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First Master of Microscopy

On July 28, 1635, microscopist, astronomer, architect, Robert Hooke was born. As a student, Hooke was at ease in his studies of art, languages, music, and mathematics. At Oxford, he met and entered into creative friendships with his professors and peers in various sciences. From these, he acquired his mastery of chemistry and the laboratory skills that he would exercise in his greatest endeavours.

He was the employee choice for the brand new post of Curator of Experiments at the newly chartered Royal Society of London. Probably one of the greatest startup positions of modern times! His job was to put on demonstrations at Royal Society meetings and carry out such research investigations as directed.

For a series of investigative experiments on air and combustion, Hooke created a double sealed vacuum chamber that could be viewed all around and from which or into which air could be pumped. He even sat within a large sealed chamber of his own design from which air pressure was brought down below normal atmospheric pressure that produced head pain and deafness, symptoms that indicate he was the first scientist to experience altitude then decompression effects all in one sitting.

Although the telescope was the instrument that had captured the attention of scientists and hobbyists alike, the microscope, invented just before Hooke was born, had languished. But not with Hooke… who tried out every instrument he could get his hands on. When Hooke published his Micrographia, it caused a stir in Britain, as it became the first science bestseller, electrifying its readers with the excitement of minute worlds available for the viewing with this small instrument. Hooke’s prose made the material instantly accessible to the minimally educated reader and gripping to the sophisticate. In a time before photographs, his book was a sensation. Not only did it its data, discussion, and engravings – from Hooke’s painstaking drawings – capture the imagination of its readers; it set an example for experimental investigation. Complete with fold-out plates larger than the book’s pages, it was also an advertisement for microscopy in the depiction of each cell, a new word Hooke created from the Latin cella [small room].

Hooke’s exquisite pen and pencil rendering of a flea seen under his early microscope.

After the Great Fire of London, several of his colleagues, including Christopher Wren, submitted plans for rebuilding the city. Although no London building of Hooke’s survives, his work as an architect/surveyor made him wealthy and subsidized many of his scientific ventures.

In the field of astronomy, Hooke was the first to report the Great Red Spot of Jupiter and the first to establish the rotation of this giant planet. His patient, intelligent efforts improved the telescope as he continued to experiment with the effect of lenses and their diameters on image clarity and size. Hooke invented different ways of reducing the sizes of telescopes with long focal lengths and produced his version of the universal joint that is used to the present day. He designed and tried to invent several other refinements but his plans often exceeded the manufacturing technology of his era.

More would be known about Hooke’s work on gravity except that he sparked the jealously and ire of Isaac Newton who barely acknowledged Hooke’s contributions and, as Newton did with others he considered competitors, suppressed their names in scientific attribution, sinking careers, and, in Hooke’s case, dampening Hooke’s continued fame.

But then, Hooke was a man who might well incur jealousies. He helped found British empirical practice and extended the bounds of natural knowledge in microscopy, cellular investigation, scientific instrumentation, mechanics, optics, meteorology, astronomy, and architecture. More about Hooke’s work and his myriad contributions to our knowledge are increasingly uncovered as contemporary scholars recover facts from sources not tainted by 17th century insecurity, cliques, and empire builders.

Hooke’s memorial at St. Paul’s Cathedral is on the wall in the crypt next to the tomb of his friend and fellow architect, Sir Christopher Wren. Besides an asteroid, craters on the moon and on Mars, his name is memorialized in the Robert Hooke Science Centre, Westminster School and the Hooke Medal, The British Society for Cell Biology.

The Hooke Medal of the British Society for Cell Biology awarded annually to an emerging leader in cell biology.
The Hooke Medal of the British Society for Cell Biology awarded annually to an emerging leader in cell biology.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage