King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Robert Hooke's Micrographia

Copperplate engraving illustrating honeycomb-like structure observed under the microscope in a piece of cork, and a scientific illustration of a tree branchFold-out copperplate engraving illustrating honeycomb-like structure observed under the microscope in a piece of cork, and a scientific illustration of a tree branchBy the mid-17th century the copperplate engraving was firmly established as the preferred medium for book illustrations, including those of a scientific kind. The minute detail and gradations of shading which it was possible to obtain compensated for the expense of the process and the difficulty, never entirely overcome, of integrating engraved plates with printed text, the two being printed on separate presses and on separate sequences of paper sheets.

Because of this separate printing process engraved plates did not have to be the same size as the pages of the book they were to join. This was useful to scientific illustrators, who need not sacrifice detail and accuracy but could create large plates, which were then folded when inserted between the leaves of the book.

Nowhere is this need for fine detail and its achievement better demonstrated than in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. In this book Hooke (1635-1703), curator of experiments for the Royal Society, set out to record the observations and inferences he had made with the use of a compound microscope, a scientific instrument probably invented a few decades earlier in the Netherlands.

Minerals, plants and animals were all subjected to Hooke’s scrutiny and his clear text was complemented by superb engravings, many on fold-out plates, the work of Hooke himself and his fellow illustrator Christopher Wren.

With the publication of this justly successful book Hooke initiated the scientific discipline of microscopy. In his introduction he writes of the role played by instruments such as the microscope and telescope in compensating for the inadequacies of human sensory perception:

… by the help of microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding.

Micrographia contains several of Hooke’s contributions to the advancement of knowledge, all made with the use of the microscope. These include deductions as to the process whereby living organisms can become fossils, a theory of light refraction, the proposal that combustion is caused by the action of a substance in the air on combustible objects and discussion of the correlation between heat and expansion.

It also contains the first use of the word ‘cell’ in a scientific context, applied to the minute honeycomb-like structures observed under the microscope in a piece of cork and illustrated in the fold-out plate on display.

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