In its day, a five-foot-tall golden microscope on the Washington State University campus was the most powerful imaging device on the continent. Despite its scientific significance, it has been largely lost from the pages of history.

Michael Knoblauch, biological sciences

Michael Knoblauch, a biology professor at Washington State University, wants to fix this.

“Europe’s first electron microscope earned its inventors a Nobel prize and is on display at the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest museum of science and technology, while nobody really knows about our instrument.” said Knoblauch, who is also the director of WSU’s Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center. “Something of this significance should be in the Smithsonian.”

The invention of the electron microscope in 1931 by German scientists Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll ushered in a new era of scientific discovery. Their research would eventually enable humans to see atoms for the first time and dramatically increase knowledge of the cells that make up all plant and animal life.

Five thousand miles away in rural eastern Washington, Paul Anderson, a physicist at the Washington State College, read an account of Knoll and Ruska’s work and was fascinated by the potential of electron microscopy for medical and biological studies.

Anderson and Kenneth Fitzsimmons, a WSU physics lecturer, decided to begin construction of their own prototype electron microscope despite being unable to secure any funding for the project.

The two men worked in their spare time to collect parts for the instrument. For a power source, they got a discarded medical x-ray machine from a local hospital. They machined lenses, a camera and specimen chambers.

At last, in late 1935 the two WSU scientists began conducting optical experiments.

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