50 objects for 50 years. No 2. The McArthur microscope


In 1929, in need of a portable instrument for use in the jungle, Dr John McArthur conceived the idea of the light-weight microscope. He developed his concept while a prisoner-of-war and sold his first one in 1957. It had enjoyed sales of about 1,000 by the time that the OU showed an interest about a decade later. However, the OU wanted a simpler, plastic version for its Home Experiment Kits. The OU’s first Vice Chancellor felt that ‘carrying out of experiments at home by students would be a vital part of offering correspondence tuition in science and technology’, see here. The university recognised that many of its students would be unfamiliar with delicate scientific mechanisms or would find it difficult to keep their study materials safe from other family members. It did not want a delicate rack and pinion system for focusing and the objective lens had to be robust. McArthur met the deadline and about 7,000 of these tiny (5in x 3in x 1in), cheap, microscopes were to be mailed to the first students at the OU in the first HEKs. It has been called a ‘gem of a portable microscope’ and ‘legendry in its application and construction’. It has also been described as ‘an amazing little instrument… although small, lightweight and almost entirely plastic, it makes a very serviceable field instrument’.

The OU wanted its students to have the opportunity to be active learners not passive recipients, to understand that science did not require specialist laboratories or a campus. The home could become a place for university-level study. The inclusion of the microscope in Home Experiment Kits showed the OU’s commitment to putting learners at the centre and of adapting technology to ensure they were supported.

In the 1970s a large-scale project invited children to draw a picture of a scientist. Men in white coats and wild hair abounded. Instead of a university being outside the normal and day-to-day, instead of scientists being white-coated men, the OU gave scientific instruments to people, including my mum an early OU student. There was spluttering and ridicule in the press about the ineptitude of housewives but the OU persisted. The idea of a university and of who could be a student, was transformed. The OU enabled science to be more than an activity for men in white coats in labs, housewives could study in their own homes, submariners could study under the waves.

Subsequently the OU’s Virtual Microscope has been developed to allow students with internet access to explore digitized slides and thin sections in a browser window. There are several specialist microscopes. They enable OU students to gaze upon images which leading scientists and academics are also examining.

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