The Afterlife of a Scientific Instrument: The Chambers Micromanipulator, Part 2

by Erich Weidenhammer

Provenance and Meaning

Part 1 of this examination of the Chambers’ Micromanipulator, describes the technology and its various applications. This second part looks at the particular object belonging to the University of Toronto and its possible significance in the absence of detailed information about its history and context (‘provenance’ in museum jargon.)

Fig 1: The U of T's Chambers' Micromanipulator


I noticed the U of T Chambers’ Micromanipulator around 2010 or 2011. Our instrument project had been granted a room by the Arts and Science Office of Infrastructure Planning and we were gradually transferring instruments from various storage rooms around the university onto ethafoam-lined shelves for storage and cataloguing. The micromanipulator belonged to a collection of instruments that had accumulated over several decades in the hallway and offices of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST).

Because of its involvement in efforts to found a science museum at the University of Toronto, the IHPST had accepted donations from faculty members looking to save important obsolete material from disposal, as well as from community members seeking a home for historical objects. These instruments have been assigned to the ‘IHPST collection’ though only a small percentage have been catalogued as of February 2013. 

Though no one remembers exactly when the micromanipulator arrived at the IHPST, its origin is reasonably clear. On February 28th, 1980, a Museum Studies student, hired as part of an inventory of historical scientific material,  located the micromanipulator in a first-floor room of the FitzGerald building which then housed Parasitology and Microbiology. This cataloguing effort had been launched in 1978 by the President’s Advisory Committee on Historic Resources.  The resulting card catalogue, now in the UTSIC archives, contains an entry describing the micromanipulator (See below.)  The fact that it was, at this point, considered ‘in danger of disappearing’ means that it could have been acquired by the IHPST soon after it was catalogued. 

Fig 2: A card catalogue entry created in 1980 as part of a university-wide survey of historic instruments provides some clues about the micromanipulator’s provenance. I haven’t been able to discover who the cryptic ‘(Dr. Wright)’ at the top of the card refers to. 


While the micromanipulator’s afterlife as a historical object is reasonably well documented, its earlier career as a scientific instrument is less clear. Like many (though not all) of the instruments in the UTSIC collection, the micromanipulator’s existence as a scientific tool has passed from living memory; those who used it are now dead. Its role in medical research at the University of Toronto must be reconstructed from published material and archival records.


Looking for Clues: The Chambers’ Micromanipulator at the University of Toronto

The instrument itself provides some evidence of its past. The presence of two micromanipulator pillars indicates that it was used for critical research, rather than the more mundane task of isolating bacteria in order to grow pure strains. The steel base retains wear marks in the outline of a syringe holder (shown in published illustrations), indicating the use of a microinjection apparatus, as well as several other minor components, all of which have been lost.

Fig 3: Subtle wear marks on the manipulator base reveal several components that are now missing.

A single document that was acquired by the  IHPST  along with the micromanipulator provides a major clue. This is a yellowed ‘author’s abstract’ of a paper in which Chambers described the Manipulator, which appeared in The Anatomical Record in 1922. It is stamped “Department of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine.” This does not prove that the manipulator came from the department of hygiene; the article was first published several years before the production version of the instrument was available. However, the U of T’s 1978 survey located the instrument in the FitzGerald Building which housed the Department of Hygiene at the time that the instrument was probably purchased. In my opinion, this makes the Department of Hygiene a likely point of origin.

Fig 4: The offprint acquired with the manipulator.

None of the surviving information gives much indication as to when it was acquired, who used it, and for what specific research purpose. In such cases, the Annual Report of the Board of Governors available through the U of T Archives (UTARMS) often proves useful. These were reports to the Ontario Board of Education which provided the bulk of the University’s funding.  They listed expenses such as building upkeep, salaries, and departmental expenses such as equipment purchases. A number of instruments in our collection can be identified within these records. For some reason, however, the reports from the period between the years 1926/ 1927 and 1933/ 1934, lack any information on equipment purchases. This covers the likely range of dates over which the manipulator was acquired.

Ultimately, I was unable to move beyond the ‘needle in a haystack’ territory which (had I had the time ) would have involved examining every publication from the Department of Hygiene over the period in which the manipulator was likely in active use. Nor was I familiar enough with its possible uses to spot where its use might have been implicit in a particular experiment. Regardless, its likely provenance is interesting and meaningful even while lacking much detail.


What does it mean?

Seen as a museum object, the Chambers’ micromanipulator could be interpreted in any number of ways. One could use it to explore various disciplines, optical technology in science, or the philosophical dilemmas of observation and scientific realism beyond the unaided senses. One could use it to explore ‘making’ in science through tracing its origins as a shop-made instrument, or the simple glassworking skills required to operate it.

It can also represent an episode of local medical history. If, as is likely, it was purchased in the late 1920s or 1930s for the Department of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine, then it appeared at an important moment for public health in Toronto. In June of 1927, the University of Toronto School of Hygiene Building was opened. This is the building in which the micromanipulator was located in 1980, though it had since been renamed the FitzGerald Building after Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald, a major figure in the development of Canadian Public Health and the school’s first Director.

The construction of the School of Hygiene Building was made possible by a grant solicited by FitzGerald from the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. Founded in 1913 by the American petroleum magnate John D. Rockefeller, the foundation initially provided $400,000 for the new building and a further $250,000 to run its various sub-departments. The micromanipulator may have been purchased from these funds. [1. Bator and Rhodes (2006), p. 30-31]

The founding of the School of Hygiene  represents both the culmination of a unique collaboration between university research and government efforts at public health reform, as well as a vast expansion of institutional capabilities. This process gathered speed early in the century with the foundation of two major antitoxin laboratories in 1914 and 1917, which created an institutional base from which to launch public health campaigns using locally-produced medicine. By the 1920s, Toronto was considered a world centre of public health research and was unique in applying drug production to the public service mandate of its university. [2. Bator and Rhodes (2006), p. 29] In 1922, it gained considerable prestige from the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of insulin by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto.

The School of Hygiene consisted initially of the Departments of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine (the likely origin of the micromanipulator), Epidemiology and Biometrics, and Physiological Hygiene, though its institutional structure changed a great deal over time. [3. Bator and Rhodes (2006), 38] The building, which was frequently expanded over the following decades, included extensive facilities ranging from numerous laboratories, to factory production facilities for medicine, to classroom for public health instruction.

Fig 5: Architectural plan of the third floor of the School of Hygiene. The Officer's Mess is at the far right.

Fig 6: A magazine feature on the School of Hygiene from 1928.

Directed by a generation formed by the First World War, the atmosphere was regimented and martial. Physical exercise was encouraged in the gymnasium, swimming pool, and rooftop deck tennis courts. Senior scientists dined together in a special ‘officers’ mess’, rather than in the basement cafeteria. Recognizing,  perhaps, this military ethos, a journalist for Maclean’s  magazine  produced an article on the recently-built school entitled “A Peacetime Munitions Plant:  Where Science Fashions its Weapons of War Against the Armies of Disease.” [4. Bator and Rhodes (2006),p. 37, Edwards (1928), p. 7]

Assuming its likely provenance is correct, the micromanipulator is certainly among the very few, perhaps the only, surviving scientific instrument from the early years of the School of Hygiene.  Used as a means to draw a visitor’s attention, an object may serve as a kind of token or emblem evoking a broader historical narrative. In this case, it may recall a moment when an American oil tycoon’s fortune permitted Toronto built an university-based centre for public health research.


Conclusion: Instruments as Emblems?

Students of material culture are encouraged to find stories about the material, technologies, and cultures of use, ‘embodied’ in a physical object. There is a certain tension between finding stories in objects and using them to evoke a particular historical episode or event. The balance that one finds between these competing goals depends, I suppose, on the possibilities of the object and the story that one wishes to tell. A clever temporary exhibit at the Canada Science and Technology Museum calledThe Colour of Medicinerecently featured a number of medical objects that had been made in that particular green colour which was common for many decades in 20th century hospitals. Using objects alone, it created a narrative out of this subtle feature of a institutional environment that many viewers would have experienced. Some exhibits deliberately minimize context and interpretation of objects, or distance it from the objects on display, in order to encourage viewers to confront the physical objects themselves.

On the other hand, some objects are kept primarily as emblems or mementos  A set of optical diagnosis lenses that belonged to the Toronto-born paleoanthropologist Davidson Black (1884-1934), and a Geiger counter that was taken from the U of T’s Slowpoke nuclear reactor after it was shut down in 1998, are examples from the UTSIC collection.   This is also true of numerous objects related to the discovery of insulin in 1922—the most celebrated event in the history of Toronto medicine. All such objects tend to be assigned a special value—the IHPST has an old laboratory cabinet from the Banting Institute sitting in its hallway, for instance.  Material from (or representing) the original  laboratory is featured in permanent exhibits at both the Ontario Science Centre and the MARS Discovery District. The MARS exhibit calledInsulin: Toronto’s Gift to the World‘ includes an aluminum ring crafted from the plane crash in which Frederic Banting died in 1941—a holy relic from the recent past.

In my reading, the micromanipulator falls somewhere between these two poles; it is meaningful both as an object—an interesting obsolete technology—and as a material survivor of an important historical moment in local history. Balancing these themes in a hypothetical exhibit would be a challenge, particularly since details of its presumed use at the School of Hygiene, which might be used to situate the technology within a particular institutional context, remain elusive.  It would be a worthwhile project.

The third and final section of this examination will discuss an effort to reproduce several missing parts in order to show how the instrument looked when it was used at the U of T.


Thank you to Felicity Pope for her help in tracking down the micromanipulator’s provenance.



Note: A detailed bibliography relating to the instrument itself is available at the end of the previous post.

The Bulletin of the Academy of Medicine was published from October 1927 to Feb 1990. It is available at the U of T’s Gerstein Library and is a wonderful source for local medical history and advertisements.

Bator, P and Rhodes A. (2006) Within Reach of Everyone: A History of the University of Toronto School of Hygiene and the Connaught Laboratories. Vol 1, 1926 to 1955. Canadian Public Health Association.

Chambers, R. (1922a) “New Apparatus and Methods for the Dissection and Injection of Living Cells.” The Anatomical Record. 24. no. 1 (August), pp. 1-19 (contemporary reprint).

Edwards, F. (1928) “A Peacetime Munitions Plant:  Where Science Fashions its Weapons of War Against the Armies of Disease.” MacLean’s Magazine VOl. XLI, Vol. 2,  Jan 15th,  pp. 7-9.


Fig 1: UTSIC photograph

Fig 2: UTSIC photograph

Fig 3: UTSIC photograph

Fig 4: UTSIC photograph

Fig 5: UTSIC photograph

Fig 6: UTARMS, A1988-0039: Aperture Cards, Building 25.

Fig 7: MacLean’s Magazine VOl. XLI, Vol. 2,  Jan 15th, 1928, p. 7. (Fisher Library)



Touching the Living Cell: The Chambers’ Micromanipulator

by Erich Weidenhammer

[Update 20/03/2013] Part 2: “The Afterlife of a Scientific Instrument”

Part 1: Descripton, Operation, Development

At some point in the past several decades,  the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST)  inherited a number of items from the dispersed Canadian Museum of Health and Medicine collection. Among these was a lacquered black box containing the critical components of a Chamber’s Micromanipulator.  This instrument was developed by the American biologist Dr. Robert Chambers (1881-1957) during his time at Cornell University Medical College. It was first described in publication in 1918 and was commercialized by the Leitz company in the mid-1920s. The U of T ‘s example was most likely purchased for the recently-founded School of Hygiene in the late 1920s or 1930s.

Fig 1: Chambers' Micromanipulator as it appeared in its 1926 trade literature and as it survives today

This instrument is a rare treasure. It is the only medical research instrument from that period currently in the UTSIC collection. I haven’t yet found another surviving example (If you know of one, please let me know.) Its design reveals the aesthetics,  as well as the technological constraints, of its time and place. Its essential feature is a precise mechanism based on hinged steel bars actuated by adjusting screws.

Fig 2: Photo and diagram of the Chambers' mechanism

Through this simple mechanism, Chambers’ instrument made it possible to precisely manipulate microscopic objects—notably living cells—at the physical limits of optical magnification. In a sense, the micromanipulator can be seen as a refinement of the dissecting microscope as it basically consists of a steady platform, tools, and magnifying optics. To manipulate material at the cellular level, however, requires a special mechanism (a “mechanical hand”) to manoeuvre specialized ‘microtools’ such as microneedles and micropipettes. [1. Hildebrand (1960), p. 280.] Though we take such instruments for granted today, their development gave researchers a much greater ability to ‘see’ the physical structure of microscopic objects. The practice of using of the micromanipulator was deemed significant enough to be  named ‘micrurgy’ by the Hungarian researcher Tibor Péterfi in 1923.

In his 1983 book Representing and Intervening, philosopher of science Ian Hacking pointed out that we interpret what we see through a microscope by the active process of ‘doing.’ Rather than passively receiving self-evident information through the eyepiece, we actively learn to see through countless interventions—the development and application of dyes and fixatives, the use and improvement of various optical systems, the mastery of the Microscope’s various controls.  This process of removing flaws and resolving ambiguities is what permits us to reconcile our understanding of the physical world with the signal emerging from the microscope. [2. Hacking (1983), pp. 189-192.]

Hacking’s insight is worth keeping in mind when considering the micromanipulator. Injuring, stretching, injecting, or tearing apart a cell and removing its parts, provided an important way to investigate issues such as the circulation and viscosity of the cytoplasm at various stages of development, the physical properties of cellular structures such as chromosomes,  the process of fertilization, or the chemical workings of cell metabolism. Chambers spent his career intervening in the processes of living cells and writing about his findings. Other micrurgists  did similar work with both living and non-living microscopic material. Their work clarified what was seen by microscopists. Like Chambers, they continually  invented new tools to further their research. Some developed appendages to Chambers’ instrument. Some created new micromanipulators.

Fig 3: Manipulating a loop of Chromatin from a grasshopper spermatocyte. According to Chambers, the nucleus appears optically empty until pricked by a microneedle. The chromatin may be observed and manipulated once the membrane has been torn.


The technology behind the micromanipulator began to develop in 1859 when the American doctor H. D. Schmidt created an instrument that clipped to a microscope stage which was capable of tearing apart individual cells. [3. Chambers (1918), pp 121-122.] In 1904, Dr. Marshall A. Barber of the University of Kansas introduced the ‘Hanging drop’ moist chamber—a glass box roofed over by a cover slip.  Living cells were suspended in a droplet of liquid hanging from the roof of the chamber  for manipulation under the microscope objective. The box was open on one end to permit the entry of microtools ending in curving tips which operated upwards against this coverslip roof (see fig. 9 .) This allowed researchers to maintain a microclimate necessary to sustain cellular samples for a useful length of time.  In 1907, Barber developed an instrument that used rack and pinion mechanisms to move a micropipette in three axes. This was the first micromanipulator mechanism to develop a community of users. [4. Hildebrand (1960), pp. 280-281.] Barber’s  moist chamber and micromanipulator introduced a workable technology for the manipulation of individual cells.

Chambers used Barber’s device in his early research and would have been deeply familiar with  it. [5. Hildebrand (1960), p. 281.] His own design borrowed a great deal from it—notably the moist chamber—while solving its major deficiencies, especially mechanical problems such as ‘lost motion’ and ‘backlash’ to which the rack and pinion mechanism was subject. These occur as a result of flexibility, wear, and loose tolerance in a mechanism which prevent it from responding accurately to control inputs. The microscopic movements of a practical micromanipulator demand a very precise control system.

Fig 4: Barber's three-movement pipette holder and hanging droplet moist chamber as depicted by Robert Chambers.

Chambers addressed this problem in a clever way.  His micromanipulator used adjusting screws to force apart steel bars connected at one end with hinge/ springs of resilient metal (parts E, F & L in fig. 2 above.)  This arrangement controlled the movement of the microtool effectively enough to be developed into a high-end  commercial laboratory instrument by the Leitz company.

The trade literature issued around the middle of the 1920s with the first production version of the Chambers’ Micromanipulator claimed that  it was capable of impaling a single red blood cell (6-8μ or 0.006-8mm) with a glass needle.  In 1927, the Leitz company in New York listed the price for a model with one manipulator mechanism for $100 US. A model with two mechanisms sold for $165 US. These values are $6,030 and $9,940 respectively in 2011 US dollars relative to average American income. [6. measuring worth.con]

Forty years after it was first introduced, the Chambers’ Micromanipulator was still regarded as the most precise instrument available, though there were, by then, many alternatives. [7. Hildebrand (1960), p.  281, Chambers and Kopac, (1950), pp.  494-504.] While practically obsolete due to the labour and skill it required, it had long been established as an adaptable platform suitable to a range of scientific disciplines.

The  Micromanipulator’s Essential Components

The ‘mature’ instrument produced by the Leitz Company consisted of a base and at least one micromanipulator pillar (also called ‘movements’.) The base was a solid steel platform onto which both the microscope and the micromanipulator pillars were secured. Screw holes provided multiple points of attachment for the pillars, either at the front or the sides. The side positions were generally used for isolating bacteria while the front positions were used for critical work. The base of the microscope was secured to the manipulator base using two adjustable steel clamps.

Fig 5: Two possible configurations of the micromanipulator: The instrument on the left is configured for isolating pure strains of bacteria. A single pillar is used along with a relatively tall chamber opening to the side. The instrument on the right is set up for critical work. Two pillars are used. The microinjection system is also shown.

Each pillar consists of several of Chambers’ patented bar and hinge mechanisms so to as move a microtool along three axes. The microtool was clamped into a holder at the top of each pillar. When in use, the tool extended over the microscope stage into the moist chamber. Adjustment screws controlled the movement of the tool’s tip and allowed both the holder and the pillar itself to be adjusted vertically.

Pillars could be purchased singly or as a pair. One pillar was sufficient for picking up individual bacteria for cultivating pure strains, as well as for certain microdissection work such as embryology. For microinjection and for tissue cell dissection, two pillars were considered necessary. One illustration shows an instrument being used with four pillars—two at either side of the instrument [8. Chambers (1922b), p. 337.]

Fig 6: Illustration of the moist chamber. The broken lines represent the glass slide from which the droplet containing the sample hangs.

The moist chamber consisted of three glass or Bakelite walls glued to a thin glass slide around 50 x 75mm. The chamber opened at either the front or the side depending on where the micromanipulator pillars were mounted. The roof of the chamber was formed by a coverslip, kept in place by a small amount of Vaseline at its borders. The material to be manipulated was suspended in one or more liquid droplets hanging inside of the chamber on the underside of this cover slip. The moist chamber was clasped in a mechanical stage so that it could be adjusted in the x, y plane relative to the microscope objective.

The precise dimensions of the chamber would depend on its purpose. The taller the chamber, the more freedom one had to manoeuvre the delicate glass microtools. Isolation of pure strains of bacteria, for instance, could be accomplished using a relatively tall 20mm-high chamber that opened to the side. [9. Khan (1922), p. 346.]  On the other hand, Critical work at higher magnifications required tightly concentrated light from the microscope condenser below the stage. This meant that a special, or modified, condenser had to be used with a chamber no taller than the limit of its focal range—usually around 8-10mm. [10. Chambers and Kopac, (1950), p. 510.]

Fig 7: Microtools mounted. One is a microneedle. The other is a micropipette mounted into the microinjector apparatus (see below.)

Microtools, usually made by the operator out of drawn glass tube or rod, were used to operate on individual cells under magnification. Microneedles (also called microscalpels) and micropipettes (also called microsyringes) were the most common.  A microneedle was simply a glass tube or rod heated and pulled to produce a tool ending in a fine knife, or needle, point. A micropipette was made in a similar way but was always drawn from a tube. In Chambers’ system, the hollow tool was attached to a length of fine brass tube leading to a small Luer syringe that controlled the flow of liquid.

Glass has the advantage of producing a vanishingly fine point when made from a narrow rod or tube that is heated and drawn apart. It is also relatively inert—an important consideration when performing chemical experiments involving the microinjection of cells. It is , however, possible to use other materials. Wires made from certain metals may be given a fine point by dipping the tip in boiling acid or through electrolysis in order to create conductive microelectrodes . Historically, organic materials such as the scales of butterfly wings or the body hairs of a house fly have also been used. [11. Chambers and Kopac, (1950), pp. 522-523]


Setting-up and Operation

Using the micromanipulator required a range of laboratory skills. Much of the necessary instrumentation had to be prepared by the researcher, especially during the period before the instrument was commercialized around the middle of the 1920s. Literature on micromanipulators described how to make various pieces of necessary apparatus. This included instructions for building a simple microburner out of a bent piece of hard glass, secured to a block of wood and attached to a gas supply. This microburner would then provide the tiny heat source necessary to draw a fine pipette or rod into the finished tip needed for microtools.

Fig 8: Apparatus used to make microtools. Finished microneedles and micropipette tips are shown on the right.

In order to make a micropipette, for instance, the operator would heat a thin glass tube over the flame of a bunsen burner before drawing it out into a delicate capillary between 0.3 and 0.5 mm in diameter. This fine capillary was then reheated over the smaller flame of a microburner. A gentle tug from a pair of fine forceps would separate the capillary into two tools ending in fine tips. The tips would then be reheated and bent upwards. Much practice was required to produce usable tips with consistency. Once attached to the microinjection apparatus, the micropipette was prepared just prior to operation by breaking off the very tip of the capillary against the roof of the moist chamber—a delicate operation. [12. Chambers (1922a), pp. 12-13. Chambers and Kopac (1950), pp. 513-520.]

The moist chamber was usually made in the laboratory as well. With the prepared chamber clasped in a mechanical stage and moist chamber slid backwards out of the way, the microtool(s) were secured in the holders  and their tips brought into focus under a low magnification objective. Then the chamber was slid forward, the tips of the microtools lowered sufficiently to pass under its cover slip roof, and the droplet hanging from the cover slip roof brought into view.  Manipulation could begin when both the material in the hanging droplet and the tips of the microtool(s) were brought into focus at the desired magnification. [13. Chambers and Kopac (1950), p. 521.]

Fig 9: Top: Cross section of the chamber showing two microneedles in use. Bottom: A microneedle cuts a sea urchin egg.

Different tasks required different arrangements of microtools. A single microneedle was sufficient for experimenting with local injury to a living cell. [14. Chambers (1922b), p. 338.] In this case, the x/y movement of the mechanical stage moved the sample against a stationary tool tip. Soft-ova and protozoa could be essentially pressed into two intact pieces against the cover slip using the tool’s curving tip. Other very soft-bodied cells such as unfertilized sea urchin eggs  could be cut by drawing the tip of a microneedle downwards through the cell as it was held in place by the surface tension of the hanging drop. [15. Chambers (1922b), pp. 133-134]More complex operations such as pulling a starfish egg from its fertilization membrane required two microneedles. [16. Chambers (1921), p.  333.]

Fig 10: Illustration of the microinjection apparatus.

Often, a microneedle was used along with a micropipette and its associated microinjection equipment. Preparing this apparatus was a painstaking process in which it was first tested for leaks. When ready for use, the apparatus was completely filled with water except for a small portion of the tip of the micropipette containing the material to be injected. This system was quite versatile. One could use it to selectively remove parts of a living cell, or to inject various substances into the nucleus or cytoplasm for chemical tests. One micropipette could be used to gather a single bacterium in order to  grow a pure strain.



Development and Commercialization

See: The Chambers’ Micromanipulator Evolves

Fig 11: Top: Early shop-made version of the Chambers micromanipulator c. 1918 Bottom: a late model depicted in 1950. A Leitz inverted microscope is used.

It is possible to trace the evolution of Chambers’ micromanipulator using various published accounts beginning with Chambers’ first article on the subject in 1918. One sees it evolve from a simple mechanical device built in the laboratory workshop and relying on a great deal of hand-made apparatus, into a fully evolved commercial system presented in the Leitz trade literature. As the system became widely adopted, a number of specialized uses were developed and additional tools introduced.

Like many scientific instruments, Chambers’ instrument emerged from a collaboration between researchers and technicians. Early papers  acknowledge the ‘skill and faithful workmanship’ of  Mr. W. H. Farnmam, a mechanician at Columbia University who contributed to the ‘practical evolution’ of the instrument. [17. Chambers (1922), p. 3.] Other researchers, including  Dr. H. B. Goodrich of Wesleyan University, duplicated it with the assistance of the University machine shop. Goodrich introduced a separate base onto which the micromanipulator mechanisms and the microscope could be independently attached. [18. Chambers (1918), pp. 125.]

At some point between 1918 and 1922, Chambers applied for a patent, which he received in 1926. The instrument became commercially available from the New York branch of the German Ernst Leitz company around this time.   In his writing, Chambers thanked Ludwig Leitz (a grandson of the company’s founder), Henri Dumur, and Professor Max Berek for devoting their engineering resources to developing the instrument. [19. Chambers and Kopac (1950), p. 492.] These were all members of the company’s research and development team at its headquarters in Wetzlar, Germany. The speed at which Leitz modified the instrument and manufactured improvements for it as they were developed, shows the company’s close collaboration with researchers to satisfy the small market for this specialized material.

The product of this commercial engineering process was less a completed instrument than an adaptable system to be assembled from pre-manufactured parts depending on one’s purpose. Micromanipulator pillars could be purchased singly or in pairs and with or without the microinjection apparatus or the flexible shafts that moved the vertical controls conveniently to the front of the instrument. In addition to various components of the micromanipulator, microscopes, mechanical stages, and several condensers adapted to the longer working distances of the moist chamber  were available for purchase along with related equipment such as microscope illuminators and rheostats. Essential components like the moist chamber and microburner, which were usually assembled in the lab, were sold alongside supplies such as tubing, cover glasses. One could furnish a lab with everything necessary to operate the instrument by ordering directly from Leitz.

Later, Leitz offered specialized equipment such as a “machine for pulling microneedles and micropipettes”, introduced by Delafield Du Bois of New York University in 1931, and an inverted microscope that permitted the hanging droplet to be located on the floor, rather than the roof of the moist chamber.

Fig 12: The DuBois needle pulling machine as manufactured by Leitz.

An interesting comparison can be made between Chambers’ earlier descriptions of his shop-made instrument and the system described in the 1926 Leitz catalogue. In 1922, for instance, micropipettes were prepared by sealing a microtool made out of a short length of fine glass capillary or rod into a hand-made glass holder with sealing wax or De Kotinsky cement. On the opposite end, this glass holder had to be carefully attached to one end of a length of flexible brass tube leading athe Luer syringe. The syringe was mounted in place using  a larger bent piece of brass tubing clamped to the micromanipulator base.  If the delicate micropipette was accidentally broken or otherwise required changing, the seal had to be remelted. The entire system, with its multiple glue joints, was subject to leaks.

Fig 13: Dr. Richard Frank's precision needle holder as manufactured by Leitz.

The commercial system provided the microinjection apparatus, shown in fig 10. The microtool was now sealed into a removable tip (apparently a slightly modified non-locking luer tip used in hypodermic needles.) This tried and true system was also much easier to remove from the needle holder.  The glass Luer syringe was provided a machined cradle that fastened securely to the base.  In the late 1920s, a member of Chambers’ Cornell lab, Dr. Richard Frank’s, devised a ‘precision needle holder’  which was subsequently offered by Leitz.   In this arrangement, both the microtool and a brass tube leading to the syringe, were simply inserted into rubber washers at opposite ends of a tool holder.  End caps were then screwed over the washers, compressing them and forming a seal without the need for wax or cement. Using Frank’s improvement, a microtool could be replaced in under a minute. [20. Chambers (1929), p. 57., Chambers and Kopac (1950),  p. 520.]

Fig 14: A setup for bacterial work showing Wright's estension arms mounted at either side of the chamber. The attachment at the top of the microscope is a Leitz double demonstration eyepiece.

Similarly, Dr.  William H. Wright, a scientist at the Department of Agricultural Biology at the University of Wisconsin who used the instrument primarily for isolating bacteria, created an extension arm to which the manipulator mechanism could be attached. This permitted a microtool to be efficiently inserted and withdrawn from the moist chamber so that tools could be changed quickly. The instrument was described in 1927 and was produced by Leitz soon after. [21. Wright and McCoy (1927), p. 795]

Even while the instrument was becoming standardized through commercial production, new lab-built apparatus were continually being devised for it by a growing community of users. A student textbook from 1931 lists a number of related instruments that had been described in papers over the previous decade. These included a hermetically sealed, nitrogen filled chamber for conducting anaerobic experiments, instruments for measuring pressure in capillary vessels. New microtools included microelectrodes and micro magnets for studying the electrical properties of the cell’s interior, various instruments for performing chemical tests on microscopic particles, micropincers, a microcautery tool and a microguillotine for precisely breaking the tips of fine glass micropipettes. [22. Howland and Belkin (1931) pp. 13-29.]

Fig 15: Two experimental tools devised for Chambers' micromanipulator. Left: E. M. Landis' manometer for recording capillary blood pressure, for instance from the lining of a frog's intestine during vivisection. Right: Hermetic Moist Chamber. Tool tips pass through a trough of mercury before entering chamber. Nitrogen is pumped through the chamber. Oxygen leaks are indicated by a chemical dye under the cover glass.



Reading through the various accounts of early applications of the Chambers’ micromanipulator and its various micrurgical appendages one sees an ambition to develop micromanipulation or ‘micrurgy’ into an significant instrument-based science. Chambers himself once claimed that:

” The science of micrurgy will prove to be a boon to investigators of the microscopic worlds. The new techniques may prove as important to the microspecialist as a pole reaching to the surface of the moon could be to the astronomer.”

In a sense, these ambitions were inherent in his design. Useful though it had proved in exploring the living cell, its adaptability and modularity seemed to promise applications well beyond a particular scientific discipline. In the decades of its widespread use practitioners sought to apply it to a variety of tasks, from the assembly of electronic components to microscopic chemical work. During the Second World War, for instance, micrurgists at the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation used tiny chisels, tweezers, hammers and Magnets under magnification to study the rust that developed on aircraft parts during the American campaign in North Africa. [23. Hildebrand (1960), p. 321.]

Few Chambers’ micromanipulators seem to have survived to the present day—a testament, no doubt, to their technical obsolescence in the face of newer, better automated, designs. Initial enthusiasm cooled as  its possibilities and limitations became well understood and the technological cutting edge moved on. Still, its role in illuminating the physical structures of the cell by permitting the scientist to ‘intervene’ in its living functions ought not to be forgotten.

Part two of this post will examine the history of the University of Toronto’s micromanipulator, first as a laboratory instrument, then as a piece of historical material culture. As with all instruments that have outlived their operators, a great deal must be deduced from the physical object itself and from limited evidence concerning its provenance.



[1] Bibliography

Note: For a useful and extensive list of early publications related to micrurgy and the Chambers’ micromanipulator see the bibliography of Howland and Belkin (1931), available here.


Chambers, R. (1918) “The Microvivisection Method.” Biological Bulletin. 34, no. 2. (February), pp.  121-136.

Chambers, R. (1921) “Microdissection Studies, III. Some Problems in the Maturation and Fertilization of the Echinoderm Egg.” Biological Bulletin. 41. no. 6. (December), pp. 318-350.

Chambers, R. (1922a) “New Apparatus and Methods for the Dissection and Injection of Living Cells.” The Anatomical Record. 24. no. 1 (August), pp. 1-19 (contemporary reprint).

Chambers, R. (1922b) “New Micromanipulator and Methods for the Isolation of a Single Bacterium and the Manipulation of Living Cells.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases.  31. no. 4 (October): pp. 334-343.

Chambers, R., (1924) “The Physical Structure of Protoplasm as Determined by Micro-dissection and Injection.” In General Cytology: A Textbook of Cellular Structure and Function for Students of Biology and Medicine, edited by Edmund V. Chowdry, pp. 236- 309. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chambers, R. (1929) “Physical Agents: Microdissection, Mucroinjection.” In Handbook of Microscopical Technique. For Workers in Both Animal and Plant Tissues. (First Edition), edited by Ruth McClung Jones, 39-73. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, Inc.

Chambers, R. and Kopac, M. J. (1950) “Micrurgical Technique for the Study of Cellular Phenomena.” In McClung’s Handbook of Microscopical Technique (Third Edition), edited by Ruth McClung Jones, 492-543. New York: Paul B. Hoeber, Inc.

E. Leitz Inc., New York., (1926) “Pamphlet No. 1066. Dr. Chambers’ Micro-Manipulator: and apparatus for Microtechnique or Micrurgy” E. Leitz Company Trade Literature. (a copy of this pamphlet survives in Countway Medical Library, Harvard Universality, call no. 3.J.1926.1)

Hacking, I. (1983) Representing and Intervening.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Howland, R. and Belkin, M., (1931) Manual of Micrurgy.  Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Brothers, Inc.

Hildebrand, E. M., (1960) “Micrurgy and the Plant Cell.” The Botanical Review. 26. No. 3 (July-September): pp. 227-330.

Wright, W. and McCoy E., (1927) “An Accessory to the Chambers Apparatus for the Isolation of Single Bacterial Cells.” The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine. 12 No. 8: (May). p.  795.


Fig 1: E. Leitz Inc, (1926), p. 3./ UTSIC photograph

Fig 2: Chambers (1922a), p. 3./UTSIC photograph

Fig 3: Chambers (1924), p. 268.

Fig 4:  Chambers (1919), p. 123.

Fig 5: E. Leitz Inc, (1926), p. 3, 6.

Fig 6: Chambers and Kopac (1950), p. 511.

Fig 7: Chambers (1927), p. 63.

Fig 8: Chambers (1927), p. 52.

Fig 9: Top: Chambers (1927), p. 58. Bottom: Chambers (1921), p. 327.

Fig 10:  Chambers (1927), p. 60.

Fig 11: Top: Chambers (1918), p. 126. Bottom: Chambers and Kopac (1950), p. 506.

Fig 12: Chambers and Kopac (1950), 513.

Fig 13: Chambers and Kopac (1950), p. 520.

Fig 14: Chambers (1927), p. 48.

Fig 15: Left: Chambers (1927), p. 67. Right: Howland and Belkin (1931), p. 17.




A guide to the new UTSIC website

by Ari Gross


As you may have noticed, the website of the University of Toronto Scientific Instrument Collection has recently gone a major change After years of using our old website, we decided to embrace a new interface, providing users with a fresh look and a significant increase in functionality.

Here are some features about our website.


1) Our dynamic homepage

The first thing visitors will notice when they come to our homepage is that there are three large buttons in the centre of the page. These buttons can link to specific instruments, blog posts, exhibitions, and so on. They will be updated from time to time and will highlight our latest findings, exhibitions, and thoughts. Check back regularly to see what’s new.


2) Two ways to browse our collection

Our instruments, organized into collections, can now be viewed two ways: as rows of instruments or as a grid. These can be toggled by clicking the “row” or “grid” icons in the upper-right side of the page, just above the instruments. This button appears when you click on the “collections” tab or any of the collections or sub-collections from the drop-down menu.


3) Searching our collection

To search for instruments, first click on the “collections” tab (or any of the drop-down links). A search box will appear on the left side of the page. You can either search within the entire collection or within a particular collection, such as “Physics”.


4) Online exhibits

One of the most exciting aspects of our new website is our ability to host virtual exhibits, like our Taking Toronto’s Healthcare History exhibit. The corresponding physical exhibit to this virtual one was put together for a two-day conference, but our virtual exhibit can remain accessible to the world in perpetuity.


5) Blog posts

Our new website also consolidates all of our posts in one places, which can be accessed through the banner. While our latest post may be featured on the homepage, older posts will be easily accessible through the “blog posts” tab.


6) UTSIC documents

Our website also has a place for our documents, such as our collections policy. Any relevant documents that may be of interest to the public will be placed here.


We hope that these changes will make our collection even more accessible to the world. As always, please feel free to contact us by email at utsic [at] utoronto [dot] ca.

The Transit of Venus

by Paul Greenham


The Gregorian telescope, similar to those used in the 1761 and 1769 expeditions to view the Transit of Venus

Recent additions to the catalogue include an entire new category: Astronomy. This addition results from joint plans between UTSIC and the Department of Astronomy for a series of events to celebrate the transit of Venus that will take place this year. The transit of Venus is a reliable phenomenon, but it only happens in pairs of years every 120 years or so. This year’s transit, June 5, 2012, will be the last such event until 2117. Moreover, the transit of Venus is highly significant for the UTSIC collection, as the Victoria College telescope, featured on the UTSIC symbol, was the instrument used for one of the main observations of the 1882 transit of Venus in Canada.

Thus an exhibit of historical astronomical instruments used at the U of T for the 1882 transit, or related objects (some even dating back to the kinds of instruments used in the 1761 and 1769 transits), seemed inevitable. Although some records of these instruments existed in the previous UTMuSI site, they belonged to the Astronomy Department and we needed to locate them. What ensued was the best kind of collaboration we could hope for with a scientific department.

Initially unknown instrument, now identified as a filar micrometer

It should come as no surprise that the Astronomy Department was quite interested in putting on an event for the transit of Venus this year, and very supportive of our interest in cataloguing their old instruments and displaying them. This entailed the now all-to-familiar trip to a cramped room in the basement, where the usual treasure-trove of instruments awaited us. However, as is always the case with UTSIC, admiring shiny brass objects does not translate into neatly categorized, labelled and photographed catalogue entries: some grunt work was required. The vital work of identifying and selecting which instruments would actually go on display was crucially aided by Randall Rosenfeld, the archivist at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Close inspection (click twice on image to enlarge) will reveal spider silk threads in the centre that can be moved by micrometers.

Then, thanks to the templates, instrument handling procedures and cataloguing efforts of a number of the Museum Studies students we have had working for us, we were able to process all the instruments Randall and I had selected. I had direct benefit from these procedures when cataloguing a mystery instrument that seemed designed to screw onto the top of a telescope. After some digging I discovered that this was a filar micrometer, an instrument used to calculate precise distances between distant stellar objects using fine threads moved by micrometers. Those threads, almost invisible at first, turned out to be composed of spider silk! Fortunately for the instrument, I had not in fact brushed away the apparent cobwebs, a caution gained from the handling training our Museum Studies students had imparted.

Close inspection (click twice on image to enlarge) will reveal spider silk threads in the centre that can be moved by micrometers.

Cataloging is not without its frustrations, however, as the precision chronometers were to prove. These chronometers were quite likely the very instruments used to provide the Toronto standard for the 1882 transit. Unfortunately the keys for their casements have somehow been misplaced. At the time of this post various efforts are underway to get into the case, including non-intrusive (non-damaging) lock-picking or procuring skeleton or similar keys from antique clock dealers. If we cannot get into them by the opening of the exhibit (April 28), we may have to display them “as discovered”, a designation that is not without its own historical value.

The exhibit itself will run from April 28 to June 5 (the actual date of the transit). UTSIC and Astronomy are hosting a symposium on April 28 entitled “The Transit of Venus, Past and Present” to highlight the historical and present importance of the transits and also to open the exhibit. This symposium will appeal to those with a serious interest in astronomy and/or the history of science. Speakers include Jay Pasachoff (keynote, Williams College, leading expert on the Sun, planetary transits, and cultural representations of astronomy), James Graham (Director, Dunlap Institute, on the current use of transits in exo-planet research) and Bernard Lightman (York University, on Victorian cultural responses to transits of Venus). The symposium is free, and no registration is required.