Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (Item of the Month)

By Rebecca Pou, Archivist

The title page of Hooke's Micrographia.

The title page of Hooke’s Micrographia.

Robert Hooke was born on July 28 (O.S. July 18), 1635. To commemorate his birthday, we are featuring his book Micrographia as July’s item of the month.

Hooke published Micrographia in 1665 when he was 30 years old. At the time, Hooke was the curator of experiments for the Royal Society of London, which involved conducting several experiments a week and presenting them to the society. Hooke made many of the observations found in Micrographia through his activities for the society, and the Royal Society commissioned and printed the book.1

An extraordinary work, Micrographia details Hooke’s observations on objects as varied as the point of a needle, a louse, and the moon (he also utilized telescopes). The book includes 38 copperplate engravings of microscopic views based on Hooke’s drawings. Micrographia was not the first book of microscopic observations, but it was more successful and accessible than its predecessors. Who wouldn’t marvel at a close up shot of a flea?

Here is a selection of Micrographia’s plates (click to enlarge):

Fig. 1 shows a microscopic view of kettering-stone. In observation XV, Hooke notes, “We may here find a Stone by the help of a Microscope, to be made up of abundance of small Balls…and yet there being so many contacts, they make a firm hard mass…”

Fig. 1 shows a microscopic view of kettering-stone. In observation XV, Hooke notes, “We may here find a Stone by the help of a Microscope, to be made up of abundance of small Balls…and yet there being so many contacts, they make a firm hard mass…”

In his observation on cork, Hooke compared its structure to that of honeycomb and. He discovered plant cells, “which were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps that were ever seen…,” and coined the term “cell.”

In his observation on cork, Hooke compared its structure to that of honeycomb. He discovered plant cells, “which were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps that were ever seen…,” and coined the term “cell.”

For observation XXXIV, Hooke examined the eyes and head of grey drone-fly.

For observation XXXIV, Hooke examined the eyes and head of grey drone-fly.

Hooke seemed enamored with the white feather-winged moth, calling it a “pretty insect” and “a lovely object both to the naked Eye, and through a Microscope.”

Hooke seemed enamored with the white feather-winged moth, calling it a “pretty insect” and “a lovely object both to the naked Eye, and through a Microscope.”

The flea is one of several fold-out plates in the book. Again, Hooke has a scientist’s appreciation for the insect, commenting equally on its strength and beauty. He is particularly fascinated with the anatomy of its legs and joints, which “are so adapted, that he can…fold them short within another, and suddenly stretch, or spring them out to their whole length.”

The flea is one of several fold-out plates in the book. Again, Hooke has a scientist’s appreciation for the insect, commenting equally on its strength and beauty. He is particularly fascinated with the anatomy of its legs and joints, which “are so adapted, that he can…fold them short within another, and suddenly stretch, or spring them out to their whole length.”

In the last observations, Hooke turned his attention to celestial bodies. His study of the moon lead him to believe it might be covered in vegetation. He thought the hills seen in Fig. 2 “may be covered with so thin a vegetable Coat, as we may observe the Hills with us to be, such as the short Sheep pasture which covers the Hills of Salisbury Plains.”

In the last observations, Hooke turned his attention to celestial bodies. His study of the moon led him to surmise that the hills seen in Fig. 2 “may be covered with so thin a vegetable Coat, as we may observe the Hills with us to be, such as the short Sheep pasture which covers the Hills of Salisbury Plains.”

The National Library of Medicine’s Turning the Pages project has a selection of images from Micrographia available. It is well worth flipping through; you’ll find curator’s notes and you can even open the folded plates. If you are interested in looking at Micrographia in its entirety, contact us at history@nyam.org or 212-822-7313 to make an appointment.

Reference
1. Espinasee, Margaret. Robert Hooke. London: Heinemann, [1956].

A Gallery of Gauzy Wings (Item of the Month)

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

Plate 8: Ephemera rupestris, the Rock Day Fly. Click to enlarge.

Plate 8: Ephemera rupestris, the rock day fly. Click to enlarge.

As we head into full summer, it seems appropriate to take a look at one of our many natural history books for this item of the month. Anyone who spends time outside at this time of year encounters insect life of many kinds.

While we mostly tend to avoid the bugs we encounter, many 18th century naturalists found them enticing subjects of study. John Hill (1714?-1775), the author of the charming A Decade of Curious Insects (1773), was no exception. Hill was an English apothecary and botanist with frustrated literary and theatrical aspirations. He also had a medical degree from the University of St. Andrews, but whether he actually studied to become a physician or just purchased the degree is unclear. He worked as an apothecary and created and dispensed many herbal remedies. He is most remembered now for his various botanical works, including the British Herbal (1756), a series of popular herbal medicine treatises, and the 26-volume Vegetable System (1759-1775).1,2

Hill_Title Page_watermark

Title page of A Decade of Curious Insects. Click to enlarge.

Hill had a longstanding interest in microscopic observation and revised an English translation of Jan Swammerdam’s heavily illustrated Book of Nature, or the History of Insects in 1758. In the little work that is the subject of this post, however, he made the observations himself, using a lucernal microscope probably much like the one pictured here.

All ten engravings in our copy are hand colored, although the illustrations could also be purchased separately and painted for personal education or enjoyment. As the verso of the title page notes, “Ladies who may chuse to paint these Insects themselves may have Sets of the Cuts on Royal Paper printed pale for that purpose.”

The text provides detailed descriptions of each insect, with particular attention paid to the colors of individual body parts. Sometimes Hill also offers his observations on their habits. Day-Flies, for example, “are an inoffensive race; born to pass thro’ their little stage of being, the prey to a thousand enemies; but hurtful to no creature.”

Plate 7, Ephemera culiciformis, the "white wing'd day fly." Click to enlarge.

Plate 7, Ephemera culiciformis, the “White Wing’d Day Fly.” Click to enlarge.

The Savages, Sphex and Sphex Spirifex, attack other insects with an unmatched intensity. In the case of the Comb-Footed Savage, “The number of other Insects these destroy, is scarce to be conceiv’d ; the mouth of their cave is like a Giant’s of old in romance ; strew’d with the remains of prey… he will kill fifty for a meal.”

Plate 3, Sphex pectinipes, the comb footed savage. Click to enlarge.

Plate 3, Sphex pectinipes, the comb footed savage. Click to enlarge.

A warning, though, that anyone who enjoys inhaling the fragrance of a bouquet of flowers might be in for a dreadful surprise if the either the Straw-Colour’d or the Tawny Chinch lurks inside. According to Hill, a gentleman who suffered from headaches sneezed onto a sheet of paper one day, and a microscopical examination of the “moving particles” revealed them to be Straw-Colour’d Chinches.

Plate 9, Allucita Pallida, "The Straw-colour'd Chinch."

Plate 9, Allucita Pallida, “The Straw-colour’d Chinch.”

Hill noted that both chinches inhabit a variety of popular flowers. “Many have this pain [headache] from the smell of Flowers,” he writes. “Some have been found dead, with quantities of violets, and other Flowers, in their chamber. Physicians have attributed these deaths to the powerful odour of those Flowers; but that they should be owing to these creatures, is much more probable.”

Plate 10, Allucita fulva, the tawny chinch.

Plate 10, Allucita fulva, the tawny chinch.

Perhaps you should think twice the next time you stop to smell the roses, just in case.

The book’s illustrations are too lovely not to share. Here are the remainder (click an image to view the gallery).

References
1. Barker, G. F. R. (1891). Hill, John (1716?-1775). In Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, volume 26. London: Smith, Elder & Co. Retrieved from http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Hill,_John_%281716%3F-1775%29_%28DNB00%29

2. Gerstner, P. A. (1972). Hill, John. In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, volume VI. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.