Robert Hooke was still in his twenties when
he wrote Micrographia, yet in this prodigious volume revealed
the immense potential of a single instrument, the microscope, and the
many brilliant speculations of a multi-faceted mind. In it we are introduced
to the living cell; to microscopic fungi and the life story of the mosquito;
we find the two contrasting theories about the origin of the lunar craters
posed for the very first time. We read the first sensible proposal for
the origin of fossils, and an uncanny prediction of the artificial fiber
industry in Hookes discussion of the spinning of silk by the spider.
Elsewhere in his great book, gigantic insects populate the pages, and
controversy and scientific argument pepper the text.
Micrographia is a large book, measuring almost thirteen inches
tall and weighing three pounds. It was printed in October 1664, and
when bound copies appeared on sale it became an instant bestseller.
This digital edition brings the crisp printing and the fine paper of
an original issue truly into the public domain. Many of the plates have
a fidelity of rendering not regained until the era of the electron microscope.
It is hard to believe tha these are images from a pioneer who flourished
three and a half centuries ago.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
11 9/16 x 7 3/4 inches (294 x 197 mm)
Although Robert Hooke, unlike his great antagonist Isaac Newton, never produced a major scientific work in Latin, the sheer range of his interests suggests that he was among the most energetic and creative intellectuals of the English 17th century. Described by biographers as “a lean, bent, and ugly man,” Hooke nonetheless managed to ingratiate himself with some of the learned men of his day. He met Robert Boyle in 1655 while a student at Oxford, and was employed by him to construct the famous air pump of Boyle’s experiments on gasses. As Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London in the 1660s, Hooke proved himself to be a competent architect as well, serving as Christopher Wren’s chief assistant during the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. His observations of the planets Jupiter and Mars led to his bilious quarrel with Newton, who expunged all references to him in the Principia, but a writer at least as prolific as Newton had only praise for Hooke and his landmark work on the microscopic world, Micrographia (1665): “Before I went to bed I sat up till two o’clock in my chamber reading Mr Hooke’s Microscopical Observations, the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.”
Though the English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was a major figure of his time, there is no known portrait of the man. He was a sickly child, and as an adult had a small, hunched body, with pale, darting eyes, and an urgent gait and boundless nervous energy. The young Hooke had a penchant for making scientific toys – clocks, model boats, sundials. He had learned enough Greek and Latin by the age of thirteen to gain entrance to Westminster School, London. He excelled at school in London, designing “thirty different ways of flying,” and is said to have mastered six books of Euclid in a single week. From Westminster he went up to Oxford University where he eventually met the great Robert Boyle. Hooke was soon acting as Boyle’s research assistant, where he succeeded in perfecting a vacuum pump – these designs of Hooke’s were later adapted by the developers of the first steam engines. Boyle was a founding member of Britain’s Royal Society, and through their affiliation, Hooke received the attention he needed to launch a career which produced, among other works, his revolutionary book on microscopic investigation, Micrographia (1665), with its stunning drawings of insects, minerals, and plants in extreme detail. Hooke was creative in many other fields: as a gifted architect, he designed the Pepys Library at Cambridge University; as an astronomer, he set out to show that the earth had an elliptical orbit, discovered the fifth star in the constellation Orion and constructed the first Gregorian telescope. He also invented a marine barometer, proposed the wave theory of light, and showed that the length of a spring is a function of the force applied to it. This last is still known as Hooke’s Law, and it is through this simple idea that schoolchildren still encounter the name of this great man in classrooms today.
Virtually every book in the early history of science tends to rely as much on the testimony of other authors as it does on direct observations of Nature, the guiding principle and fundamental method of the New Science championed by Francis Bacon. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) is no exception. At the top of Scheme VIII (view 78), a plate depicting ice crystals, Hooke includes an array of snowflakes that look more like caricatures than the real thing. These images are copied not from Nature but from Thomas Bartholin’s De Nivis Usu Medico Observationes Variae (1661). Despite Hooke’s complaint that contemporaries frequently misappropriated his work, his silent adoption of Bartholin’s snowflakes in Micrographia suggests how unstable the concept of intellectual property was in the early modern world as well as the variety of second-hand materials that contributed to the authority of an “objective” scientific investigation.