King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences

Robert Hooke’s work on microscopy

Copperplate engraving of a fleaCopperplate engraving of a fleaRobert Hooke (1635–1703) was a scientist and draughtsman who carried out research in a remarkable variety of fields, including microscopy, astronomy and geology. The work featured here is a first edition of Hooke’s Micrographia, which was the first illustrated book on microscopy. 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 fantastically detailed copperplate engraving of a flea demonstrates. In Hooke’s observations of the flea, he describes and praises the ‘strength and beauty of this small creature’, noting the insect’s powerful jumping mechanism, revealed through the microscope: ‘the curious contrivance of its leggs and joints, for the exerting that strength, is very plainly manifested, such as no other creature, I have yet observ’d’.

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, who famously stayed up until two o’clock in the morning reading the work. In addition to observations on specimens viewed under the microscope, Hooke’s text explores the wave theory of light and proposes, significantly, that fossils are the remains of extinct species. It was in this work that Hooke also coined the term ‘cell’ when describing the tiny pores in a piece of cork.

In this exhibition

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