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 . . .
Why might I want to embark on such a crazy project? Apart from the fun of discovering (and hopefully visiting) some of the world’s great hidden libraries, I’m hoping that the investigation will uncover some interesting information about three and a half centuries’ of Micrographia owners – who they were, and how they responded to the book. In particular I’d like to know more about what the very first readers thought of Hooke’s descriptions of the microscopic world. I’d also like to know how they reacted to the illustrations, which are a major part of the book’s attraction. So I’m hoping that quite a few of these early readers wrote their names in the front of their copy, and wrote comments in the margins agreeing or disagreeing with Hooke. We already know that the book was extremely successful. I would be interested to know whether the early buyers were mainly members of the early-modern scientific community, like Christiaan Huygens, whose copy has some interesting annotations, or whether it appealed to people with broader literary interests. I assume the latter is true, but it would be good to have some evidence of the range of early buyers. I’m sure Hooke wrote it to appeal to a wider audience and I’d like to be able to demonstrate that he was successful in this.
I’d also like to see what patterns of later purchasing and re-selling appear. Generations of scientists have been fascinated by Hooke’s work, and I know some of them owned a copy of Micrographia. People like the great chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes FRS, for example. Or his contemporary Silvanus P. Thompson FRS, another physicist, whose copy is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Thompson’s copy also bears the signature of E. N. da Costa Andrade FRS, who was yet another physicist with historical interests in Hooke, Newton and the early history of the Royal Society. Did any of these later scientific readers annotate their Micrographia copies, or were they content to read and admire the illustrations? Did they give their copy to an institution, or leave it to a relative? And on this topic, where did institutions get their Micrographias from? The Royal Society’s copy, for example, is a later purchase. The Society’s Library must have had one in 1665 but at some point it obviously vanished (removed by a Fellow??). It’s even possible that this project will uncover the location of the copy previously in the Society’s collection, which should have a Royal Society book stamp on its title page.
I’ve begun by making a list of all the Micrographias I can find – so far, I’ve listed 223 scattered worldwide in over 170 collections from Moscow to Melbourne. (Although it’s possible that a few of these are false hits if the catalogue entry doesn’t distinguish between the original 17th century edition and a modern reprint.) Unsurprisingly, at the moment it seems as though London is the Micrographia capital of the world, with twenty-two copies in public institutions. Following close behind are Cambridge and Oxford, both with fifteen copies (although I suspect all these cities have more copies in collections without online catalogues). Cambridge, Massachusetts, is not far behind with nine copies in libraries there. It was in Cambridge MA that I discovered a lovely library I’d never heard of before – the Economic Botany Library of Oakes Ames. Ames was a professor of botany at Harvard who assembled a herbarium and library devoted to the ‘botanical, anthropological, geographical, pharmacological, chemical, and agricultural aspects of useful plants’. Fantastic! I’m looking forward to visiting!
In other cases, it’s not the library but the particular copy of the book that sounds intriguing. The Micrographia in Emory University library has the inscription ‘ex dono Authoris’ (‘given by the author’) and the signature ‘W. Jones’. Unfortunately the catalogue doesn’t say whether the Jones signature was contemporary with the inscription, but this does raise the interesting possibility that this copy belonged to Hooke’s associate Sir William Jones, lawyer, politician and attorney-general. Hooke’s diary shows that he visited or spoke to Jones fairly regularly throughout the 1670s and was commissioned to do some building work for him in 1680. If this does turn out to be a gift from Hooke to Jones, it would suggest that Hooke saw the lawyer as a much closer friend or potential patron than currently seems to be the case. Hooke was assiduous in giving presentation copies of his publications to his friends and close associates, but unfortunately he didn’t start his diary until well after Micrographia had been published, so we don’t know who the favoured few were in 1665. I hope this project might be able to identify some of the other recipients of authorial gifts – Christopher Wren, John Wilkins and Robert Boyle must have been among this group. Where are their copies now? I’d love to know!
Obviously, it will take me a very long time to locate and visit a thousand copies of Micrographia, and many will be in private collections so I may not get to see them firsthand. But I will enlist the help of librarians, rare books dealers and collectors, and other literary scholars. And blog readers! Do you have a copy of Micrographia, or do you know of one in a collection near you? Please get in touch!