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Drawings through the microscope in 1665: Robert Hooke's Micrographia


Black and white drawing of a flea

Flea, from Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London: Royal Society, 1665

Robert Hooke’s groundbreaking Micrographia is a significant acquisition for the Library’s Rare Books collection. 

Robert Hooke was one of the great experimental scientists of the seventeenth century. A contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle, he was responsible for discovering the law of elasticity, which became known as Hooke’s Law. He was among the earliest fellows of the Royal Society of London, which was formed in 1660. This enterprising group of natural philosophers and physicians emerged during the Enlightenment, a period characterised by revolutionary advancements in science. Hooke became the society’s Curator of Experiments, performing new experiments at its weekly meetings.

In 1665 he produced Micrographia, a volume of microscopic views of natural history objects. It was one of the first major publications for the fledgling society and became the first scientific bestseller. The Library purchased a first edition of Micrographia this year.

The acquisition strengthens our collection of first editions of influential scientific works, which includes Galileo’s Dialogo ... sopre i due massimi sistemi del mondo Tolemaico  and Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. We also hold a copy of John Evelyn’s Sylva, or A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesties dominions, the first book published by the Royal Society in 1664.

Micrographia is known for its spectacular copperplate engravings. The foldout plates of insects, in particular, demonstrate the power of the microscope. Most of the book’s meticulous illustrations were engraved from Hooke’s drawings, with some probably by Sir Christopher Wren. Hooke and Wren, also a renowned architect, were two of the Royal Society’s most prominent scientists, collaborating on various projects.

Robert Hooke was the first scientist to use the biological term ‘cell’. Describing a thin slice of cork, he wrote in Observation XVIII of Micrographia:

I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular … these pores, or cells, … were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this …