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In memoriam: Alfred Nachet (1831-1908)

by Jeroen Meeusen

Exactly a century ago Alfred Nachet - one of the greatest microscope collectors ever - died. Alfred was born on 19 January 1831 in Paris to Camille Nachet (1799-1881) who would found a small workshop in Paris for grinding microscope optics in 1840. Although (to me) little is known about Alfred's childhood, it is evident from the surviving papers that from an early age Alfred was actively involved in his father(s workshop. For example, when Camille attended the French Exposition of 1844 his teenage son Alfred made the signboard.

At the back is written in Alfred's handwriting: La première enseigne de Nachet à l'Exposition de 1844     Alfred Nachet fecit
(ex Nachet archives, collection of the author)

Additionally, further evidence for Alfred's drawing (and microscopical) skills are three drawings by Alfred dated 1844 from a human scabies mite, a human louse and a human flea.

(ex Nachet archives, collection of the author)

At present, nothing is known about Alfred's education, but it seems unlikely that he attended a university. However, there are good reasons to believe that Camille both allowed and supported his son Alfred to freely develop his own ideas. On 20 October 1853, Jean-Alfred Nachet, only 22 years old, took out a patent for a "microscope allowing two persons to observe simultaneously the same object, or one person to observe with his two eyes". [1] Alfred's father, Camille-Sébastien, was not mentioned. [2]

An example of Alfred Nachet's "stereoscopic" binocular microscope head. Collection of the author.

Some years later, on 5 February 1863, Alfred was granted an additional patent for a "stereo-pseudoscopic" binocular head. Again, there is no mention of Camille. When the renowned Dutch microscopist (and historian of the microscope) Pieter Harting was informed about this new binocular microscope on 5 May 1863, it was "Nachet f[il]s" (i.e. Alfred) who responded, not Camille.[3]

For most of the improvements Alfred introduced, one can trace a savant who put the idea to Nachet. In fact, I believe the same is true for most contemporary (Continental) microscope makers. However, in at least one case Alfred acted both as the savant who conceived the idea and the artisan who turned the idea into reality. In the late 1870's, Alfred designed a petrological microscope, which no longer required the centring of the objective to the axis of stage rotation by coupling the objective and the stage.

Early example of polarizing microscope according to the design of Alfred Nachet. Collection of the author.

In 1899, Alfred retired from business and left his son Albert in charge of the company. [4]

It is unknown as to when Alfred started to collect historical microscopes and to form a library on the same subject, but by 1886 he must have accumulated a vast collection. In 1886, the medical doctor Jean-Georges Bernard published his PhD thesis entitled "Histoire des microscopes, ce que leur doit la médecine" that described and depicted some of Alfred's historical microscopes. [5] In 1891, Alfred exhibited some antique microscopes at the "Exposition de microscopie générale & rétrospective" organised by Henri van Heurck in Antwerp, Belgium. [6] Once again in 1900, Alfred displayed some of his historical microscopes at the "Musée rétrospectif" on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition in Paris. [7]

Some of Alfred's microscopes displayed at the Universal Exhibition of 1900. [7]
Clockwise: a late 17th century Italian simple microscope, microscope by Campani, an 17th century French compound microscope,
Joblot's "universal" microscope, a mid 18th century French box microscope (now in Orville Golub's collection).
The Musée des arts et métiers in Paris holds all but one of these microscopes and displays none of them.

In 1929, Albert published an illustrated catalogue of his father's splendid collection of historical scientific instruments and related books. Also included in Albert's catalogue was a "liste de savants, amateurs et constructeurs" largely based on personal notes by Alfred Nachet. One of these notes in Alfred's chaotic handwriting on the Chevalier family and J.G.A. Chevallier is shown below. Apparently, after attempting to decipher his father's handwriting Albert wrote in pencil "see Rouyer p. 218" over the text. [8]

(ex Nachet archives, collection of the author)

Alfred's collection was exceptional not because of its quantity (it was rather small when compared to others), but because of its high quality. In my opinion there are different reasons why Alfred was able to attain such a high level: firstly, he was long term collector; secondly, he was brought up among savants and assisted himself in the scientific evolution of the nineteenth century; and thirdly, he did not spare any efforts in gathering historical references (books, manuscripts, patents, ...). All this must have made Alfred Nachet an extremely knowledgeable collector.

Outer cover of the 1976 limited (only 300 numbered copies) reprint by Alain Brieux of Albert Nachet's catalogue of the 'Collection Nachet'.
The photograph, taken by Hubert Josse, shows some of the the microscopes in the former Nachet collection: the binocular microscope
designed by Père Chérubin of Orléans, a Milanese microscope dated 1755, a mid 18th century unsigned German simple microscope by Meyen,
an 18th century Dutch (?) microscope and an 17-18th century microscope.
Today these microscopes are owned by the Musée des arts et mètiers in Paris and only the small ivory microscope is on display...

In 1971, the famous Parisian dealer Alain Brieux (1922-1985) offered all the microscopes in the Nachet collection for sale to a Californian collector, Orville Golub, who agreed to it. Brieux packed up the microscopes for shipment by air, but the director of the Musèes Nationaux put a hold on the shipment at the airport, saying it was treasure of France. It was the curator of the Musée des arts et métiers, Maurice Daumas, who pulled out the microscopes he wanted - the best ones - and left the rest to Alain Brieux. Golub turned down the entire remainder, but picking and choosing from among what was left. [9]
After Maurice Daumas and Orville Golub had picked out the microscopes they wanted, Alain Brieux offered the leftovers for sale to other collectors and dealers.
Why the Nachets, or more precisely a certain A. Loury, who must have been in charge of the Nachet company, decided to sell the collection is unknown. Brieux had indicated to Golub that it was a 'dead' collection, not being added to or really kept up. There seems to be every reason to believe Brieux: below is a report from 9 June 1966 about a suspicious librarian contacting the Nachet company because a boy offered him for sale a 1661 book from Alfred Nachet's library.

(ex Nachet archives, collection of the author)

It appears that the Nachet company not only got rid of Alfred's collection, but also disposed of their archives at some time. In 2002-3, I was able to purchase this archive which includes documents relating to the history of the company, drafts of papers by Camille, Alfred and Albert Nachet, correspondence relating to innovations by the Nachets, paperwork relating to the takeover of Bézu & Hausser (successors to Hartnack & Prazmowski) in 1896, personal papers of Adam Prazmowski, some prototypes, ..., and Achille Trécourt's & Georges Oberhaeuser's copy of their 1837 patent for their large drum microscope.


I would like to express my gratitude to Drs. Orville Golub for contributing valuable information and Allan Wissner for proofreading my essay.


[1] Bulletin des lois de l'empire français, XIe série, premier semestre de 1855, t. 2, No. 298, pp. 1055-6. Original text: "un microscope permettant à deux personnes d'observer en même temps un même objet, ou permettant à une seule personne d'observer avec deux yeux."
[2] Though it was - as one might expect - Camille Nachet, not Alfred, who wrote Pieter Harting about these microscopes on 2 February 1854. [University Museum Utrecht, inv. nr. 2459]
[3] University Museum Utrecht, inv. nr. 2460. I thank Tiemen Cocquyt for kindly providing me with copies of Harting's letters.
[4] N.N. Obituary Jean Alfred Nachet, Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society, vol. 29, 1909, p. 175; Nachet, Albert Collection Nachet, Paris, 1929, p. 125
[5] Published in Paris by Ollier-Henry, 13, Rue de l'école-de-Médecine. I am grateful to Timo Mappes, thanks to whom I was able to acquire a copy of this booklet.
[6] Rapport du jury de l'exposition de microscopie générale & retrospective [sic], veuve De Backer, Anvers, n.d. [1891]; Miquel, Pierre Exposition générale et rétrospective de microscopie de la ville d'Anvers en 1891, compte rendu, Georges Carré, Paris, 1892, pp. 6-8
[7] Musée rétrospectif de la classe 15, Instruments de précision, à l'exposition universelle internationale de 1900, à Paris, Rapport du comité d'installation, Belin frères, Saint-Cloud, pp. 35-7
[8] Rouyer refers to Joseph Rouyer's 1901 book Coup d'oeil rétrospectif sur la lunetterie.
[9] Orville Golub, pers. corr. 27-28/11/2006, 1/6/2008

Jeroen Meeusen, last update: 1/6/2008