I know that many scientists are fascinated by Micrographia, but to me it has always seemed like a book with a much broader appeal. Hooke’s simple but evocative language, and his beautiful, intricate illustrations, must have been deliberately chosen to appeal to an audience beyond the small group of experimental philosophers in Restoration London. For a long time I’ve wanted to find out how contemporary writers and artists might respond to Micrographia, and whether they would find anything there to inspire their creative practice. Now, I’ve finally had the opportunity to do this – and it seems as though the answer is yes they do!
One of the many fascinations of the online Oxford English Dictionary is the list of most frequent contributors – those whose writing has provided the compilers with the first evidence of words, first evidence of a particular meaning, and total number of quotations.* We all know that Shakespeare coined a huge number of words (1582, according to OED), and it stands to reason that the Bible, the Philosophical Transactions and the Times also appear near the top of the list. But what of our favorite Restoration natural philosopher, Robert Hooke? He appears at number 802 in the list of the top 1000 most frequently quoted sources, with most of these citations coming from Micrographia. His writings provide the first evidence for 68 words, and the first evidence of particular meanings for 240 words. So, have you used one of Hooke’s words today? The full list is below.
For a long time now I’ve been interested in the ways in which the worlds of Restoration experimental philosophy and Restoration trade and other economic activities came into contact. The early Fellows of the Royal Society were adamant that their research programme would be useful (no matter what any of their contemporary detractors thought!) – and I would argue that many of the Fellows wanted science to be useful more specifically in terms of enriching themselves and their country financially. I haven’t yet got around to arguing this in any detail but if I ever finish with Hooke, that’s what I’m going to do. In the meantime, let me introduce you to one of my favorite Fellows, the merchant, linguist, and secret writer of unorthodox religious treatises, Francis Lodwick. Lodwick and Hooke got to know each other in the 1670s and became close friends, meeting (with others) at Jonathan’s coffee-house in Exchange Alley on an almost daily basis throughout the 1690s. Lodwick was Hooke’s companion on one of the last outings recorded in his diary, when they visited some Chinese for tea and attempted to learn a few of the Chinese characters. Hooke wrote ‘I could learn little: 8 or 10 characters pronouncd all alike but of Differing signification’.
In my previous post on this subject I talked about Hooke’s dealings with some of London’s artists. This time I’m going to talk about craftsmen (broadly defined). To set the scene I’d like to share a conversation Hooke had at Garraway’s coffehouse on Boxing Day December 1673 with Andrew Yarranton and ‘Captain Hamden’. These two gentlemen had been to Germany to see some ‘Lattin making works’ – ie. factories producing tin plate – and they described to Hooke what they had seen. This is how Hooke recorded it:
‘many plates beat under ye Hammer at once like leaf gold or tinfoyle. the great difficulty is how to turne it under ye hammer quick enough. much discourse about ye great cast iron rowles softned turned & graven for stuffs. one of six foot long & six foot about. cast iron pillars for bridges. hardning iron into steel quite through. pressing of cloth &c’
I love this conversation because you can smell the Industrial Revolution in the air – but I’m quoting it here because of the reference to cast iron rollers engraved for printing patterns on cloth (‘stuffs’). The first English patent for printing on cloth was taken out a few years later, in 1676, by the artist William Sherwin.
Like many scientists today, the early Fellows of the Royal Society depended on images to explain their work to each other and the outside world. Illustrations accompanied reports of experiments and observations, and the Fellows commissioned drawings of the natural and man-made artefacts shown at meetings or donated to their museum collection. They were also keenly interested in the processes behind the production of artworks, including printing and dyeing, and colour theory. Recipes for dyes and new techniques that might reduce costs or increase efficiency were regularly discussed at meetings.
I expect all historians can think of one or two moments in history they would really like to have seen for themselves (often, it must be said, from a safe distance). As a great fan of the early Royal Society, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to attend one of the Society’s weekly meetings in the 17th century. Judging from the minutes of the meetings, the conversation could range over almost any topic imaginable, and there was always the possibility of a monster of some kind being brought in to liven up the proceedings. This is all by way of introduction to a passage in the minutes recording a conversation that took place on 28 November 1678 about how to render a coal-mine safe to enter (and like so many aspects of Restoration life, I don’t advise trying this at home).
Did you ever find a book so fascinating you wanted to look at every copy in the world? Put that way I guess it sounds a bit mad, but that’s exactly what I’m planning on doing. Last weekend I started a new project – a census of Hooke’s Micrographia. Basically this means that I want to locate and describe every surviving copy of the 1665 and 1667 printings of Micrographia. It might be quite a mammoth task – my rare books guru has suggested there might be up to a thousand copies lurking in libraries and private collections around the world . . .