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Live Boxes

livebox The live box, or livebox, also known as the 'animalcule cage' or 'capillary tablet (Varley), was one of the earliest accessories devised to accompany the microscope. It is obvious that once the study of small subjects was conceived, the study of living and often moving organisms would be very common. The earliest types were simple closed chambers, at first likely made of wood or ivory (M), and later, brass (L). Little brass cylinder liveboxes were supplied with, for example, the W & S Jones simple 'Botanical Microscope, circa 1820, and also with most Gould-type microscopes, especially the small original Gould model. These basic liveboxes are nothing more than two part cylinders, which either screwed onto each other or pushed together with clear tops and bottoms made of glass or perhaps occasionally mica. The space in between the top and bottom could be varied a little but did not allow the top and bottom glass to come close to touching each other. They were able to contain an insect like an ant or some liquid, but did nothing more to immobilize the specimens. At the same time, dedicated livebox simple microscopes became common; with their integrated lenses, they were relatively inexpensive and popular novelties that were made for many years. As time went on certain refinements were added. Since small living subjects could be microscopic, or quite a bit larger, these devices would eventually vary quite a bit in size. Obviously a protozoan requires only a small space, while a fly requires a larger space, and an eel or frog required a very much larger device. In the 1830's, Cornelius Varley devised his 'Vial Microscope' to observe living plants or animals in relatively large vials. For animals as large as an entire frog, special 'frog plates' were devised. Eels and small fish could be studied whole within small vials adapted to simple or compound microscopes. As compound microscopes became more popular, though, the livebox became one of the most common accessories, and was often supplied with both first class microscopes and the least expensive models.

livebox An early variation of the livebox was the 'wet cell' slider, which had several compartments for viewing small subjects (like protozoa), in liquid, but again there was no control of the pressure or thickness of the preparation. In the figure to the left, part a contains three small concave pieces of glass. The thicker glass cover, b is placed over them and the brass keeper, c holds it all together.

Starting in the late 18th or early 19th century, live boxes usually consisted of two cylinders, one fitting over the other, with the bottom cylinder permanently attached to a rectangular base, resembling slides (A-K above).

liveboxThese differed from the older types in that the glass of the top cylinder could be brought closer or even in contact with the bottom cylinder. At first, as shown to the right, the bottom cylinder had a flat glass top. The second cylinder, fitting snugly over the first, but with a tiny hole or slit to prevent build up of air pressure, could be lowered part way to accept a larger specimen or further until the glass in the top part nearly came in contact with the glass in the bottom part holding the specimen. Liveboxes of this basic form continued to be supplied right into the early twentieth century.

varley's tabletIn the 1830's Varley invented an improved form which he called his 'capillary tablet' (left). This form differed from those previously available in that the glass on the top of the bottom cylinder on the slide is not completely flat, but rather has a tapered edge leading to a circular trough surrounding it. This reduced the tendency of the liquid to flow off the tablet in between the sides of the upper and lower cylinder, by capillary attraction. The original Varley design had two disadvantages. One was the fact that the top screwed down over the other; this twisting motion could inadvertently distort the specimen. The other inconvenience of this model was the difficulty of replacing the glass in the top (outer) cylinder, as that thin glass often broke.

liveboxSoon the Varley live box was made of brass, as shown to the left, and the top cylinder pushed down over the first, instead of screwing down. It was then further improved, by making these top cylinders in two parts. They screw apart, so that the round cover slip was simply dropped in, and then held in place when the cylinder part was screwed on to its cap, as the cylinder has a slightly smaller inside diameter than the cover glass. Quekett implied that Powell & Lealand first made liveboxes with this latter improvement, but many makers eventually did so and there are examples by Ross and Watson in this collection with this feature. Even though the improvement of a channel around the lower glass was known after it was introduced in the 2nd quarter of the 19th century, the simpler and cheaper basic form, with a flat lower glass tablet, was still supplied with many microscopes for many years thereafter.

rousseletIn 1887 Charles Rousselet reported his improvement in the livebox, which was sort of a mirror image of the Varley type then in use. Here, as shown to the right (courtesy of Dr. Jurriaan de Groot), and reported in the JQMC, instead of the slide having a cylinder projecting upwards with the bottom glass at its top, he placed the bottom glass tablet at the bottom of a cylinder. The covering part then was pressed down inside the cylinder. Like the improvement noted above, the top cover glass could be replaced by simply unscrewing the cap of the top. The design of this livebox was copied by Bausch & Lomb in the United States who sold it in their 1893 catalog as 'life box, new construction.'   In 1904, A.A.C. Elliot Merlin reported in the JQMC that he preferred to cement the top glass into place to form a vapor-tight seal to reduce evaporation. The Rousselet live box allowed both bright field and dark ground illumination, and the use of higher magnification objectives.

For another example of a Rousselet-type livebox see the page about a Signed Watson Rousselet-type Livebox.

rousselet live

The author would like to thank Dr Jurriaan de Groot for supplying images of his Rousselet-type livebox.