Life through a lens: exploring the miniature world with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

I was very happy to come across this 1667 edition of Robert Hooke’s fascinating Micrographia among our Early English collections. Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses was the first book in English about the microscope and comprises a detailed record of Hooke’s observations of plants, insects and fossils through his lenses, and a demonstration of the power of the emerging science of microscopy.

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight and studied at Westminster School before becoming assistant to the chemist Robert Boyle in Oxford. He had very wide interests in astronomy, biology, physics, architecture and chemistry, and, after being appointed Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in 1662, became arguably the greatest experimental scientist of the 17th century, although Hooke’s legacy has long been overshadowed by that of his more famous contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton.

First issued in 1665, Hooke’s Micrographia was the first major work to be published by the Royal Society and has claims to be the first scientific best-seller, inspiring much public interest in the unseen miniature world. Samuel Pepys went so far as to proclaim it “the most ingenious book that I have ever read in my life”.

Micrographia is best known for its detailed copperplate engravings of Hooke’s discoveries, including several magnificent fold-out plates such as the famous flea below. The book also describes a fly’s eye and a plant cell for the first time (Hooke himself coined the biological term “cell” because the walls in plant cells reminded him of monks’ cells in a monastery).

Hooke’s drawing of a flea viewed under his microscope, “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed.”

Hooke was the first scientist to examine fossils under the microscope and the first to note the similarities between living shells and fossil shells, which had up to then been considered a type of stone rather than a once-living organism.

Robert Hooke devised and constructed his own compound microscope

He claimed in Micrographia that the fossils were really “the Shells of certain Shel-fishes, which, either by some Deluge, Inundation, earthquake, or some such other means, came to be thrown to that place, and there to be fill’d with some kind of Mud or Clay, or petrifying Water, or some other substance.” More than 200 years before Darwin espoused the theory of evolution by natural selection, this remarkable man had discovered that changes in life on Earth were documented in the fossil record.

One response to “Life through a lens: exploring the miniature world with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

  1. Pingback: Experimental and Speculative Hypotheses in the Seventeenth Century: Integrated History & Philosophy of Science Workshop, University of Durham (Part 1 of 2) | Thinking Like A Mountain

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