Robert Hooke

Micrographia (1665)

 Robert Hooke's Micrographia
Click here to see a flat image of these pages - with a magnifier!

Micrographia was one of the most influential 17th century science books along with the works of Galileo, Harvey and Newton. It was also the first major publication of the Royal Society, under its 1662 Charter, appearing in January 1665. Samuel Pepys “bespoke” a copy from his bookseller and became so fascinated that he sat up until 2am reading it (Pepys' Diary, 2 & 21 January 1665).

In the “Preface” Hooke lays out the whole rationale which lay behind the new “Experimental Philosophy” of the Royal Society. Science was progressing so rapidly in 1665 because philosophical speculation had not only been superseded as a method, but that “magnifying glasses”, or lenses, had transformed humanity’s perception of nature, in the wake of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries of 1610. For whether are used telescopes or microscopes, nature became more and more beautiful and harmonious with every increase in magnification. For to Hooke, the new scientific instruments were “Artificial organs” that strengthened our plain senses and suddenly enabled us to see even deeper into nature. And like his mentor, Bishop Warden Wilkins, Hooke saw this as theologically powerful as well as scientific, for under the microscope, the tiniest insects had anatomies no less detailed and wonderful than had lions or elephants to the naked eye, suggesting thereby a unity of design throughout nature.

Micrographia contains 58 staggeringly original observations of plant structures, insect anatomies, optical experiments, and two very detailed astronomical observations. The young Newton admitted in 1672 that Hooke’s Micrographia had first aroused his interest in optical research. And like his mentor Dr Wilkins, Hooke had a clear, direct, and powerful writing style.

Though a member of Christ Church, Hooke’s close friendship with Sir Christopher Wren, Warden Wilkins and the Wadham “Experimental Philosophy Club”, which became the Royal Society in 1660, meant that he must have been a very familiar figure in Wadham.

And of crucial importance to Micrographia was Hooke's genius as an artist and draughtsman, for the plates or "schemes" which accompanied the text were breath-taking in their accuracy and detail. (Hooke had, however, received some training from the great portraitist, Sir Peter Lely).

Text kindly provided, especially for this exhibition, by Allan Chapman
Portrait of Robert Hooke by Rita Greer