Engraving of a headlouse from MicrographiaI’ve recently been doing a lot of work on the 17th century natural philosopher Robert Hooke, and his masterpiece, Micrographia – partly due to curiosity, partly because I’m writing an essay on the damn thing. I’ve got hold of a reprint (the 1665 original isn’t lent out to students, for some reason) from the Uni library.

It’s the first illustrated book of microscopic observations, such as the beastie (it’s a headlouse, if you were wondering) on the right. The engravings are fantastic (loads of them, of different animals and plants), especially for something printed 340 years ago; when compared with the crudity of man-made objects on the same scale, they stand out as shining examples of natural beauty (or of God’s superior design abilities, to the natural philosophers).

I wasn’t looking forward to reading the text of the book, especially with the slightly arcane language and the fact that the letter ‘s’ is printed like ‘f’. But, once you get past that, it’s a really good read. Hooke’s natural enthusiasm for talking about everything under the sun makes for an absorbing read – almost like an early version of stream of consciousness – as he jumps from topic to topic, and becoming himself the subject of experiment, as he deliberately stinging himself with nettles and letting lice bite his hand (and ‘fuck blood’ from it, at first glance).

The text is peppered with his own ideas and theories throughout – it’s less a proper scientific text and more a breathy running commentary on the state of scientific knowledge at the time. Not so much Isaac Newton, more like a Restoration version of Adam Hart-Davis.

Unfortunately, no modern reprint exists (the copy I have is a slightly tatty version from 1965), and although a digital version exists, I think print is the best medium for showing off the wonderful illustrations. If you set the text in a modern, more readable font, alongside the original prints, and maybe some modern day commentary appended at the end, it could be a great glossy coffee table type of book. Well, I’d buy it.

(Some additional Micrographia links for you to enjoy. Lisa Jardine’s biography of Hooke is also a recommended read).

3 thoughts on “Micrographia

  1. Having heard about it (at length, unsurprisingly) from the venerable Mr. Stephenson when the Baroque Cycle went off at yet another tangent, this sounds really interesting. I agree – Coffee Table version, please!

  2. Another more modern book with some great pictures is: the Life that Lives on Man. or woman presumably. Different beasties live on your eyebrows and eyelashes. Hmmm. tasty.

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