There are many types of microscopes, and they may be grouped in different ways. One way is to describe the way the instruments interact with a sample to create images, either by sending a beam of light or electrons to a sample in its optical path, or by scanning across, and a short distance from, the surface of a sample using a probe. The most common microscope (and the first to be invented) is the optical microscope, which uses light to pass through a sample to produce an image. Other major types of microscopes are the fluorescence microscope, the electron microscope (both, the transmission electron microscope and the scanning electron microscope) and the various types of scanning probe microscopes.
Although objects resembling lenses date back 4000 years and there are Greek accounts of the optical properties of water-filled spheres (5th century BC) followed by many centuries of writings on optics, the earliest known use of simple microscopes (magnifying glasses) dates back to the widespread use of lenses in eyeglasses in the 13th century. The earliest known examples of compound microscopes, which combine an objective lens near the specimen with an eyepiece to view a real image, appeared in Europe around 1620. The inventor is unknown although many claims have been made over the years. Several revolve around the spectacle-making centers in the Netherlands including claims it was invented in 1590 by Zacharias Janssen (claim made by his son) and/or Zacharias' father, Hans Martens, claims it was invented by their neighbor and rival spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey (who applied for the first telescope patent in 1608), and claims it was invented by expatriate Cornelis Drebbel who was noted to have a version in London in 1619. Galileo Galilei (also sometimes cited as compound microscope inventor) seems to have found after 1610 that he could close focus his telescope to view small objects and, after seeing a compound microscope built by Drebbel exhibited in Rome in 1624, built his own improved version. Giovanni Faber coined the name microscope for the compound microscope Galileo submitted to the Accademia dei Lincei in 1625 (Galileo had called it the "occhiolino" or "little eye").
The first detailed account of the microscopic anatomy of organic tissue based on the use of a microscope did not appear until 1644, in Giambattista Odierna's L'occhio della mosca, or The Fly's Eye.
The microscope was still largely a novelty until the 1660s and 1670s when naturalists in Italy, the Netherlands and England began using them to study biology, both organisms and their ultrastructure. Italian scientist Marcello Malpighi, called the father of histology by some historians of biology, began his analysis of biological structures with the lungs. Robert Hooke's Micrographia had a huge impact, largely because of its impressive illustrations. A significant contribution came from Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who achieved up to 300 times magnification using a simple single lens microscope. He sandwiched a very small glass ball lens between the holes in two metal plates riveted together, and with an adjustable-by-screws needle attached to mount the specimen. Then, Van Leeuwenhoek re-discovered red blood cells (after Jan Swammerdam) and spermatozoa, and helped popularise the use of microscopes to view biological ultrastructure. On 9 October 1676, van Leeuwenhoek reported the discovery of micro-organisms.
The performance of a light microscope depends on the quality and correct use of the condensor lens system to focus light on the specimen and the objective lens to capture the light from the specimen and form an image. Early instruments were limited until this principle was fully appreciated and developed from the late 19th to very early 20th century, and until electric lamps were available as light sources. In 1893 August Köhler developed a key principle of sample illumination, Köhler illumination, which is central to achieving the theoretical limits of resolution for the light microscope. This method of sample illumination produces even lighting and overcomes the limited contrast and resolution imposed by early techniques of sample illumination. Further developments in sample illumination came from the discovery of phase contrast by Frits Zernike in 1953, and differential interference contrast illumination by Georges Nomarski in 1955; both of which allow imaging of unstained, transparent samples.