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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Hooke's Micrographia

A gnat under the microscope as depicted in Robert Hooke's Micrographia, or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and enquiries thereupon. London: printed by Jo. Martin and Ja. Allestry, printers to the Royal Society, 1665 [St. Thomas’s Historical Collection FOL. QH271.H74]A gnat under the microscope as depicted in Robert Hooke's Micrographia, or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and enquiries thereupon. London: printed by Jo. Martin and Ja. Allestry, printers to the Royal Society, 1665 [St. Thomas’s Historical Collection FOL. QH271.H74]Robert Hooke (1635-1703) became joint Secretary (with Nehemiah Grew) to the Royal Society after Henry Oldenburg’s death in 1677. However, the period of his greatest creativity was during his employment as Curator of Experiments for the Society, to which post he was appointed in 1664. He can lay claim to having been the first salaried scientific researcher in the history of the discipline.

Among his many achievements are: the founding of scientific meteorology as a discipline, as a consequence of the various measuring instruments which he invented or improved; his anticipation of Newton’s first law of motion; his theory that the function of respiration is to obtain fresh air, arrived at through experimenting on dogs; his geological research, including the novel idea that fossils must be the remains of extinct species; his much-debated contribution to the wave theory of light; and his coining of the modern biological usage of the word ‘cell’. These last three ideas are included in Micrographia, which went far beyond microscopy, and which influenced works on the subject for over a century.

In the words of Richard Westfall, ‘Like Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, Micrographia presented not a systematic investigation of any one question but a bouquet of observations from the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms’. This bouquet was a feast for the eyes, as this engraving depicting a gnat demonstrates. Its many sumptuous engravings reflected Hooke’s and Christopher Wren’s skill as draughtsmen, in which capacity they were to make invaluable contributions to the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Nothing which so vividly advertised the excitement of microscopy had been published before, and it provoked a mini-craze among amateur enthusiasts such as Samuel Pepys. This was the second work, after Evelyn’s Sylva (see Silviculture), produced under the auspices of the Royal Society.

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