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When scientists began observing microbes, many of the tools that we rely on today, of course, had not yet been invented.

Now, microscopes existed, but they were generally simpler tools. And they also, of course, lacked cameras that could take a snapshot of the organisms and objects being so closely watched.

Still, the scientists were exploring the uncharted territory of the microcosmos, and words alone would not suffice to describe the strange beings they uncovered. So early microscopic research was not just a scientific endeavor, it was an artistic one, relying on illustrations of diatoms and rotifers and other creatures that could then be disseminated to those who were curious to see these new wonders. One of the most impressive collections of microbial illustrations was drawn by Christian.

Gottfried Ehrenberg, a German naturalist in the 19th century who amassed thousands and thousands of geological and biological samples, and who in turn produced thousands of sketches based on the observations he made under the microscope. Today, we will be taking a bit of a turn from our normal content, shifting our focus from microbes to a scientist whose extensive documentation of them influenced the fields of microbiology and micropaleontology. We're going to be talking about Ehrenberg's life while showing you his drawings, which come from the collection of his works maintained at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin.

And we will also share our own videos of those same species so you can see how the details he sketched out by hand stack up against what our cameras can record from our microscopes today. So let's start with the early days of Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg's scientific career. Born in 1795, Ehrenberg earned his doctorate in 1818 from the University of Berlin.

In his thesis, he described 250 species of fungi from around the city, but most notable was his observation that fungi are borne from spores and not--as many theorized at the time--spontaneously generated. Two years later, Ehrenberg joined an archaeological expedition to Egypt that would end up somewhat disastrous. At one point, the funders claimed to have "lost" the money meant for the travelers.

Then, one of Ehrenberg's compatriots almost died from a snake bite. And then later actually died of Typhus. Despite the physical and emotional trials, Ehrenberg was able to send tens of thousands of animal, plant, and rock samples to Germany.

Except that when he returned home five years later, many of those samples had been damaged and another bunch had been sold. This was a discouraging outcome. But when Ehrenberg was offered the chance to join the esteemed naturalist Alexander.

Humboldt on an expedition to Russia and Siberia in 1829, he seized the opportunity. Fortunately, this expedition turned out to be much less calamitous. Both of these expeditions provided Ehrenberg with a wealth of samples to draw from in his study of the natural world.

And more importantly, they would shape his fascinations with microbes, which he called "Infusoria." Ehrenberg was loyal to his microscope, relying on the same one for decades to study the "Infusoria" sampled from various waters. He uncovered some of the ways these little known creatures were connected with the larger world they lived in, like the planktonic microorganisms he realized were the source of phosphorescence in the Red Sea, and the diatoms whose silica casings became part of the Earth. Now many of the samples he observed under the microscope were embedded into mica and covered in Canada balsam.

Magnifying his various specimens 300x, Ehrenberg drew out what he saw with a fine grey pencil,sometimes adding pigment using watercolor. But no man can be correct all the time, and Ehrenberg’s refusal to update his microscope may have led to one of his most notable mistakes. He thought that all of the organisms he observed must be animals, even the unicellular ones.

In some cases, what he claimed were eggs and sexual organs were later revealed to be nuclei. Still, mistakes aside, his work further solidified the study of Infusoria, and his collections and remarks on microbial fossils paved the way for micropaleontology. While Ehrenberg's later expeditions were not quite as distant as his first two, this was an age where naturalists were venturing all over the globe to gather samples.

And Ehrenberg happened to be corresponding with quite a few of those naturalists. They would send him bits of living things, rock, soil, and more from just about everywhere. It's like a postcard for your naturalist pen pal.

Charles Darwin even sent him dust that had blown on to his ship near the Cape Verde islands. In 1854, Ehrenberg published one of his most famous works: Mikrogeologie. I don’t speak German so I could just say Microgeology.

It’s a 2-volume text that compiled observations on North American and European sediments and the microbes they housed. The book would cost you $72, which was not cheap in 1854, but it might be worth it for 4,000 of these illustrations. Ehrenberg died in 1867, after which his collection was eventually moved to the Museum of Natural.

History in Berlin. Part of the collection's value lies in just how vast it is, both in the types of samples it contains and the geographical range they come from. In total, there are more than 40,000 microscope sample preparations, thousands of specimens and illustrations, and hundreds of letters.

His daughter Clara helped with both the drawings and compiling an index to link all these samples together, which has proven essential in making sense of his immense work. But the knowledge contained in this collection would become hard to reach for some time. For decades, a mix of war, politics, and finances kept it inaccessible.

It was even at one point believed to be lost. Fortunately, that was not true, and in the late 1960s, curators began to restore it. Progress was slow and briefly threatened when in 1982, a fire broke out in the museum's roof, close to where the collection was stored.

The museum curators responded quickly to save it, and ultimately these historical documents survived with only a little water damage. And through all of these dire situations, the curators persevered in their intention to make the collection accessible. In 1998, they released a CD-ROM containing scanned images of the illustrations, letters, and indexes.

And now, if you want to explore the images at your leisure, the museum has made them available to download on their website. And why wouldn’t you? So there’s a link in the description.

The more recent availability of the collection has inspired more scientific work. A group of Brazilian scientists studied Ehrenberg's records on diatom samples taken from their country, essentially repatriating data and allowing for a study of biodiversity across time. Another group of researchers extracted and examined bacteria from some of Darwin's dust samples, confirming just how resilient bacteria can be.

Technology, of course, has given us new ways to document and share the microbial world. One of the coolest parts of our job as we assemble each episode of Journey to the Microcosmos is that we get to spend so much time watching microbes and appreciating their beauty, a pursuit that Ehrenberg could surely relate to. But the fact that we can record what we see on video is built on advances in microscopes and cameras.

Moreover, when we want to share what we see with the world, we don't have to send you images via mail or compile them over two decades. We just hit a button on YouTube, and the whole world can watch if it chooses. That same technological progress has made Ehrenberg's collection more accessible.

In an age of big data, his illustrations and his documents are a physical trove of information whose promise we're still understanding. It's a common mistake to think of science and art as separate endeavors, but they're linked by creativity and by the human desire to make sense of the world around us. Time and invention have only given us more ways to engage science and art together, and in the same way that we've found beauty and meaning in the stars above us, there are also answers in the infusoria that surrounds.

Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. Thank you to all of the curators who protected Ehrenberg’s work, and also, hey, thanks to Ehrenberg himself. I know he’s not around to hear it, but his work is appreciated.

And of course thank you to all of the people whose names are on the screen right now. If you like this show, they’re the reason it can exist. They are our supporters on Patreon.

If you would like to join them, check out There’s a link in the description. If you want to see more from our Master of Microscopes James, you can check out Jam and.

Germs on Instagram. And if you want to see more from us every week, just go to to see what we’ve been up to.