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 . . .
Friday 16 August 1689:
“the yellow Dust of Sunflower. like amber balls with prickles”
This is maybe my all-time favourite Hooke quote – the virtuoso microscopist, noting in his diary what was perhaps the first observation of sunflower pollen – and achieving a kind of poetry with his characteristically terse prose. Nehemiah Grew had already described the pollen of other flowers in his Anatomy of Plants published in 1682 (see page 169), so it wasn’t breaking news, but Hooke was intrigued enough to draw a little diagram in the middle of his diary entry.
Attentive followers of @hookeslondon will have noticed a gap in the Diary tweets from mid-April to early May. Sorry, I was in Australia. But I don’t want you to feel as though you’ve missed out on anything, so I’m posting the full text here (don’t tell anyone at Oxford University Press…).
Portraits have a peculiar fascination for people. As Lisa Jardine has pointed out, historical figures come to life so much more vividly when a portrait is available. This is true for historians almost as much as anyone else. Therefore the thought that there might be a lost or unidentified portrait of a famous and controversial figure like Robert Hooke is extremely tantalising. It also grips the public imagination – several visitors to the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary exhibition in summer 2010 commented, ‘they say Newton destroyed a portrait of Hooke’. Indeed, ‘they’ do say this. The final scene in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes’ showed Newton slashing a portrait, a reference that shows how familiar this story has become. Indeed it has all the elements of good drama – passion, the fierce rivalry of two misunderstood geniuses, and violence (well, vandalism at least).
Since this blog is meant for a general audience I’m going to try to avoid confusing my readers with historians’ jargon. But I realise that my strapline ‘life and science in Restoration London’ is already possibly guilty of contravening that rule: does everyone know what Restoration London is? Sure, people who are interested in British history do. But I know (clever) people who need to think for a few seconds to remember whether the 17th century means the 1600s or the 1700s, so I’m going to err on the side of caution.
Spring was taking a while to get going in April 1673 but this week was a little warmer for Hooke and his companions in Restoration London. Hooke suffered on and off from his usual insomnia, this time accompanied by ‘sweat’ and perhaps fever. It may have been this that prompted Hooke to branch out into the pharmacopaeia and try a few more herbal remedies: wormwood ale; ‘white helebor sneez & tobacco’; Annis[eed] cordiall; and ‘andrews’ (a proprietary preparation of unknown composition). Some of these medicines were more benign than others . . .
The main aim of the early Fellows of the Royal Society was to enquire after ‘matters of fact’. They used a variety of methods to pursue facts, one of which was collecting man-made and natural artefacts. The first historian of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat, wrote in 1667 that the Royal Society intended to make ‘a General Collection of all the Effects of Arts, and the Common, or Monstrous Works of Nature’. Indeed, he claimed, they had already made a good start on this project:
‘they have already drawn together into one Room, the greatest part of all the several kinds of things, that are scatter’d throughout the Universe’.