Rare Book Highlights: Micrographia

Illustration of Hooke's microscope, from Micrographia.

Illustration of Hooke’s microscope, from Micrographia.

Last month, I highlighted Nehemiah Grew’s Anatomy of Plants, published in 1682, in which an English physician turned his microscope to the world of plants. This month, I am going backwards–not too far, only about 20 years–to the book that inspired Grew’s microscopic research. That book is Robert Hooke‘s Micrographia, published in 1665.

Micrographia was the first book to delve deep into microscopic observations, and its publication reached far and wide. Isaac Newton read it, and Hooke’s observations of light inspired his experiments in Book 2 of Opticks. The great 17th century London diarist Samuel Pepys writes that he sat up reading it till 2 am, and called it “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.” The entry for the book in The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine bibliography states that the book “had an impact rivalling that of Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius,” Galileo’s 1610 pamphlet describing his telescopic observations of the Moon and four moons of Jupiter (Norman 1092).

Looking at its plates, you can see why. The book is particularly famous for its large, and perhaps alarming, illustrations of the flea and louse (above).

Illustration of cork under magnification, from Hooke's Micrographia

Illustration of cork under magnification, from Hooke’s Micrographia.

The book is noted for its first use of the word cells in describing the structure of cork, although Hooke did not understand the nature of what biologists later termed cells in the structure of plants and animals. Hooke made other observations published in the book that contributed to or are associated with other scientific theories. His observation of charcoal, for instance, includes his theories on combustion, an area of scientific work in which three other men (Robert Boyle, Richard Lower, and John Mayow) were actively engaged at the same time. Hooke’s observations of insects formed the first studies of insect anatomy.

Hooke began his observations with inanimate objects, including various types of cloth, the point of a needle, and the edge of a razor, which he discovered to be “a rough surface of a very considerable bredth from side to side, the narrowest part not seeming thinner then the back of a pretty thick Knife” (4). [Note that spelling peculiarities in quotations here and below are from the original work and indicate variations in spelling from the time period.] From there, he moved on to plants and to animals, specifically insects.

I was particularly struck by his observations of the sting of a bee, which he notes,”seems to be a weapon of offence, and is as great an Instance, that Nature did realy intend revenge as any” (163). He describes its structure as consisting of a sheath and a sword. The sheath he describes as being:

“arm’d moreover neer the top with several crooks or forks (pqrst) on one side, and (pqrstu) on the other, each of which seem’d like so many Thorns growing on a briar, or rather like so many Cat’s Claws; for the crooks themselves seem’d to be little sharp transparent points or claws, growing out of little protuberancies on the side of the sheath, which, by observing the Figure diligently, is easie enough to be perceiv’d; and from several particulars, I suppose the Animal has a power of displaying them, and shutting them in again as it pleases, as a Cat does its claws, or as an Adder or Viper can its teeth or fangs” (163-4).

Stop by Special Collections and University Archives to read more of Hooke’s observations and view the impressive folding plates. We hope to see you soon!

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