A while back, I wrote an obituary for Rick Dickinson, the industrial designer behind legendary computers such as the ZX81. Reading around about this fascinating and talented character, I discovered that in the late 1980s he also designed a microscope: The Lensman. It won a range of design awards upon its release, including the Archimedes award for Engineering Excellence, a prize with such a glorious name I would probably whack it across the windshield of my Capri if it ever came my way.
I have always wanted a microscope. I have memories of them from school, and they're tinged, as so many school memories are, with intrigue and fear. Intrigue because what could be better than this magical device which grants you access to the vivid kingdom of the very, very small? Fear because, back then I could never seem to touch anything delicate without breaking it in some tiny but consequential manner.
Microscopes! I remember looking through a microscope exactly once at school, pushing my eye into the viewfinder and seeing the leg of an insect looming, so large all of a sudden, and improbably beautiful in its design - little hairs on it and the overall cleanness of the form making it look like a Leonardo sketch, right down to the hatching. I hadn't been back, but now the Lensman was calling to me. It was designed as a field microscope, I gather. It's portable. That gave it a certain romance - sling it in a backpack, and then put it to work whenever there's a discovery to be made! Maybe this also meant it could handle my clumsiness?
It was available on eBay. I pounced and almost immediately had a wonderful email chat with the fellow I bought it from who had loved microscopes ever since his father gave him one as a child. Man, I could tell he loved microscopes given the care with which he packaged mine. And all biodegradable! Lovely packaging and prompt arrival. Would buy from again! A+++++++!
Picture a microscope: the heavy base, the elegant neck that curves forward so that the eyepiece and lenses seem to peer down like a bird searching a riverbank. Forget all that. The Lensman looks like a small, flat canister of film, or perhaps a flying saucer. The matte black plastic feels light yet durable and the highlighting is done in white and red - we are back in ZX81 territory, back at the threshold of the thrilling future of yesterday. Of all the golden age computers, the ZX81 is the most instantly charismatic, sharp-edged and confident and retaining a fierce appeal that has nothing to do with nostalgia. The Lensman feels like that - like a contemporary gadget from another dimension.
The magnifying lens is on top, right in the centre of the saucer. You place a slide or whatever you want to look at over it, and then you peer through the eyepiece, selecting either 80x or 200x magnification. In my hand, the thing feels compact and pleasantly weighty. And yet it is so small! Such a lovely thing to hold.
There is an arm that can be extended to shine a light down onto your slide, but it works well in daylight anyway and I worry about breaking the arm. There is a little magnet ring to secure slides in place, and I worry about losing it. The Lensman is a device that encourages a certain degree of worry, I think, not because it is delicate, but because it is clearly made with such care. Such effort and craft and intelligence has gone into this magical thing.
But then I look through the eyepiece and all worries evaporate. I am lost in that magical world - the world of the very small. I have a handful of slides that came with my set - flower seeds look like droplets of blood, while petals seem to have rather animalistic veins running through them - but I mainly look at the things I find nearby on my desk. Paper looks so rough, so ragged up close, and my own handwriting is gigantic and blotchy. The wood of a coffee stirrer has a flaking edge that I cannot see when I merely hold it in my hand. My cheap ballpoint pen is an absolute art deco delight all of a sudden, a gleaming chrome sphere set in an elegant mount.
What a thing! One look through it and I am transported - and everything in the world about me seems new and strange again.
Many thanks to Paul Watson for taking the photos of the Lensman.
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