I here present to the World my imperfect Indeavours; which […] may be in some measure useful to the main Design of a reformation in Philosophy, if it be only by shewing, that there it not so much requir’d towards it, any strength of Imagination, or exactness of Method, or depth of Contemplation […] as a sincere Hand, and a faithful Eye, to examine, and to record, the things themselves as they appear.
Robert Hooke published Micrographia, his most famous work, in early 1665, while the Curator at the Royal Society. In it, he describes various man-made and natural objects as seen through a microscope. The picture of the flea shown above is one of his best-known images. The original is a gigantic 18 inches across.
Helpfully for readers who had a microscope of their own, Hooke described how he prepared objects for study. The badly behaved ant, for example kept running off the microscopic plate until he knocked it out by leaving it in brandy for an hour.
The microscope had been invented around 1590, before Hooke was born, but its potential had never been so thoroughly exploited. Hooke’s was a compound microscope, which used a second lens to magnify the image of the first to achieve a higher level of magnification than previous models, which had only one lens and which had been rather like a very powerful magnifying glass. You may find more details on how his microscope worked here. The compound microscope is still the most commonly used type of microscope today in schools and scientific laboratories.
Visual images are now a ubiquitous method of scientific communication, but this tradition of visual communication in science began with Micrographia. It can be difficult for modern readers to understand the shock of the publication for its first audience. Familiar objects such as nettle leaves, needles and lice were transformed into extraordinary objects by the gorgeous engravings that were based on Hooke’s own drawings. His vivid prose was also easier to understand than previous scientific treatises. Hooke used everyday language for objects that had never been described before, to charming effect. His flea was ‘all over adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suit of sable Armour, neatly jointed.’ Moreover, he
In his Preface, Hooke writes that by using the microscope,
the Earth it self, which lyes so neer us, under our feet, shews quite a new thing to us, and in every little particle of its matter; we now behold almost as great a variety of Creatures, as we were able before to reckon up in the whole Universe it self.
With such beautiful images and prose, is not surprising that the book was popular with the public and inspired an interest in science in new audiences. Christopher Cook, who built Hooke’s microscope, enjoyed a boom in business from customers in microscopy. Famously, Samuel Pepys noted in his diary for 21 January 1665 that ‘before I went to bed I sat up till 2 a-clock in my chamber, reading of Mr. Hookes Microscopicall Observations, the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.’ Pepys joined the Royal Society the following month and later served as its President.
In an indication of just how much his work penetrated popular opinion, The Virtuoso, a new play included a caricature of him. A disgruntled Hooke described in his diary his visit to the theatre to see The Virtuoso, in which an oddly familiar character named Sir Nicholas Gimcrack carried out bizarre experiments with his microscope. The audience recognised Hooke in the audience. With his customary surliness, Hooke noted in his diary, ‘Damned Doggs. Vindica me deus. People almost pointed.’
Dr Busby’s own first edition copy of Micrographia has been part of the library of Westminster School since it was published and today is one of the School’s most treasured possessions.
Some shortened entries have been added to this site. For the full text, though without pictures, visit the Project Gutenberg text.