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 Passionate Statistician”: Florence Nightingale and the Numbers Game

In conjunction with its exhibit, “Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement,” the Grolier Club is holding a symposium on October 26, 2013, to which all are welcome. The exhibition and symposium explore the contributions of 32 women, one being Florence Nightingale, to science and medicine. The exhibition features NYAM’s copy of one of Nightingale’s statistical charts. In today’s blog post, Natasha McEnroe, director of London’s Florence Nightingale Museum, explains their significance.

Florence Nightingale. Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Florence Nightingale. Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

The Victorians loved nothing better than to measure and classify, trying to discover natural laws through the data they recorded, and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was no exception in sharing this general enthusiasm. Having gained celebrity status from her nursing work at the infamous Barracks Hospital at Scutari, the British base hospital in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Nightingale returned to England with her health permanently broken down. Determined that the appalling treatment of the soldiers during the war should not be repeated, she spent the rest of her life conducting a political campaign for health reform from her bedroom. One of the ways her campaigning was groundbreaking was in the use of statistics.

Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

St Thomas’ Hospital, London, home of the Nightingale Training School for nurses. Reproduced courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Nightingale’s love of mathematics was apparent from an early age and was an interest  encouraged by her father, who took the responsibility of educating his daughters into his own hands. Her parents’ social circle brought the young Nightingale into contact with many of the most brilliant minds of the age, including Charles Babbage, whose own passion for numbers (and not a little pedantry) is shown in a letter to Alfred Tennyson in response to the poem The Vision of Sin:

‘In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

…If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that the next version of your poem should read:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.’

Just weeks after her return from the Crimean War in 1856, Nightingale secured a Royal Commission from Queen Victoria investigating the health of the British Army. Nightingale herself was involved in every step of the Commission’s investigations, working with the statistician William Farr to illustrate graphically that more British troops died of disease during the war than in battle. Farr encouraged Nightingale to compare statistics on mortality rates of civilians with that of soldiers, showing that whether at war or at home, soldiers demonstrated a higher mortality rate.  He wrote to Nightingale, “This I know…Numbers teach us whether the world is ill or well governed.”  Nightingale pioneered what is now called evidence-based healthcare and in 1858 she was the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.

Chart from Florence Nightingale’s A contribution to the sanitary history of the British army during the late war with Russia (London, 1859)

Chart from NYAM’s copy of Florence Nightingale’s A contribution to the sanitary history of the British army during the late war with Russia (London, 1859).

A devout woman, Nightingale saw statistics as having a spiritual aspect as well as being the most important science, and believed statistics helped us to understand God’s word. Influenced by the ethos of Victorian vital statistics, her greatest legacy can be seen in improved public health, reformed nursing education, and in her innovative polar area graphs and other work in statistics. In Nightingale, this most eminent of Victorians, we can see the combination of the two great passions of her age—a compulsion to classify and a desire to improve by reform. What made Nightingale remarkable were the personal qualities of fierce intelligence and energy that enabled her to pursue these passions with the immense determination for which she was famed.