Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

2nd January 1666

Thence to my bookseller’s and at his binders saw Hookes book of the Microscope which is so pretty that I presently bespoke it.

20th January 1666

so to my bookseller’s and there took home Hookes book of Microscopy, a most excellent piece, and of which I am very proud.

21st January 1666

Before I went to bed I sat up till 2 a-clock, in my chamber reading of Mr Hookes Microscopicall Observations, the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.

I have to agree with Samuel Pepys, I have added this book to my library in the last week and like the celebrated diarist I have spent hours late into the night reading and looking at the wonderful illustrations. It is hard to imagine just how revolutionary a work it was in it’s time, nobody had seen anything like it before. Very few people had access to a microscope and very little had been printed with illustrations of what you could see with the use of one. Micrographia was the first book published by The Royal Society, just three years after the society had been granted it’s royal charter in 1662 making it the oldest scientific academy in the world. Pepys had become a fellow of the society on 16th February 1665 so knew Hooke and would have been well aware of the book before publication.

Now it may seem odd to write a review of a book that came out over 350 years ago but the edition published by The Folio Society is the first high quality version printed in the last 200 years and reproduces in full size the original plates including large fold out pages that are up to 2 feet (60cm) across. The book is consequently large at 13½” × 8¾” (34.3cm x 22.2cm) and quarter bound in leather. The cover is printed on cloth and based on the eye of a grey drone fly and was designed by Neil Gower.

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Inside the illustrations are the first thing to catch your eye but then the text pulls you in. Although this is primarily an important, and in its time ground breaking, scientific work Hooke wrote for the interested layman and even after all these centuries it is still an engaging story. Instead of just describing the illustrations he explains why and how he came to look at them in the first place, you get his first impressions and you can share in his sense of wonder at what is revealed.

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A study of a piece of cloth to reveal the weave, the end of a pencil, a needle, nothing is beyond his inquiring mind and everything he looked at and wrote about was new to the reader who would not have had access to anything like this before.

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The picture above is of the black spots on the leaves of the rose bushes in his garden. To his surprise these turned out to be ‘tiny plants’ growing on the leaves themselves. Nowadays we understand what he is looking at but the text explains his reasoning that this is some sort of mould and the next thing he then examines is a blue mould on a book bound in leather from a sheep to see if his premise is valid. You learn with Hooke and it’s no surprise that Pepys found the book so fascinating.

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The large fold out plates are possibly the most famous pictures in the book and The Folio Society have reproduced pages from original 1st and 2nd editions (whichever were the best examples) held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. There is also a small section at the end where Hooke turns his attention away from the very small to the very large and includes some observations he made with a telescope including an early map of part of the moon.

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It really is a joy to own and read this book, which was published in 2017 in a limited edition of just 750 copies, mine is number 635. Whilst I love the normal production of The Folio Society and have over 400 books printed by them; it is their limited editions that are their crowning glory. Printed on the finest paper and treated as a work of art in their own right these books are rightly regarded as something special and Micrographia was the winner of the “Scholarly, Academic and Reference Book” category at The British Book Design & Production Awards 2017. A fantastic addition to any library.

There is a video of the book from The Folio Society on YouTube which  gives a better idea as to the size and beauty of this amazing work and this makes an interesting comparison to a video from The Bodleian Library about their first edition.

 

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