Micrographia by Robert Hooke, 1665


Robert Hooke (1635–1703) was not only a scientist, he was a mapmaking pioneer, architect, astronomer, biologist and ingenious experimenter. He was a founding member and ‘curator of experiments’ at the Royal Society, an academy at the cutting edge of scientific discovery in Britain.

This book, Micrographia, was the first important work on microscopy, the study of minute objects through a microscope. First published in 1665, it contains large-scale, finely detailed illustrations of some of the specimens Hooke viewed under the microscopes he designed. At the end of the book, there are observations of the stars and moon as seen through a telescope.

By changing our perspective, Hooke gives power and beauty to things that might otherwise be dismissed as disgusting or trivial – the surface of frozen urine, the eye of a grey drone-fly, a piece of moss, the body of a louse, an ant or a flea. Alongside the engravings, he writes entertaining accounts of his observations. Hooke is witty and even poetic, using similes to help us imagine the world he sees through his lenses.

The drunken ant

At times, Hooke gives us a glimpse of the struggles he faced getting creatures to pose for their portraits. The ant was so ‘troublesom to be drawn’ (p. 203) that Hooke sedated him with ‘Brandy’ which ‘knock’d him down dead drunk, so that he became moveless’ (p. 204). It was only after ‘an hour’ that the ant ‘suddenly reviv’d and ran away’, blowing out small bubbles (p. 204).

The flea

This book includes Hooke’s famous and astonishingly detailed illustration of a flea – an image which fills a huge fold-out page, 43x33 cm. The text celebrates the ‘beauty’ of this tiny wingless insect, ‘adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suit of sable [black] Armour’ and ‘multitudes of sharp pinns, shap’d almost like Porcupine’s Quills’ (p. 210). Hooke also describes the parasitic powers of ‘this little busie Creature’ which sucks ‘out the blood of an Animal, leaving the skin inflamed’ (p. 211).

Full title:
Micrographia, or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses, with observations and inquiries thereupon.
1665, London
Book / Folio / Illustration / Image
Robert Hooke
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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