A Folio Society limited edition
Introduced by Ruth Scurr and with a Brief Life by John Aubrey
A handsome readable edition of Hooke's seminal text with all 38 plates reproduced at full size including 5 large-scale fold outs.
It was two o’clock in the morning on the 21st of January 1665 when Samuel Pepys finally put down his bedtime reading and delivered his famous verdict: ‘The most ingenius book that ever I read in my life’. Though Robert Hooke begins Micrographia with almost comic humility – ‘I have obtained my end, if these my small labours shall be thought fit to take up some place in the large stock of natural observations, which so many hands are busy in providing’ – there can be no doubt that Pepys was right: this was a book which would forever change the way we view the world we live in.
Hooke was the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society,
chartered in 1662 with the succinct motto ‘Nullius in
verba’, which can be roughly translated as ‘take nobody’s
word for it’. Micrographia is believed to be the first publication
produced by the Society, and exemplifies this new
and distinctly English strain of scientific enquiry, trusting
only to empirical observation as the basis of the laws
of nature. Its far-reaching influence includes the coining
of the scientific meaning of ‘cell’ – Hooke’s response to
the appearance of a vastly enlarged slice of cork, which
reminded him of the clustering of ‘cellula’ or cells around
a monastery – while its spectacular illustrations were not
only groundbreaking in their method, but are some of
the finest examples of scientific art ever produced.
What Robert Hooke achieved in Micrographia, as he only hints at in his delightfully fastidious subtitle ‘Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and enquiries thereupon’, was to bring to light what previous philosophers could only glimpse or theorise about. Combining his supreme talents as a technician and a draughtsman, Hooke constructed powerful new lenses, isolated specimens – in one case, plying an ant with brandy to keep it still – and described what he saw in words and pictures, in the finest detail. Readers in 1665 began to see the world with fresh eyes.
‘A groundbreaking thinker and brilliant experimentalist, a founding figure in the European scientific revolution’
Given the importance of Micrographia, it is extraordinary that there has been no satisfactory edition since the 18th century. The new Folio Society Limited Edition aims to rectify this by presenting a handsome and very readable edition of Hooke’s seminal text in its entirety, and doing full justice to the stunning illustrations that are the source of the book’s enduring fame. The text is based on the first edition
of 1665, printed by John Martyn and James Allestry for the Royal Society. Hooke’s engagingly inconsistent approach to spelling and punctuation has largely been retained, although for ease of reading spellings, punctuation and italicisation have been discreetly modernised.
The breathtakingly detailed illustrations of insects and plants – the largest of which is nearly two feet across – have been reproduced at full size from copies of the first and second editions of Micrographia held at the Bodleian Library and the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. The Folio edition is the only one in modern times to present Hooke’s illustrations in their original form as large-scale foldouts. One of the most celebrated of these images, the extraordinarily accurate depiction of the eye of a grey drone-fly, forms the basis of illustrator Neil Gower’s arresting binding design. No other edition has presented Hooke’s work in a format so worthy of its content.
The folio edition is supplemented by two important texts which
elucidate Micrographia and provide different perspectives of its prodigious
but controversial author. The English antiquary, natural philosopher
and writer John Aubrey (1626–97) is best known for his collection of short
biographies of his contemporaries, the Brief Lives – itself a work firmly in
the empiricist tradition of research and observation. A close friend of Robert
Hooke, Aubrey helped him with some of his experiments and lived for a
period in his lodgings at Gresham College (even selling Hooke items from
his collection of rare books to relieve his chronic indigence). Aubrey paints
an affectionate portrait of ‘a person of great virtue and goodness’, voracious
for knowledge from the earliest age, and defends him in his famous dispute
with Isaac Newton.
Aubrey’s Life is preceded by a newly commissioned essay on Hooke’s career and achievements, and the enduring importance of Micrographia, by historian and literary critic Ruth Scurr, whose book John Aubrey: My Own Life was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and chosen as a 2015 Book of the Year in more than a dozen newspapers and magazines.
‘A magnificent monument to nature and human understanding’
Robert Hooke's status as one of England’s most eminent scientists – or ‘natural philosophers’, to use the contemporary term – has not always enjoyed due recognition. As historian Lisa Jardine (to whom this Folio edition of Micrographia is dedicated) argues in her biography The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, Hooke’s pioneering achievements were frequently obscured by his puzzling personality.
Born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight, Hooke moved to London and then studied at Christ Church College in Oxford, joining a coterie of experimental philosophers under the tutelage of John Wilkins. Hooke’s influential allies included his school friend Christopher Wren and the chemist and physicist Robert Boyle, whose assistant Hooke became in 1656, building the air pumps for the gas experiments which were to immortalise his name. When the Royal Society was created after the Restoration, Hooke was appointed its Curator of Experiments and in 1664 became Professor of Geometry at Gresham College. It was in this position of considerable eminence that he produced Micrographia and achieved renown as one of the new breed of empirical thinkers.
Yet, despite a reputation for great loyalty among his friends, Hooke came to be regarded by his competitors as a man of odd and unfathomable temper, prone to public displays of pique. The most notorious instance of this trait was his argument with Isaac Newton, in which Hooke accused Newton of appropriating his ideas on gravity. The dispute escalated so bitterly that Newton is said to have attempted to dismantle Hooke’s reputation, and perhaps even to have destroyed the Royal Society’s only portrait of Hooke. When Hooke died in 1703 he left no will, and no building is named in his honour. His reputation today rests largely, if not solely, on his achievements in Micrographia.
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