Go back to article: Philip Carpenter and the convergence of science and entertainment in the early-nineteenth century instrument trade

The Microcosm

In 1826 Carpenter shifted his business to 24 Regent Street in Westminster (see Figure 24), retaining both his Bath Row workshop and New Street shop in Birmingham. He retained a presence in Birmingham for the remainder of his life, but the maker’s marks on the majority of his surviving instruments suggests that he considered Regent Street his operational base (doubtless for prestige reasons). This move came five years after he started production of the Improved Phantasmagoria Lantern and nine years after the Kaleidoscope, and shows Carpenter expanding after commercial success in the early 1820s. The Westminster rate books show that he was paying rates of £178 for the Regent Street property (1634–1900: folio 42); this shows that he had become quite affluent.

Figure 24

A trade card for Carpenter & Westley from 1838

Trade card for Carpenter & Westley, 1838

By 1826 Regent Street was the one of the centres of the consumer fashion world (Adburgham, 1979, pp 98–107). For a manufacturer like Carpenter it could act as a gateway to an increased retail market and greater prestige. It is likely that he was already shipping goods to London for sale. We know that he was sending instruments to Liverpool and Bristol (Liverpool Mercury, 1822, p 327; Morrison-Low, 2007, p 225), and that he had supplied telescopes to the Dollands of London (Timmins, 1866, p 534), using one of the many Birmingham goods carriers. Moving to Westminster made business more efficient, allowing Carpenter to sell to this market directly, without need of other instrument sellers to act as point-of-contact salespersons. As Carpenter’s fame grew, he would have received increased orders from the London market. His relocation to Westminster suggests the importance of the local consumer fashion market to his business model, and shows him taking steps to expand his potential customer base.

Regent Street provided a thriving marketplace for fashionable products and offered an excellent opportunity for Carpenter to continue to specialise in domestic media with the Phantasmagoria Lantern and expanding range of slides. But Westminster also commanded a thriving public exhibition market. Carpenter’s shop was close to popular attractions such as the Panorama, Diorama, Colosseum and Cosmorama, and entertainment venues such as the Egyptian Hall and Adelaide Gallery (Altick, 1978). These attractions were a key part of local middle-class leisure and consumption habits. Wealthy socialites would visit Regent Street to browse the numerous shops and fabric warehouses, visit a cafe, see a show, a public lecture or attend a popular attraction. Many of the entertainment venues, such as the Adelaide Gallery, were presented as scientific establishments committed to public education, but they were well-integrated into a local economy oriented towards wealthy pleasure-seekers.

In this context, Carpenter converted his shop into a public attraction in its own right, establishing ‘The Microcosm: A Grand Display of the Wonders of Nature’ (see Figure 25), an exhibition of microscopic objects and projected images installed in the shop on Regent Street between 1827 to 1835. The Microcosm exhibition was intended to encourage curious customers into the shop and to set out a frame of reference that could be transferred to Carpenter and his instruments. This exhibition was presented as scientific, but at the same time it delivered an exciting spectacle in keeping with the other (much larger) public attractions of the area. The need to sell his products (and his own reputation) to a wealthy middle-class market led Carpenter to present his marketing rhetoric in the context of a prevailing discourse on education and self-betterment. As we have seen, this context structures much of his work, but he is never entirely free from a sensationalist approach to lantern discourse. Carpenter needed to be seen as respectable and professional, but he also needed to capture the latent wonder of his instruments so as to attract popular interest. This is why the Elements of Zoology companion is so keen to establish its educational authority through reference to Linnaeus, but also why it describes bloodthirsty ferrets and tortoises living without a brain. The Microcosm also well-exploited both impulses.

Figure 25

A lithographic advertisement for Philip Carpenters Grand Microcosm from 1827

Lithographic advertisement for Philip Carpenter’s Grand Microcosm, by George Scharf, 1827

Figure 26

A lithographic advertisement for Philip Carpenters Grand Microcosm from 1827

Lithographic advertisement for Philip Carpenter’s Grand Microcosm, by George Scharf, 1827

The Microcosm was initially an exhibition of microscopic views using a solar microscope (see Figures 27, 28 and 29). This was a microscope fitted up to project like a magic lantern, but illuminated by the Sun. Typically the instrument was fitted into a hole in a wall so that an external mirror could channel light towards the objectives and project an (enlarged or microscopic) image onto a wall or screen. Timmins claims that Carpenter invented the solar microscope (1866, p 534; as does Carpenter himself, Morning Post, 1830; ‘The Microcosm’, 1827, p 24), but it had been a popular way of projecting images since the eighteenth century (Heering, 2008; Stafford and Terpak, 2001, pp 215–220). Given that limelight illumination was not commonly used until 1838 (Lambert, 1997), a well-illuminated solar microscope held a considerable advantage over the (still candle-, oil- or argand-powered) magic lantern in projection power. As with his Improved Phantasmagoria Lantern, Carpenter successfully presented an existing optical technology as a popular novelty.

Figure 27

Black and white photograph of a Solar microscope accessory Cuff's second pattern comprising mounting plate with fixing screws mirror with adjustments and tube with condensing lens

Solar microscope by John Cuff, 1753

Figure 28

An illustration of a Solar Microscope from 1855

Illustration of a Solar Microscope, in The Museum of Art and Science by Dionysius Lardner, 1855

Figure 29

An illustration of a Solar Microscope from 1776

Illustration of a Solar Microscope by Adam Wolfgang Winterschmidt, in Mikroskoopische Vermaaklykheden by Martin Frobenius Ledermuller, 1776

An announcement in The Morning Post in June 1827 shows that there were initially twelve microscopes, exhibiting ‘the wonders of nature on a magnitude never before attempted’ (1827). This was later expanded to fourteen, as a later advertisement shows (see Figure 25) and supported by various other effects and multiple compound microscopes. The microscopes were powered by the Sun during the day, but gas-powered after dark, giving continuous projections from eleven until eight each day. Visitors would view enlarged cheese-mites and aquatic creatures. An advert in The Morning Post says that ‘a single drop of water, filled with innumerable living creatures, occupies a space nine feet in diameter’ (1830). Carpenter again published a companion booklet that describes the different objects on view. Companion to the Microcosm lists seven transparent insects, five worms and 49 opaque objects, including beetles, earwigs, locusts, fleas, corals and lizard skin. These were varied regularly in the fourteen available microscopes.

We get an idea of what would have been seen through two lithographs in the Science Museum trade card collection (see Figures 25 and 26) and a handful of contemporary reports. Thomas Gill of The Technical Repository explains:

There are generally three sets of objects to each microscope, and these are also changed from time to time, so that novelty will never be wanting in this pleasing exhibition. The Objects are held in glazed frames, and are exposed on the outside of the house, to the full influence of daylight, and, at night, are illuminated by lamps the flames of which are reflected upon the objects by adjusting speculums. […] Among the opaque objects, the diamond curculio forms, as it ought a conspicuous one. It is exhibited entire, on a magnificent scale, and also in separate parts, still more magnified. In the transparent ones, the eels in paste are very beautifully shewn, also the cheese mites and the water fleas, all alive, and exerting their peculiar movements. Mr. Carpenter has also  fitted up a large concave speculum, in a peculiar manner, so as to exhibit magnified views of larger objects, exceedingly well illuminated and defined; as, for instance, two large Indian cerambyxes, a locust, with its wings fully displayed, and a coralline. (1827, pp 342–343)

Similarly, The Mirror of Literature reports that there were views of crystallised salts and coppers, insects and eggs; there were young aphides that, ‘feeding upon the juices of the leaf, […] present the appearance of a flock of sheep feeding upon an extensive plain’ (1836, p 41). Typically, commentators address the beauty or curiousness of the projections rather than any scientific content. This is to be expected given Carpenter’s integration into the local entertainment landscape around Westminster.

Further up Regent Street, the Cosmorama provided a similar display of curious views (Altick, 1978, pp 212–214; Huhtamo, 2012, pp 40–41). The Cosmorama exhibited miniature panoramas and peephole views of famous landmarks, and while these had little scientific content, they seemed to have been similarly advertised to visitors; that is, as spectacles. Adverts in the Theatrical Observer show the Cosmorama and Microcosm advertised side by side, evidently targeted towards the same visitors (1827, p 2). As advertisement bills show, the Microcosm was later expanded to include additional curiosities that were more typical of other optical attractions. First a camera obscura was added in an adjoining room to give ‘a living picture of Regent Street’ (see Figure 30). Later still, the solar microscope was adjusted to operate by hydro-oxygen gas, so as to be brighter and unconstrained by weather conditions (see Figure 31).

Figure 30

A handbill for Philip Carpenters Microcosm

Handbill for Philip Carpenter’s Microcosm, 1827–1833

Figure 31

A handbill for Philip Carpenters Microcosm

Handbill for Philip Carpenter’s Microcosm, 1833–1838

This is likely to have been sometime in the mid-to-late 1830s, after Carpenter’s death, as limelight was not commonly used in projection until then.[1] At this time six cosmoramas of architectural and landscape views were also added to rival those exhibited elsewhere, plus an attraction called the Phantascopia, an exhibition of spectral views that appeared solid, but were illusions – ‘these images are seen by the spectator suspended in the air so that the effect appears to him supernatural’. By this time, the scientific impulse had fully given way to pure spectacle. In 1828, one writer to the Theatrical Observer reported his outings to various attractions around Westminster; visiting Regent’s Park, the Egyptian Hall, the Microcosm and the Cosmorama:

At 3 I shall be found, with my spectacles off, admiring the truly grand display of the Wonders of Nature—I don’t mean the Naturals called Fops; but the Microscopic Wonders, exhibited by Mr Carpenter, the Optician, in Regent Street. Afterwards I shall look in on Mr. Finn, in the Same Street, at his Fancy Glass-working Exhibition—and pretty Work shop. […] On Friday I step into The Cosmorama, Regent Street—thirteen new Views—charming illusion, the effect of sunshine and shade astonishing;—wander through Rome, Switzerland, Valley of Lauterbroun, and take a peep at the Grand Sultan, and the Seraglio, Constantinople. (1829, p 2)

The ultimate aim of the Microcosm was to pull potential customers into Carpenter’s shop. He was still a major manufacturer of spectacles and optical instruments, but his leanings were now towards the curious, middle-class market. Indeed, the importance of the popular trade to his business model is indicated by the fact that he branded his entire business as ‘The Microcosm’ in the early 1830s. A catalogue uses the moniker before the first line of his address (Carpenter, 1834) and a small microscope in the Science Museum features it as part of the maker’s mark on the inside of the box (see Figure 32). This instrument was clearly a small off-the-shelf item, but it is instructive to see evidence of Carpenter’s microscopic visions feeding into his broader instrument retail.

Figure 32

Colour photograph of a small microscope by Philip Carpenter in mahogany box

Small microscope by Philip Carpenter, in mahogany box, 1826–1833

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170707/006