The Great Micrographia Hunt Begins . . .

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!

42 thoughts on “The Great Micrographia Hunt Begins . . .

  1. This is an excellent-sounding project. I’m sure you know of it, but you might find Owen Gingerich’s census of the surviving copies of Copernicus’ “De revolutionibus” a useful source of inspiration and a model to follow (particularly in relation to the systematic recording of marginalia and provenance). See Gingerich, Owen. An annotated census of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (Nuremberg, 1543 and Basel, 1566). Leiden: Brill, 2002, and Gingerich, Owen. The book nobody read: in pursuit of the revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. London: William Heinemann, 2004.

  2. A wonderful project. I hope the wonder lasts until you get to copy 999 or so! S.P. Thompson and E.N. da C. Andrade were both great popularisers of science; could this be a reason for their possession of Micrographia, one of the first scientific best sellers among the general (albeit educated and wealthy) public?

    • Thanks Roger – yes I’m sure I’ll run out of steam at some point but that’s the advantage of having helpers! Interesting point about Thompson and Andrade. I’m sure they would have appreciated the value of Hooke’s attempt to make Micrographia accessible to all (educated) readers. I must read Andrade’s essay on Hooke!

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  4. Good luck with your search. For the interested reader, I am conducting a similar census of copies of the first edition of Robert Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist, London, 1661. I invite readers to contact me at if they know of the whereabouts of copies, particularly those not listed in ESTC or OCLC (WorldCat). – Gregory S. Girolami, Professor of Chemistry

  5. Hi Felicity,
    The University of Glasgow holds a copy of the 1665 issue (William Hunter’s) and the 1667 issue (acquired by the library in the late 17th century). The 1665 copy is ESTC R18004; the 1667, R32348. Neither copy appears on the ESTC ‘holding libraries’ record because we’ve yet to match these items across to ESTC. If you’d like more information please contact me:
    – Robert MacLean, Assistant Librarian, Special Collections, University of Glasgow Library

    • Hi Robert,
      Thanks very much for this info – I saw that Glasgow had two copies (listed on COPAC) but it’s really exciting to know that one of them was William Hunter’s. I’d love to come and see these when I’m next in Scotland.

  6. Greetings from the Dittrick in Cleveland, Ohio. We have a copy of the 1665 in our collections. It belonged to the Cushing family, a distinguished medical clan — Harvey Cushing gave his personal collection to Yale, but others in the family donated theirs to the Allen Memorial Medical Library, and today that material is in the care of the Dittrick, which resides in the Allen. Here’s the link to the online record for the book:

    Best of luck with the project.



    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for letting me know about this volume – it sounds like an interesting provenance and I’ll look forward to finding out more about the Cushings. So far I’ve counted 63 copies of the 1665 ed in institutional collections in North America, and I suspect that wealthy scientific/medical families such as the Cushings will have been instrumental in collecting copies and then donating them to libraries all over the country. I’m looking forward to seeing some of them for myself!

  7. Hello Felicity, a colleague recently sent us a link to this post.
    Firstly, I’d like to say what a brilliant project to start [I would so love to do something like that], and secondly, I’d like to inform you that we have a copy of here in our Library [although you may already know this from COPAC searching?]
    Our copy is dated 1667 [second issue of first edition], was published by John Martyn and contains the bookplate of Sir William Crookes FRS [British chemist and physicist].
    We are not aware of any annotations in it but are unable to check at present as it is away on loan to an exhibition. I will certainly check when it is returned to us in August but I fear if there were any substantial notes they would appear on our LMS record. But you never know, there may be a few little ones lurking inside. I’ll definitely check and let you know.
    All the best, Jenny
    Library Assistant
    Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

    • Hi Jenny,

      Thank so much for your kind comments and for the info about William Crookes’s copy of Micrographia. I had seen it listed on COPAC but I would LOVE more information about it when you get it back from exhibition! I’m a big fan of Crookes and I’d be really interested to see whether he was a fan of Hooke 🙂

      Thanks for getting in touch,

  8. Dear Felicity,

    I came across a copy of Micrographia while traveling in Japan. As far as I can tell it is original although judging by the facsimiles online I think it may be incomplete. I have made quite a few etchings in the past and the process/result is similar to what I saw in the book, i.e. the paper is compressed and the lines of the images are raised where they would have been pressed into the plate.

    I am seriously considering buying it but I was wondering if you know of forgeries and or later copies and how I can tell whether it is genuine or what edition it belongs to. Distinguishing marks you could describe would be very useful. Also what is the value of an original or later copy? I obviously don’t want to be overcharged and if it is a forgery then I would love to know how to recognise one. Given the fact that the engravings seem genuine it would cost more to make a forgery of the book I saw than the antique shop wanted for it. It seems very unusual to find such a book in Japan and a real coincidence too seeing as I was researching it around 6 months ago. Otherwise I never would have recognised it.

    If I do purchase it I will be flying back to Ireland and you would be more than welcome to come and see it for your project too.

    It would be great to hear back from you soon.


    • Hi David,
      I’ve never heard of a forgery of Micrographia. There were only three issues of the original plates: in the 1665 first printing of Micrographia (which will have a title-page with the date ‘MDCLXV’ at the bottom); the 1667 second printing of Micrographia (dated ‘MDCLXVII’); and in Henry Baker’s 1745 book ‘Micrographia Restaurata: or, the copper-plates of Dr Hooke’s wonderful discoveries by the microscope reprinted and fully explained’. The latter is a different book – Baker reprinted the plates with his own text.
      So if the title-page is intact you should be able to tell whether it’s the 1665 or 1667 reprint. If not, one way to tell is to look at the plate accompanying the first observation (the plate shows the tip of a needle, a printed full-stop, and a razor’s edge). In the 1665 issue this normally has a handwritten label ‘Schem.2’ at the top right, in ink. For the 1667 issue this was corrected and it should show ‘Schem. 2’ (or ‘Schem. II’ – I can’t remember which) as part of the engraving.
      Of course if this is a defective copy then someone may have messed around with the plates, replacing or removing them, so this isn’t a foolproof method of telling the two issues apart. There should be 38 plates in total. If some are missing then obviously the value of the volume will decrease. The value really depends on condition, and to a certain extent provenance (eg. if it had been owned by a famous scientist). To give you some idea, a copy of the 1665 issue with 37 out of 38 plates present went to auction earlier this year with an estimated value of USD 12,000-18,000 (it didn’t sell). Clean, complete copies sell for much more – there’s one advertised for sale at the moment for over USD 100,000 (ambitious!).
      Without inspecting the copy myself I’m afraid I can’t be much help, so it’s really up to you.
      Best wishes,

      • Dear Felicity,

        Happy New Year!

        I’m sorry for not thanking you for your advice before now. I was pretty jet-lagged when I returned from Japan, and Christmas coupled with New Year’s Eve made for a very big distraction.

        I got to return to Kyoto after all and had a chance to examine the book for a bit longer. It was definitely a later abridged or condensed edition of Micrographia. So I imagine it must have been Henry Baker’s reprint. It had a total of 63 pages if I remember correctly and it definitely didn’t have 38 plates. It all looked genuine as I said before but it was definitely not the first or second edition. The frontispiece was quite misleading because someone had written the date 1665 and ‘first edition’ on it. This coupled with my own fairly scant knowledge of the book and the few minutes I had to look at it lead me to think it was a first edition.

        The price seemed very high for a later reprint so I decided not to buy it.

        Thanks again for all your advice.

        It was a very exciting experience while it lasted and I will definitely be researching the original in more detail.

        Good luck with your Great Micrographia Hunt!


  9. Hello,

    I have a copy of the 1667 printing of the Micrographia in my collection of antiquarian optics books. I certainly hope your search is both successful and (eventually) results in a publication or at least an on-line resource.

  10. Hello,

    First off, this is such a great project! Sounds like it’s been a pretty global hunt. I don’t want to take up too much of your time but I had a question I thought you might be able to help me out with. I was wondering if you had any recommendations for where to buy a good facsimile of Micrographia. I’d like to buy one for my brother. Wish I had some piece of information to help you in your work… But if you’ve got a minute I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, it’s been a bit harder to figure out than I thought it’d be. Good luck with the hunt!

    • Thanks Jon! I’m not sure whether there are any good new reprints of Micrographia available, and I’d advise against the cheaper print-on-demand versions because it’s often difficult to tell whether they reprint the illustrations at a decent size or not (and that’s a huge part of the attraction of the book!). The following facsimiles are high quality, but I suspect most are only available second-hand and they’re a little more expensive:
      Editions Culture et Civilisation (Brussels, Culture et Civilisation, 1966)
      Editions Medicina Rara (Stuttgart, 1994)
      The Classics of Medicine Library (New York, 1996)
      Classics of Science Library (1995) – these still seem to be available from the publisher Gryphon Editions
      Some of these are listed on Abebooks at the moment and the dealers should be able to give you information about the condition of the book. It would be a lovely gift!

  11. Hi,
    I am a science teacher in Nevada and I was surprised to find your web site when I googled Micrographia after a request by my students to see if there were any copies available and what they cost. (Christmas present for me? lol) I see you estimated around 223 copies of the 1st and 2nd editions. Is there a way to check in from time to time and see your new total? I did sign up for email notifications of new comments.

    • Hi James,
      I’ve done a quick count and I’ve now got 252 copies of the first and second editions of Micrographia listed on my spreadsheet, but it’s possible that some of these might be ‘ghosts’ as I’ve mainly got this data from online library catalogues and in some cases it’s hard to tell whether the book is an original or a reprint. I must do another post about the Micrographia hunt – as you might have noticed the website is a bit neglected at the moment!
      There are three first editions of Micrographia currently on sale, priced at £80,000, £65,000, and $10,000 (you can see them advertised on Fingers crossed for a very exciting Christmas present! 🙂

  12. What a wonderful project! I’m guessing you already are aware of the copy on display in the Life Sciences building at the University of California in Berkeley. It is part of the Golub antique microscope collection and is displayed opened to the page with the illustration of cork cells. I suspect there may be other copies on the Berkeley campus, maybe in the Bancroft Library and its rare books collection. Good luck!

    • Thanks Kelly, at the moment I just have one copy at Berkeley on my list – the reference number is Bancroft Vault, f QH271.H66 M5 1665. Do you think the copy on display in the Life Sciences building is a different volume? If so I’d love to hear more about it and in particular whether it is the 1665 first edition or the 1667 edition (the title page should make this clear, if it’s accessible).
      Thanks and best wishes,

      • I don’t think the one on display is the Bancroft accession. The displayed copy was from a donation to the University from a private collection. The title page is not visible, but I can contact the curator. It’s possible that I might be able to get a photo of the front material. I’ll be back in touch soon!

  13. Hi Felicity,

    I hope your project progresses and I would love to see its results. I have a complete copy of Micrographia 1665 edition in my private library.

    Kind regards, Paul

    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your message. Unfortunately the Micrographia project hasn’t got very far yet but it’s great to hear about your copy as I’m sure there are quite a few in private collections but it’s very difficult to locate them. It would be really interesting to hear about the provenance of your copy, and whether there are any early readers’ marks eg. underlining or marginal notes.

      Best wishes,

      • Hi Felicity,

        I have started working with my Hooke, a very clean copy, so no marginal comments in the text, signatures of previous owners:
        faint ink on title page “Fam: ?Shirrell? or Shirrelt? not clear, followed by “anno 1703”; a very ornate other signature that has been crossed out and is illegible. On front pastedown in ink, very clearly readable: “Thomas N. Cole 7th mo 22nd 1847”. I have started to look for watermarks to the paper and found several different ones, one clearly visible on schem XiX, it is “IHS” with a cross standing on the H. According to Briquet the watermark of Jesuit printing houses in the 14/15th century, often Italian, so the paper must have made its way to London. If you want to send your email I can send som pics.

        I bought this copy from an antiquarian I have been buying for many years but of course they do not divulge where they had it from.

        Kind regards, Paul

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