In 1938, Canadian Physicist, Dr. Eli FranklinBurton, made a big discovery when he really only wanted to look at something tiny.
Most people set out to accomplish ‘big’ things in their lives. Canadian physicist Dr. Eli Franklin Burton was not one of these people. A former director of the physics department at the University of Toronto and the inventor of the first practical electron microscope, his discovery was instead designed to demystify the tiniest of objects. Developed with assistance from graduate students James Hillier and Albert Prebus, Burton first tested his invention in 1938 on a keen razor blade, which proved to be as craggy and pock marked as the surface of the moon when viewed with sufficient magnification.
Scientists had found the light microscope limited in its ability to magnify objects by the wave lengths of visible light. Beyond a certain point, resolution would be lost and objects became blurry. Not so with electrons which produced wave lengths about 100,000 tinier than the photons of visible light, allowing for magnifications of up to 2 million times or about a thousand times the resolution of the best optical microscopes.
Rather than the traditional glass lenses of the light microscope, the electron microscope uses electromagnetic and electrostatic fields to focus electrons shot from a high voltage electron gun with which to produce an image. This revolutionary device opened up a whole new world to scientists who could now see viruses which caused diseases such as polio and smallpox, as well as observe minute cellular processes and the chromosomes and DNA which make up the genome of humans and other living creatures. In addition, the electron microscope proved to have many industrial applications, for example in fiber, plastics and textiles manufacturing and the examination of metallic and crystalline structures.
Besides the original Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), other variations of the device were developed including the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), the Reflection Electron Microscope (REM), the Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope (STEM) and the Low Voltage Electron Microscope (LVEM). Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Though Burton will remain most famous for his electron microscope he made other contributions to various fields of science. He studied colloids (particulate suspensions of which Jello (R) is a familiar example) early in his career at Cambridge University in England. He also did research in the early 30′s, tracking down and liquefying helium.
During World War II Burton trained radar operators for the war effort and also became a director of Research Enterprises Ltd., an Ontario firm which manufactured radar sets and other electronics for the military. He was an entertaining speaker who shared his knowledge with great gusto, and came to be in demand as a speaker at prestigious universities and medical centers the world over. Burton was a sort of latter day ‘science guy’ with an uncanny ability to simplify complex scientific subjects.
He received the Order of the British Empire in 1943 for his contributions and the new physics wing of the University of Toronto was also named for him to honor his contributions. He also became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and recipient of the Henry Marshall Tory Medal in 1947. Burton passed away in 1948 at the age of 69.
Wikipedia: Electron Microscope
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