The Micromanipulator Project: A Rabbit Hole

Recently, the internet noticed a young designer who is building a breathtakingly detailed model of a Boeing 777 out of the stiff paper from which manila file folders are made. Another hero of mine, a computer programmer with a doctorate in mathematics, has spent the last twelve years creating a game of such detail and complexity that he will likely never finish it. I find something admirable about taking on a task, based only on personal interest, that is so huge and complex that one begins it with the end far out of sight. You could call such projects “rabbit holes.”

This metaphor of a rabbit hole or a labyrinth could probably describe any kind of major undertaking, but it seems particularly appropriate for research exploring material objects. Objects are rich in interpretive possibilities. A single object might teach us about technology, design, materials, commercial, cultural or  religious values, history, economic, and political interests, the intentions of its creator and consumer. I plan to discuss a single object in a detailed, creative, and hopefully interesting, way.

In 2007, I came to Toronto to do a PhD in the history of Enlightenment science and medicine at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST). Within about a year, I had started to become interested in the historical scientific objects that had accumulated across the various scientific disciplines.  Within that tangent from my dissertation, another tangent: While moving a small collection of medical objects that had accumulated at the IHPST to a new storage space, I discovered an object that I have since spent a lot of time thinking about.

My particular rabbit hole is a machined metal mechanism, the micromanipulator first publicised in 1922 by Robert Chambers (1881-1957), then an anatomy instructor at the Cornell University Medical College.  The micromanipulator translates a movement of the hand (a control input) into a movement of a fine glass tool tip with sufficient precision to permit the dissection of a single cell viewed through a microscope. While similar mechanisms began to appear in the second half of the 19th century as optical microscopes reached their potential as analytical tools, Chambers’ “spring/ hinge” mechanism was simpler and more precise than the rack and pinion mechanisms that preceded it. It made possible the micromanipulator’s widespread adoption as a laboratory instrument (I have written about this technology here.)

A diagram of the micromanipulator mechanism. On the right is a photograph of the Chambers’ Micromanipulator purchased by the School of Hygiene of the University of Toronto probably in the late 1920s or 1930s.

Chambers and other users of the micromanipulator had ambitions for “micrurgy”, the practice of manipulating tiny objects. At one point, Chambers reportedly told a student 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.

Chambers’ prediction recalls a recent period in which the cell’s interior, like the surface of the moon, was relatively unknown. In both cases, the ability to touch was essential to advancing our understanding of these unfamiliar spaces. While the technology of the Apollo missions has become iconic, the instruments that exposed the microscopic world have not captured much attention. Micrurgy isn’t a frequently used term.

There is a lot more that’s interesting about the micromanipulator—its uses, the skills it required of its operators, its gradual transformation from a locally made apparatus to an efficient commercial commodity. I am especially interested in recreating elements that are missing from the U of T’s example (the only surviving Chambers’ micromanipulator that I know of), especially those delicate glass parts that its original users would have fabricated for themselves. Rather than writing a miniature essay (a blogging sin I’ve committed in the past), I will explore these themes in future posts.

An advertisement for the Chambers' micromanipulator that appeared in 'Science' in 1927, a year after Chambers' patent was approved.

An advertisement for the Chambers’ micromanipulator that appeared in ‘Science’ in 1927, a year after Chambers’ patent was approved.


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