Among the new instruments
developed for the investigation of the natural world, microscopes
were important for revealing a previously unknown yet vast world
of living things as well as the intricate structures of inanimate
objects. In Amsterdam, Anton van Leeuwenhoeck (1632-1723), a draper's
apprentice who used magnifying glasses in his daily work to examine
textiles, learned how to make his own lenses and how to combine
them in order to build increasingly powerful microscopes, finally
reaching a magnification of 270 times. Leeuwenhoeck, who was aware
of theories that all material objects were composed of tiny "globules"
or "corpuscles," began to explore the microworld, and
was astounded to find that it swarmed with minuscule living creatures,
which he refers to as "wee little beasties." He was the
first to see protozoa and bacteria invisible to the unassisted eye,
a feat for which he earned international renown and was admitted
to England's Royal Society.
The English natural
philosopher Robert Hooke's wide-ranging investigations included
mechanics, astronomy, meteorology, as well as microscopy. Hooke
made a detailed series of observations of both living and inanimate
things with a compound microscope that he had constructed. He was
employed as the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society between
1662 and 1677. His ability to construct and use scientific instruments
was unparalleled in his lifetime. Concerning the microscope, he
hoped that ever more powerful instruments would reveal the particular
size and shapes of the particles that combined to make up material
objects. Hooke coupled powerful microscopes with very bright sources
of illumination and made beautiful and breathtakingly detailed drawings
of the objects that he viewed.
The results of his
microscopic research were published in what Lisa Jardine called
"the seventeenth-century equivalent to a coffee-table book,"
his Micrographia, first published in London by the Royal
Society in 1665. Hooke's book was designed in part to demonstrate
that the Royal Society's program of inquiry was addressing important
intellectual and social problems. It also served as an example of
the Society's methodology, and was an answer to the question of
how best to communicate these themes to the reading public.
Hooke tells us in
the Preface to Micrographia that he made careful drawings,
endeavoring to "discover the true appearance [of each object
under study] and next to make a plain representation of it."
proved quite difficult, so he "never began to make any draft
before by many examinations in several lights, and in several positions
[relative] to these lights, [he] had discovered the true form."
The images were then engraved on copper plates from which the book's
astoundingly detailed plates—some folding from three to five
presents a central thesis that the world is not, in fact, what it
appears to be to the naked eye: that it includes many invisible
things and that familiar objects look completely different under
the microscope. Hooke makes his case by accumulating sixty "Observations"
and illustrating his argument with thirty-eight plates (some displaying
several images). To present this disorienting message, Hooke chooses
a humble, very familiar household object, the point of a needle,
explaining that it appeared through the microscope "about a
quarter of an inch broad, not round nor flat, but irregular
and uneven; so that it seem'd to have been big enough to
have afforded a hundred armed Mites room enough to be rang'd by
each other without endangering the breaking one anothers necks,
by being thrust off on either side" (2). Hooke marvels at the
"multitude of holes and scratches and ruggedness" on what
we could expect to be a smooth surface. A system of small letters
(which are the "micrographia" of the title) links text
to image, pointing out what seem to be "holes made
by some small specks of Rust" (2). Aware of how disturbing
his readers might find this gap between expected appearance and
reality, Hooke immediately suggests that this man-made needle bears
"onely [sic] so many marks of the rudeness and bungling of
Art, [and, if viewed at even greater magnification, would
have even] less appearance . . . of beauty; whereas in the works
of Nature, the deepest Discoveries shew us the greatest
Excellences. An evident Argument, that he that was the Author of
all these things was . . . Omnipotent; being able to include
as great a variety of parts and contrivances in the yet smallest
Discernable Point, as in those vaster bodies (which comparatively
are called also Points) such as the Earth, Sun,
or Planets" (2). Hooke, writing as an orthodox Christian,
rushes to reassure his readers that continued observations with
his microscope will amass compelling evidence of God's handiwork
in Nature. One might even see the use of this instrument as enabling
humankind to read divine "micrographia."
The passage just quoted,
which ends by referring to observing the heavens using a telescope,
allowing what appears only to be distant points to be seen more
clearly, is, in miniature, a model of the architecture of the entire
book, for it is with a plate showing the surface of the Moon and
the Pleiades constellation that Hooke ends his Micrographia.
Bennett, J.A. "Robert Hooke as Mechanic
and Natural Philosopher." Notes and Records of the Royal
Society 35 (1980-1981): 33-48.
Gunther, Robert [William] Theodore. Early
Science in Oxford. Vol 13, The Life and Work of Robert
Hooke Part 5, Micrographia. Oxford: Oxford University
Harwood, John T. "Rhetoric and graphics
in Micrographia." In Robert Hooke: New studies,
edited by Hunter Schaffer, Michael Schaffer, and Simon Schaffer,
119-47. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1989.
Jardine, Lisa. Ingenious pursuits: Building
the Scientific Revolution. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,
Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the book:
Print and knowledge in the making. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1998.
Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Wilson, Catherine. The Invisible
World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.