A novel 120x magnification microscope so cheap every pupil in the class could have one.

A peculiar birthday present


In 1958 I was given as a birthday present an 'Everyman's Microscope' which I had desired for some time in my local toyshop Perrys. This was no conventional microscope, costing many tens if not hundreds of pounds, but something rather odd which cost 6/- (that's six shillings, 30p) and could be carried in the pocket; yet with a magnification of 120x. It came with a slide of a real fly's leg, a blank slide, a tiny test tube and a dropper. It was made of a small rectangle of  blue anodised aluminium with a slide/test tube clip on one side and a tiny glass bead clipped to the other.

Alas – less than a year later my parents separated and the house was sold – a lot of our possessions had to be abandoned including most of my toys, including the microscope. In the intervening 60 years I have occasionally thought of my very peculiar microscope and wondered who made it and if I could still find one; and if I encountered a junk shop or walked down Portobello Road, I always had an eye out for one. And then came eBay, and after 23 years I have finally found two versions - first a later and more sophisticated 'Aquarama Dual Microscope' (150x), and then my 'The J G Shield Everyman's Microscope' (120x).

Very odd to hold in your hands something you last held 60 years ago – and it was even better than I remembered – the fly's claw is clear in every detail!

It turns out to be a modern interpretation of the very first microscope, invented by Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1670's Delft. It employs a tiny glass bead formed by heating the end of a thin rod of glass in a flame to produce a perfect sphere about 3mm in diameter. Held very close to the eye this gives a magnification of about 120x (on the Aquarama model claimed to be 150x) to a specimen about 0.5mm away, quite adequate to see amoebas, water fleas, fly's claws, blood cells  and Leeuwenhoek's pond water 'animalcules'.   Leeuwenhoek mounted his lenses and specimens in elaborate and delicate adjustable clamps – the Shield microscope is just a small rectangular sheet of metal with a tiny hole, with the lens clipped to one side and the specimen slide to the other – the slides are automatically in focus but can be slid around.

So who was J G Shield?

The instruction leaflets informed me the microscope was the invention of one J G Shield. So who was J G Shield? A Google search turned up two meagre items of information – a single page article in 'Forum' magazine (no, not that one!) in Spring 1959 with an advertisement, and a paragraph in New Scientist in February 1960. From these I learned that:

“After the war, when I returned to the teaching of science in Sussex, I became obsessed with the idea of resurrecting Leeuwenhoek's microscope and improving it . . . It is a precision instrument with quite astounding clarity . . . It requires little or no supervision and is so simple that even Junior School children can use it . . . It is quite possible for each child in the class to make his own collection of slides and have his own microscope for studying them”.

The advertisement from the Educational Supply Association offers a class set of 10 each of: a microscope; 3 slides of fly's leg, plant stem cross section, and gnat larva; miniature test tube; forceps; dropper; and a dozen plastic strips for slides. Plus a bottle of acetone based L50 Stephens slide labelling ink; all in a 'stout box' – this is what I managed to buy on eBay.

The instruction leaflet also gave the Patent number 10584/56 (now GB820215A), granted September 1959. This revealed that 'J G' was John George Shield of Leicester. A bout of genealogical research on the internet (thank you Lockdown!) identified him  as born in Whitburn, 6 km south of South Shields and the mouth of the Tyne, in 1915; married in Leicester to Jessica (an accomplished amateur artist and potter) in the summer of 1940; twin girls born 1943 in Leicester (who got married in Hastings in the 1960's); a further daughter born in 1959 in Hastings; and his death in Hastings in 1981.

Having perfected it, Shield with a daughter and (prospective) son-in-law set up a semi-secret family business from a workshop in Hastings working 5-6 hours in the evening to make the lenses and slides (to the ever present smell of acetone and alcohol) and a local machine shop pressed out the metal base plates. Initially the microscope was marketed to local schools, but after it was exhibited at the Harrogate International Toy Fair and the Brighton Toy Fair the Educational Supply Association [ESA] gave him a contract for school class sets of ten microscopes and interest took off to such an extent that Shield had reluctantly to give up his teaching post at the grammar school and devote himself full time to the microscope. Eventually after Bing also gave him a contract for Aquarama microscopes several locals were also recruited to help assembly.

And then came the war. A scan of the Official Gazette shows a John George Shield 'gazetted' Second Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry in June 1940 (just after Dunkirk); as seen above he got married in Leicester (presumably Jessica’s home town) almost immediately afterwards. As a Captain he fought his way up Italy to Monte Cassino where he was wounded in the leg by mortar fire in May 1944 and sent to North Africa to recuperate.

'The Shield Microscope Instruction Book'

'The Aquarama Microscope Instruction Book' The instruction book was illustrated by Mrs Jessica Shield.

The Shield Microscope 1959 ESA Classroom set of 10

The Aquarama Microscope 1962 as exhibited at the Brighton Toy Fair

Fly’s Leg’ slide prepared by J G Shield as viewed in the Shield Microscope by an iPhone 5S

The Shield Microscope Patent GB820215A Priority 6th April 1956 Published 16th September 1959

The Shield Microscope Mark II 1971

The Shield Microscope Mark II American Design Registration D226283 Priority 5th January 1971 Registered 6th February 1973

He obtained a BSc from Bede College, Durham University and taught Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry. A scan of online newspaper archives revealed he was also an amateur footballer who was “Outstanding; one of the best left half backs in amateur football” in the 1930's – Hartlepool United 1933/4; Bishop Auckland 1934/7 (Amateur F A Cup winners); Wolverhampton Wanderers 1937/8 and West Bromwich Albion 1938/9. He was 'capped' for England in 1935 and 1937. In the summer he played cricket for Seghill (his local village?).

After the war he returned to his family in Leicester, and taught science in schools there, becoming Head of Science at Crown Hill in 1955. In 1956 with a new baby on the way, the family moved to Hastings for access to better London medical care, where he taught at the boys Grammar School. He had taught in inner London schools where there were class sizes of 40 and one old microscope, which each pupil had to take a turn at looking down, and he determined to make a microscope so cheap every pupil could have their own.  His pupils remember him as an inspirational teacher - he would be very hands on, making all sorts of interesting devices such as a Morse radio transmitter link between classrooms. In his spare time he worked on this microscope at home in a spare room.

Ultimately everyone who wanted one had bought one and the demand tailed off. Shield went back to teaching, but in Billingshurst - after a while the 30 mile journey palled and he got an administrative job at the Property Services Agency where his son in law worked. His other great enthusiasm apart from the microscope ‘So cheap every child in the class can have one' was sea-fishing, and he died in 1981 at the age of 66 in Hastings.

The insects were caught in bell jar traps baited with jam and gassed before being dissected (mainly wasps - he wouldn’t kill bees), the plant stems were sliced by a primitive home made microtome using a razor blade by his son in law, and the lenses twirled by hand (drills turned out to be no good) in fantail gas  flames - with the aim to produce a perfect ‘Pinger’. The specimens had to be dehydrated by leaving them in clear alcohol for half an hour, and Shield bought duty free industrial ethanol - such were the quantities used that Customs and Excise investigated what he wanted it for. To mount the slides the acetate strips were folded in two like tweezers, trapping the specimen, and then while they were held closed the end was dipped in acetone, which was drawn up between them by surface tension, and with a bull dog clip keeping them closed the two halves were glued together in ten minutes and trimmed with scissors.

A firm in America bought 10,000 lenses - just the lenses - as Shield said “I am not sure what they use them for”. So profitable was the enterprise that it paid the deposit on Shield’s daughter’s first house on her marriage. But eventually by about 1970 the market for the Mark I / Aquarama microscope was about saturated and the ESA decided they wanted something more elaborate, made out of plastic. Shield’s son in law made a maquette out of wax, but the ESA changed it to a model standing on a base with a horizontal slide and a vertically downwards direction of view with an integral fixed mirror of foil covered card, the Mark II microscope. Inevitably this had to be tilted to catch the illumination, as all windows and lights are at different heights, and couldn’t really be carried in a schoolboy’s pocket.  A large proposed order from the USA for the Mark II microscope in 1973 caused some excitement, but eventually fell through because US health and safety laws didn’t like the slides (which were plastic) being so near the eyes!

The theory of the microscope