For context on this series, please read our editor’s note on this series.
LONDON, England (September, 1665)—Spectacular images using an astounding new instrument can be seen in a new publication written by Royal Society member Robert Hooke, titled “Micrographia,or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon.”
The new instrument made of polished glass and cylinders of brass has just been added to the box of tools available to modern scientists. The device uses two optical lenses and a focus wheel, operating in a manner analogous but opposite to a telescope; allowing the viewer to magnify the micro-sized world.
For the members of the Royal Society as well as the common Englishman, the new book offers a collection of fold-out ink drawings, the verisimilitude of which are quite striking, along with the manuscripts describing the scientific milieu of these observations. Most impressive is the drawing of the common flea, an easy enough subject to find on the bodies of even the most prestigious inhabitants of London these days.
The subject matter is not limited to living entities, as Hooke has also aimed his new device at substances such as snow and cork. He termed the repeating, porous perforations in cork as “cells” for their similarity to a honeycomb.
There are of course limitations on degree of magnification that this new device can achieve. Since Hooke’s graphic images hint at structures even smaller, it is quite reasonable to speculate that improvement on the design may lead to even further discoveries, especially in the field of Biology where miniaturization appears to be very important.
— John Jefferson, Ph.D.
Monks and Bees, Myths and Micrographia
It is well established by common knowledge that when Robert Hooke looked through his “magnifying glasses” at cork, he was reminded of monks’ cells, and so named the repeating shapes cells.
But is it true?
In the process of fact checking this first “Science Origins” blog post, we found to our surprise that nowhere in Hooke’s book, Micrographia, accessed via Project Gutenberg, does he mention monks or their living quarters. He calls the “little boxes” pores, and compares them to the sexangular cells of a honeycomb:
I could exceeding plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular; yet it was not unlike a Honey-comb in these particulars. … for the Interstitia, or walls (as I may so call them) or partitions of those pores were neer as thin in proportion to their pores, as those thin films of Wax in a Honey-comb (which enclose and constitute the sexangular celts) are to theirs. … Next, in that these pores, or cells, were not very deep, but consisted of a great many little Boxes, separated out of one continued long poor…
He used the same analogy to a honeycomb when looking at burnt vegetables, wood, seaweeds, and a poppy seed. In addition to the cork, Hooke also uses “cell” rather wonderfully in his experiment to see how “fiery sparks” result from the “striking with a flint against a steel” (including a strongly worded admonishment to Des Cartes in the process):
So that, these things considered, we need not trouble our selves to find out what kind of Pores they are, both in the Flint and Steel, that contain the Atoms of fire, nor how those Atoms come to be hindred from running all out, when a dore or passage in their Pores is made by the concussion: nor need we trouble our selves to examine by what Prometheus the Element of Fire comes to be fetcht down from above the Regions of the Air, in what Cells or Boxes it is kept, and what Epimetheus lets it go: Nor to consider what it is that causes so great a conflux of the atomical Particles of Fire, which are said to fly to a flaming Body, like Vultures or Eagles to a putrifying Carcass, and there to make a very great pudder.
So where did the monks’ cells reference come from? We headed to our local library to check out Hooke biographies. We found no mention of monks’ cells in Stephen Inwood’s biography of Robert Hooke, “The Forgotten Genius.” While we were there, we also looked at the Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, volume IX, published in 1989. It does not include Robert Hooke in the history of the word “cell.”
So back to the internet we went. The Royal Society did not have a primary source but did bring Felicity Henderson, Ph.D., to our attention.
Dr. Henderson addressed the misconception in the comments of a blog, posted March 29, 2014. Dr. Henderson, who according to her blog “About” page is editing Robert Hooke’s diary for Oxford University Press, responded to a question about the monks’ cells explanation by saying, “It’s a common misconception, but the answer is no, it doesn’t appear anywhere in Hooke’s writings.”
So where did the monks’ cells myth start? Any ideas? Send your tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Sara Tiner, November, 2017