Micrographia under the microscope

Louse from Hooke's 'Micrographia' Sp Coll Hunterian M.3.1

Louse from Hooke’s ‘Micrographia’ Sp Coll Hunterian M.3.1

Post by Caitlin Jukes, a current University of Glasgow PhD student researching in Microbiology. She has recently completed a three month BBSRC-funded placement in Special Collections working with our collections. 

I have always been fascinated by the history of science and infection and my placement in Special Collections has been an excellent opportunity to find out more about some of the great early scientific, medical and natural philosophy books held by the University of Glasgow Library. One such book, Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, celebrates its 350th birthday this year. Micrographia was the first extensively illustrated book on microscopy ever published. It was a huge success, becoming the first scientific bestseller. Samuel Pepys was one of the first to purchase the book and stayed up in to the early hours reading it, describing it as

“The most ingenious book that ever I read in my life”.

After looking at the book it is easy to see why it caused a sensation; the images are truly remarkable – works of art as well as science. In total the book has 38 beautifully crafted plates containing a huge array of objects as seen under the microscope. It opened up a whole new world most people were previously unaware of, containing hidden structures and creatures they were previously completely oblivious to. The observed objects ranged from manmade items such as silk, the point of a needle and printed, inked, words to a multitude of natural objects including a flea, a louse, cork, hair and a spider. What sets the book apart is that Hooke did not merely observe these objects, he tried to understand why they were formed the way they were

“In natural forms, there are some so small, and so curious, and their design’d business so far remov’d beyond the reach of our sight, that the more we magnify the object, the more excellencies and mysteries do appear”

Perhaps the most famous images from Micrographia are the flea and the louse. These fold out from the book and are many times natural size. They are incredible to behold with the louse measuring almost 2 feet across. Imagine the feeling people at the time would have had seeing these familiar creatures for the first time in such detail. Hooke’s use of descriptive language really helps to bring the images to life. He describes the flea’s armoured body

“But as for the beauty of it, the Microscope manifests it to be all over adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suit of sable Armour, neatly jointed, and beset with multitudes of sharp pins, shap’d almost like a Porcupine’s Quills”

Flea from Hooke's 'Micrographia' Sp Coll Hunterian M.3.1

Flea from Hooke’s ‘Micrographia’ Sp Coll Hunterian M.3.1

Micrographia also contains several important ‘firsts’, such as Hooke using the word cell in a scientific context for the first time. He coined the term when looking at a piece of cork under the microscope and called the individual parts making up the cork cells as they reminded him of a honeycomb.

“I could exceeding plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular; yet it was not unlike a Honey-comb in these particular”

The lasting impact of Micrographia was arguably huge, with numerous books on microscopy subsequently appearing over the years (many ‘borrowing’ Hooke’s illustrations) and many more people taking up microscopy as a hobby. The Micrographia was arguably therefore instrumental in the popularisation of the microscope which became commonplace in many homes. Microscopes were so popular that there were businesses with the sole purpose of providing premade microscope slides for people to purchase so they could make their own observations at home.

Some premade microscopic slides (image courtesy of Josh Jukes, Semley Auctioneers, Shaftesbury, Dorset)

Some premade microscopic slides typical of those which became famous during the 1800s (image courtesy of Josh Jukes, Semley Auctioneers, Shaftesbury, Dorset)

In the intervening years since the publication of Micrographia we have seen huge developments in the field of microscopy. In the lab I work in we use different types of microscope regularly, from basic light microscopy to more complex fluorescent microscopy which allows individual proteins to be labelled within a bacterial cell. These are used in different ways to aid our research and were certainly helped on the way thanks to Hooke and his popularisation of the microscope.

Some bacteria expressing a fluorescent protein (image courtesy of Caitlin Jukes)

Some bacteria expressing a fluorescent protein (image courtesy of Caitlin Jukes)

To accompany this blog I have produced a Flickr set of all of the plates from Micrographia so that you can have the opportunity to see these incredible images, although I would recommend trying to look at the book itself since pictures on a screen can hardly do it justice! Each image contains a brief description of what is on each plate and extracts from the text that I have found amusing or interesting, Hooke has an extraordinary way of writing that really brings the images, and the man himself, to life.

You can follow Caitlin’s advice and see the Micrographia in all its glory in the Special Collections foyer on level 12 of the Library. The display, curated by Caitlin, will feature until the end of 2015. You may also wish to read Caitlin’s other blog posts for us, on her work with the Glasgow Syphilis Collection: Pox, pustules and pestilence – A history of syphilis treatment and The Origin of Syphilis



Categories: Special Collections

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