek stained with methylene blue look like the massive gaseous nebulae glowing between stars in the depths of space. Mold becomes a brilliant forest of kelp stretching out into a vast emptiness.
Seemingly innocuous things come to life under the high magnification of this most fundamental light microscope.
And in many ways it’s a simple microscope, using the same principles of magnification for hundreds of years. When Antony Van Leeuwenhoek built a microscope that could reach 300x magnification, he immediately observed bacteria, protists, spermatozoa, and lots of other unknown things. And he wasn’t even a scientist, per say. He was a master glassmaker, and crafted his own magnification lenses by hand. He was also wonderfully curious.
What is a compound microscope used for?
In Van Leeuwenhoek’s case, he used it to look at everything. Anything small enough to harbor secrets went under his lens (and there are lots of things he found around the house and on his body that fit the bill).
He scraped the plaque off his teeth and looked at hair and skin and sperm and spit. And by doing so he worked at the core of compound microscopy.
A compound microscope is used to look very closely at small things on a two-dimensional plane. When Van Leeuwenhoek put the plaque from his teeth onto a glass slide and slid it under his compound microscope, he saw bacteria dancing happily.
And it’s used for lots of similar things today.
Hospitals use compound microscopes to identify the type of bacteria causing an infection so it can be treated appropriately. Compound microscopes help hospital lab technicians diagnose cancerous tissues and other diseases.
Environmental scientists use compound microscopes to evaluate water or soil quality (organic farmers might not consider themselves environmental scientists, but they manage soil composition by looking at the various microscopic living things under a compound microscope).
Forensic scientists look at blood, tissue samples, fibers, and other samples to solve crimes or prove evidence in court.
Biologists look at plant and animal cells under the compound microscope. We wouldn’t know about Gray crab disease or how a squirrel gets mange.
The compound microscope is also one of the primary tools for engaging the next generation of scientists early in school.
Some students are surrounded by magic in the science lab. They need the opportunity to explore their scientific interests and chase them into careers and lifelong learning. Compound microscopes keep students engaged and asking questions throughout their entire lives.
How does a compound microscope work?
Give a person a compound microscope and they’ll explore for a day. Teach a person to use one and they’ll live a life of exploration.
A compound microscope comes in three head configurations:
A compound monocular microscope has a single eyepiece, or ocular lens. A compound binocular microscope has two, and a trinocular microscope (surprise incoming!) has three. The main purpose of the trinocular head is to attach a microscope camera so you can:
Document your research.
Share images with colleagues or students.
Capture images for further analysis.
Regardless of the eyepiece count, the image you see is the same whether you look with one eye or two (or in an image afterwards). It’s two-dimensional because of the way the lens and the light and the condenser and all the other components have to be aligned to achieve the high level of magnification compound microscopes are known for.
So, if we want to get a little technical here. The compound microscope is built with two optical systems working together, compounding the magnification (and so it’s called a compound microscope). The two systems are:
The objective lens system, which has a minuscule focal distance and lives close to the object, and;
The ocular or eyepiece system, with a longer focal length and lower magnification. It magnifies the image from the objective lens system and sends that image straight to the retina of your eye.
So, the objective sends a magnified image to the ocular lens, which is remagnified close to the user’s eye.
And there are little things you can do with the compound microscope to refine the image you see.
First, there’s the coarse focus knob. As the name suggests, you use it to make sizable adjustments to the image quality. You get close to a sharp image. Then there’s a fine focus knob that allows you to sharpen the image to a deadly edge. Usually, the fine adjustment knob is located inside the coarse knob.
There’s also a cool piece of engineering on some microscopes called an Abbe condenser (Abbe condensers are only useful at magifications above 400x, so it’s an unnecessary expense if your microscope doesn’t zoom more than that). What does it do?
The Abbe condenser sits below the microscope stage and manipulates the light that passes through the specimen.
There are two controls so you can move the condenser closer to or further from the stage, or change the diameter of the beam of light.
These controls are for advanced users, but they allow you to change the brightness, contrast, and evenness of LED illumination or otherwise.
Now, that’s a lot of words for an answer that can also be pretty straightforward. A compound microscope works by passing light through a sample and magnifying it with lenses so you get a super-close look at super-small details.
What can you actually see with a compound microscope?
You can see cells and bacteria and nematodes and water bears. You can see white blood cells in a urine sample to diagnose a urinary tract infection. You can see fine structural fractures in industrial metals that need to perform under high stress. You can observe stem cells from shrubs or humans.
You can venture into the field of microbiology and see some of the smallest things we know.
When it gets that small, you can find truth in the details. And fine details need very high-resolution imaging. That’s why lots of microbiology users in college and university research labs, medical labs, private research institutions, and others, use an oil immersion objective.
What is an oil immersion objective? We’re glad you asked. At high magnification power, light refracts off the glass of the microscope slide and slip cover. Immersion oil has a high refractive index, so it minimizes the refraction and lets light flood into the objective in a straight line. With more light coming through the objective, the resolution of the microscope increases and you get a sharper look at the fine details under your microscope.
Different types of compound microscope you’ll find here
Compound microscopes come in a variety of flavors, so to speak, and each is an optical microscope. Each type of designed to look at samples a little differently, or to look for details other types of compound microscope can’t identify.
A brightfield microscope is the simplest form of compound biological microscope. It’s the type of microscopy discussed in all the sections above. Light passes through a subject, illuminating the subject and giving you a look at its internal structure.
A darkfield microscope predictably the opposite of a brightfield microscope. The subject appears as a bright image on a dark background. Darkfield microscopy is all about creating contrast so samples are easier to image.
A metallurgical microscope is used almost exclusively in industrial inspection. Often, they’re used in failure analysis where the precise cause of a material failure is important in making changes to manufacturing processes that follow.
A polarizing microscope works on the concept of birefringence. That is, light passes through some materials in different ways at different angles. Polarizing microscopes are used in gout diagnosis. To look at teeth or muscle tissue. To identify minerals inside rocks. To examine the quality of glass or ceramics. To verify asbestos.
A phase contrast microscope allows users to look at translucent samples without staining. Standard brightfield microscopy often lacks the resolution to generate quality images of translucent samples. So a phase contrast microscope employs a special condenser and specialized objectives, resulting in the required resolution. They come with a higher price tag because phase contrast microscopes are notably more complex.
An inverted microscope is used in a handful of specialized applications. Instead of the standard compound microscope configuration where the light and condenser are below the stage, they are placed above the stage on an inverted microscope. This enables users to look at live cells in a petri dish without damaging them, or larger samples that wouldn’t normally fit in the working distance between the stage and objective on an upright microscope.
A teaching microscope has multiple eyepieces so an instructor can walk students through what they see under the microscope. (Pro tip: when buying a teaching microscope, make sure the images projected to the secondary eyepieces are not reversed. It’s easier to explain what you’re doing when you don’t have to reverse every instruction for the sake of your students).
Fluorescence microscopes are some of our favorites. What is a fluorescence microscope? It works almost exactly like standard brightfield compound microscopes, except samples are labeled with fluorophore, a substance that reacts to high-energy light (like that from a Xenon lamp or Mercury lamp). The sample will fluoresce when hit with the high energy light, and filters on the microscope only allow light on that fluorescing wavelength through. Most fluorescence microscopes used in biology today are called epi-fluorescence microscopes. This just means that the excitation and the observation of the fluorescence happens above the sample. Epi-fluorescence is ideal for imaging structural components of cells.
Like working with a digital microscope?
Every compound light microscope has the capability of working as a digital microscope. After all, what is a digital microscope but a microscope with the ability to capture images digitally?
The addition of a digital camera to your compound microscope is quick and easy.
They are easily affixed to the eyepiece on a monocular or binocular compound microscope, streaming the image you would see looking down at the sample to a laptop or other screen. There are a handful of benefits to working with a digital microscope.
They’re ergonomic. Looking at a screen set at eye level with the image of your specimen is much more comfortable than hunching over the eyepiece lens and body tube for hours on end.
They’re built for collaboration. In the classroom, on the inspection floor, or in your research lab, it’s easy to get a second or third opinion when you can just turn your laptop screen to a colleague or student and start a conversation.
They’re ideal for documenting your work. Digital microscopes speed up your workflow, especially if the included software allows you to capture important sample information, annotate images, and file them in an organized way in one swoop. They actually reduce human error and speed up your work.
A compound microscope can do a lot, but there is a specific limitation you shouldn’t ignore.
Some compound microscopes advertise magnification above 1000x. Microscopy experts advise against purchasing compound microscopes with magnification that exceeds 1000x because resolution drops precipitously beyond that point. It’s called false magnification.
The crux of it lies in the resolution. Yes, you can achieve 2000x magnification by putting a 20x eyepiece on and looking through the 100x objective lens. But you don’t gain any more visual information. In fact, the resolution of your image drops significantly. So much that you actually gain better quality imaging information by reducing your magnification back down to 1000x.
Ever wonder what the numbers on the objective lens mean?
One number is the magnification factor (4x, 10x, 40x, 100x). One number is the preferred thickness of your glass cover slip to ensure optimal performance. One number is the tube length in millimeters. And one number is the numerical aperture.
Compound microscope warranty and maintenance
A compound microscope can be an expensive investment for your workplace. Many of our customers in education purchase many units at the same time, and they do it for two main reasons:
The cost of each single compound microscope unit goes down when purchased as part of a large volume order. It’s always good to submit a quote request with us to find out the actual cost of your compound microscopes.
They get a fresh start with new microscopes and accessories all at once, so every user gets to benefit from something new. It’s good for user engagement and great for the improved workflow you can dream up with a better suite of microscopes in your workplace.
Every Omano compound microscope comes with a limited lifetime warranty and a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy. If it turns out your microscope doesn’t have all the features you needed or you just don’t like the way it looks, you can send it back. We’ll never give you a hard time about it. And, of course, we’ll ship your order of over $150 for free, no matter how large.
Choose your compound microscope below, add accessories and supplies to your order, and submit your preferred pricing quote today. We’re excited to work with you.
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