Feature of the month: Hooke’s Micrographia

Micrographia, or, Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses, with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon
Robert Hooke
London: J. Martyn and J. Allestry, 1665
*CN [Hooke] fol.

Robert Hooke’s (1635-1703) Micrographia was published 350 years ago this year. It is a landmark in the history of scientific illustration, and it initiated the field of microscopy. Using a microscope, Hooke was able both to show new things, such as a new, minute form of eel (observation 52), and to show new details of familiar objects, both animate and inanimate. Items depicted range from the point of a needle, silk, and glass to stone and to rosemary seeds. Insects, by this time long accepted as appropriate matter for early European artists and naturalists, are particularly prevalent, forming the subject matter of fifteen of the 38 plates: for example, an ant; a gnat; a louse; a fly; a flea. Even the teeth of a snail receive attention. Hooke’s illustrations are remarkable for their accuracy and their attention to detail. Hooke describes and explains his observations, for example moving from the observation of charcoal to a discussion of combustion, and from the observation of glass drops to a general discussion of heat.

Thomas Moffett, Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (1664): showing the depiction of insects before Hooke.

Perhaps most surprising to a 21st-century reader is the sheer readability of a ground-breaking folio, as Hooke takes the reader with him, colloquially, on a journey of exploration. Take, for example, the female gnat:

The second gnat, delineated in the twenty-ninth scheme, is of a very differing shape from the former; but yet of this sort also, I found several of the Gnats, that were generated out of th Water Insect: the wings of this, were much larger than those of the other, and the belly much bigger, shorter, and of an other shape; and, from several particulars, I ghest it to the Female Gnat, and the former to be the Male.
   The Thorax of this was much like that of the other, having a very strong and ridged back-piece, when went also on either side of its leggs; about the wings there were several jointed pieces of Armor, which seem’d curiously and conveniently contriv’d, for the promoting and strengthening the motion of the wings: its head was much differing from the other, being much bigger and neater shap’d, and the horns that grew out between his eyes on two little balls, were of a very differing shape from the tufts of the other Gant, these having but a few knots or joynts, and each of those but a few, and those short and strong, brisles. The formost horns or feelers, were like those of the former Gnat.
    One of these Gnats I have suffer’d to pierce the skin of my hand, with its proboscis, and thence to draw out as much blood as to fill its belly as full as it could hold, making it appear very red and transparent; and this without any further pain, then whilst it was sinking in its proboscis, as it is also in the stinging of Fleas: a good argument, that these creatures do not wound the skin, and such the blood out of enmity and revenge, but for mere necessity, and to satisfy their hunger. By what means this creature is able to suck, we shall shew in another place.

A fly, from Hooke’s Micrographia

The Senate House Library copy of Hooke’s Micrographia is from the London Institution. It is complemented by Hooke’s Letters and Collections (1678), containing a section ‘Microscopium’ — this latter book formerly owned by Augustus De Morgan.


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