Quite as remarkable as its cosmopolitanism was a second distinctive characteristic of the Royal Society — namely, that it wasn’t necessary to be well born to be part of it. Having wealth and title didn’t hurt, of course, but being scientifically conscientious and experimentally clever were far more important. No one better illustrated this than a retiring linen draper from Delft named Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Over a period of 50 years — a period that began when he was already past 40 — Leeuwenhoek submitted some 200 papers to the Royal Society, all accompanied by the most excellent and exacting drawings, of the things he found by looking through his hand-wrought microscopes. These were tiny wooden paddles with a little bubble of glass embedded in them. How he managed to work them is something of a wonder even now, but he achieved magnifications of up to 275 times and discovered the most incredible things: protozoa, bacteria and other wriggling life where no life was thought to be. The idea that there were whole worlds in a drop of fluid was a positive astonishment.
Leeuwenhoek had practically no education. He filed his reports in Low Dutch because he had no English and no Latin. He didn’t even have High Dutch, it appears. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that he had a genius for microscopy and a profound respect for knowledge.
Read the complete article, which is an extract from his book Seeing Further: The Story of Science & the Royal Society (edited by Bill Bryson, published by HarperCollins) at TimesOnline.