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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Richard Owen   [26 March 1848]

Down Farnborough Kent


My dear Owen

I do not know whether your M.S. instructions1 are sent in; but even if they are not sent in, I daresay what I am going to write will be absolutely superfluous, but I have derived such infinitely great advantage from my new simple microscope,2 in comparison with the one, which I used on board the Beagle & which was recommended to me by R. Brown,3 that I cannot forego the mere chance of advantage of urging this on you. The leading point of difference consists simply in having the stage, for saucers very large & fixed. mine will hold a saucer 3 inches in inside diameter I have never seen such a microscope, as mine, though Chevaliers (from whose plan, many points of mine are taken) of Paris approaches it pretty closely.—4 I fully appreciate the utter absurdity of my giving you advice about means of dissecting; but I have appreciated myself the enormous disadvantage of having worked with a bad instrument, though thought a few years since the best. Please to observe that without you call especial attention to this point; those ignorant of natural History, will be sure to get one of the fiddling instruments sold in shops. If you thought fit I would point out the differences, which from my experience, make a useful microscope for the kind of dissection of the invertebrates which a person would be likely to attempt on board a vessel.5 But pray again believe that I feel the absurdity of this letter & I write merely from the chance of yourself possessing great skill & having worked with good instruments, may not possibly be fully aware, what an astonishing difference the kind of microscope makes for those who have not been trained in skill for dissection under water.

When next I come to town (I was prevented last time by illness), I must call on you, & report for my own satisfaction, a really, (I think) curious point I have made out in my beloved Barnacles:6 you cannot tell how much I enjoyed my talk with you here.

Ever, my dear Owen | Yours sincerely | C. Darwin

P.S. If I do not hear, I shall understand that my letter is superfluous.— Smith & Beck were so pleased with the simple microscope they made for me; that they have made another as a model: if you are consulted by any young Naturalist, do recommend them to look at this; I really feel quite a personal gratitude to this form of microscope & quite a hatred to my old one.—


Owen’s chapter on zoology in the Admiralty manual (Herschel ed. 1849, pp. 343–99).
In his Account Book (Down House MS), CD recorded a payment to ‘Smith & Beck microscope £6’19’18’ on 15 January 1848. A catalogue bound into the back of CD’s copy of Quekett 1852 indicates that Smith and Beck were by then advertising ‘Darwin’s Improved Single [microscope]’ at £10. A full description of ‘Darwin’s Single Microscope’ is given in Beck 1865, pp. 102–4. A microscope of this model is on display at Down House. It was donated by the Lubbock family and may well be the one that CD ordered for young John Lubbock (see letter to Harriet Lubbock, [December 1848–9]).
The microscope that Robert Brown recommended and that CD used on the Beagle is almost certainly the Bancks microscope now at Down House. See Correspondence vol. 1, letter to J. S. Henslow, 28 [September 1831], n. 1, and letter to W. D. Fox, 23 May 1833.
Owen devoted pp. 389–95 of his chapter on zoology (Herschel ed. 1849) to the ‘Use of the microscope on board ship’, with the introductory remark that the instructions ‘embody the experience of Charles Darwin, Esq., F.R.S.’ In the second edition he added, ‘and of Mr. Huxley, Asst.-Surgeon, R.N.’


Beck, Richard. 1865. A treatise on the construction, proper use, and capabilities of Smith, Beck, and Beck’s achromatic microscopes. London: John Van Voorst.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Herschel, John Frederick William, ed. 1849. A manual of scientific enquiry; prepared for the use of Her Majesty’s Navy: and adapted for travellers in general. London: John Murray.

Quekett, John. 1852. A practical treatise on the use of the microscope, including different methods of preparing and examining animal, vegetable, and mineral structures. 2d ed. London.


Describes his new microscope and its advantages for dissecting. Suggests RO might discuss topic [in his contribution to J. F. W. Herschel, ed., Manual of scientific enquiry (1849)].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Richard Owen
Sent from
Source of text
Archives of the New York Botanical Garden (Charles Finney Cox Collection)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1166,” accessed on 6 February 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 4