The Hooke Microscope

Related Articles Slideshow: 17th-century microscopes from the National Museum of Health and Medicine Many images are closely associated with the 17th-century English experimentalist Robert Hooke: the hugely enlarged flea, the orderly plant units he named "cells," among others. To create them, Hooke used elaborately gold-stamped and turned microscopes such as the one pictured. Hooke's images, which persist among the most well-known depictions in all of science, appeared along with

Nov 1, 2007
Adrianne Noe

Many images are closely associated with the 17th-century English experimentalist Robert Hooke: the hugely enlarged flea, the orderly plant units he named "cells," among others. To create them, Hooke used elaborately gold-stamped and turned microscopes such as the one pictured.

Hooke's images, which persist among the most well-known depictions in all of science, appeared along with other natural and fabricated marvels of the microscopic world in Micrographia (1665). The book was an expression of 30-year-old Hooke's life, complex with both remarkable technical skills and careful inquiry. In the massive volume, Hooke initiated the convention of visualization that characterizes science to this day.

<figcaption>This compound microscope, typical of those that members of the Royal Society used in 1665, was manufactured by London instrument maker Christopher Cock for Robert Hooke. Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Photo: © Jason Varney | Varneyphoto.com</figcaption>
This compound microscope, typical of those that members of the Royal Society used in 1665, was manufactured by London instrument maker Christopher Cock for Robert Hooke. Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Photo: © Jason Varney | Varneyphoto.com

Micrographia was the second publication of the young Royal Society, which Hooke had helped to shape. For 40 years, first as an employee, then as a member, he kept the Society's collections and prepared weekly demonstrations at the request of its members, relying on his considerable technical virtuosity to craft complex devices to pursue their interests in physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, military science, and biology.

Hooke frequently included microscopy demonstrations, regaling the reigning lights of English science - Newton, Boyle, Wren - with a variety of preparations. He used a number of instruments to extend the range of vision and investigate appearance and behavior at levels unseen by the unaided eye. Although he acknowledged the challenges of spherical and chromatic aberration in the compound microscope, he did basic work to establish the scale and size of otherwise unseen objects and offered hundreds of demonstrations, from plant cells and feathers and fine structures in animals to molds, manufactured items, fossils, and geological materials. Hooke's work initiated a popular interest in microscopy and spurred their commercial production.

Shortly after Micrographia appeared, the wake of the Great Fire of London demanded Hooke's attention as surveyor and planner, but his demonstrations for the Society continued unabated.

<figcaption>Drawing of what Hooke saw through his microscope. Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Photo: © Jason Varney | Varneyphoto.com</figcaption>
Drawing of what Hooke saw through his microscope. Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Photo: © Jason Varney | Varneyphoto.com

He explored the physics expressed in Hooke's Law, he corresponded with Leeuwenhoek, and engaged a vituperative Newton in argument regarding planetary motion, prompting the diarist Samuel Pepys to proclaim that Hooke "is the most and promises the least of any man in the world that I ever saw."