Micrographia REFLECT & RESOLVE

Micrographia exhibited at the Royal Society, 2015


The first edition of Micrographia was published in 1665. Its author, Robert Hooke, was an overworked and underpaid Curator of Experiments for the recently founded Royal Society. It was his job to maintain the Repository of curious artefacts submitted to the Society and to entertain and inform the membership by demonstrating experiments at the weekly meeting in Gresham College. Micrographia was to some extent a sideline but an important one as the original commission came from King Charles II who had been impressed by earlier microscopical drawings of insects made by Hooke's friend Christopher Wren. Ultimately Micrographia went far beyond its initial remit and Hooke used the opportunity to advance many of his own ideas as well as those of the new kind of experimental philosophy that underpinned the Royal Society.

The year 2015 marked the 350th anniversary of the publication of Micrographia and many museums and galleries exhibited their copy of the book, including the Royal Society (banner image). This post looks at the evolution and imperfections of a 3D immersive build on the Kitely OpenSimulator grid. The virtual is interwoven with the record of a visit to London in November 2015 to visit a few relevant locations. It is also manifestly an opportunity to test drive Adobe Slate. Some of the images are harvested by Slate from CC licensed sources with abbreviated credit shown at the end. Others are drawn from Wikimedia Commons or were taken by the author. Please note that this document and the associated build are both works in progress and this document in particular should not be used as a reference source. Its purpose rather is to highlight some of the shortcomings in the current build and ways they might be rectified (hence Reflect and Resolve as subtitle).

The museum

The arrival area is modelled on a scaled-up real-life museum exhibit in the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool. Visitors can take a notecard with embedded landmarks that serve to teleport them to key locations.

Visitors from other grids are shown getting a guided tour. This area is incomplete but will in due course focus on the production process for books at the time. Visitors teleport to the start of the Hooke timeline.

The project was originally conceived as an experiment in using head mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift in a museum context but that didn't work out. Nevertheless, the connection was maintained by using a museum-like exhibition space as the entry point, the conceit being that it is giant-sized relative to the avatar. At the moment the content is rather sparse and the idea is to use it to reflect on the production process for making copies of Micrographia rather than the book's contents which are covered elsewhere.

The early stages of the timeline

The timeline starts on the ground level with Hooke's origins in 1635. His father was a clergyman in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight and there is an outline build of his church albeit in its current rather than original state. Hooke was a sickly boy but adept with his hands and the small boat firing its cannon recalls a functioning toy he is said to have made. Living in close proximity to the naval base at Portsmouth he would have seen warships sail past on a regular basis.

All Saint's Church, Freshwater, Isle of Wight

A scaled-down model of the church at the start of the timeline

Further detail of build exhibits can be obtained by touching (clicking) the book on the lectern. Voice can be played using the "vamping horn" (megaphone invented in 1670 by Samuel Moreland). At this stage the visitor also has the option of taking a conducted aerial tour around the exhibit. This reflects Hooke's own interest in manned flight. There is an error in the commentary on the linked video which should refer to ammonite, not trilobite.

The timeline divides between the two walls, the lefthand one depicting the tumultuous events of the Regicide, the Commonwealth and the Restoration along with notable figures of contemporary science. The righthandside shows Hooke's own odyssey, first to London, thence to Oxford and finally back again to London again and Gresham College. The maps, alas, are modern day. It would also be great fun to speculate on the layout of Gresham College but that is for another day. At the far end is the arch leading to St Paul's Cross Churchyard. It needs revisiting.

The timeline

St Paul's Cross Churchyard

The north-east churchyard was arguably the information hub of Restoration England with booksellers occupying most of the buildings around the edge. Peter Blayney has researched the layout as far as is possible and the build follows his maps after a fashion. The buildings are kit built and hence rather similar; the format is also more medieval than the period requires. The ground is covered with snow as there was a heavy fall that winter albeit that a thaw had set in by the time Micrographia went on sale. The cathedral is, of course, the old St Paul's and only half of it has been built and then with rather arbitrary use of textures. There is a nice physical model of it in the Museum of London although that also shows only half the building (the other half!). The steeple had been destroyed by the time of the Restoration and, indeed, the whole building was in a poor state of repair.

Old St Paul's Cathedral from the south (former display layout in Museum of London)

Old St Paul's Cathedral from the north-east with the Sign of the Bell in the left foreground. Some 3D versions of Hooke's drawings are displayed along with his microscope.

Wren's cathedral from a similar perspective has a slightly different orientation with the memorial to the preaching cross on the right

The preaching cross that gave the churchyard its name had also been removed. The Virtual Paul's Cross Churchyard project has much useful information as well as wonderful visualizations from this earlier time.

The Sign of the Bell

Micrographia was published for the Royal Society by Martyn & Allestry at the Sign of the Bell, their shop in St Paul's Cross Churchyard. According to Blayney it was just to the left of the arch through which Hooke would have passed on his way from Gresham College. Very little is known of the internal layout of bookshops of this period and I suspect it was less rudimentary than the build suggests, perhaps more like the Pepys Library. It was, however, common to have books on display outside the shop although I doubt this would be true in the depths of winter! Perhaps they were covered with glass?

Hooke was an avid collector of books and his diary notes that occasionally he would get copies on loan from booksellers. His own library has been documented.

The coffee-house

There was a coffee-house nearby on Paternoster Row but none is known in this part of the churchyard. Although Hooke has frequently been characterized as arrogant, anti-social and needlessly disputatious, he was nevertheless a tireless networker and the coffee-houses were valuable venues for debate and the exchange of news and ideas. Hooke was an inveterate self-medicator and would vary what he drank according to how it made him feel or sleep subsequently.

Apart from staff the coffee-house tended to be an all-male preserve

Plague Alley

Plague Alley is, of course, imaginary and simply charts the course of the disease in London and the movements of the main protagonists. While Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year is an influence and purports to be a contemporaneous account, the author would have been an infant at the time. The plague was probably more severe in the poorer and more densely populated outskirts of the city.

The entirely fictitious Plague Alley

The Microscope Gallery

This shows the evolution of the microscope and its use from Hooke to van Leeuwenhoek to Pasteur and Koch. It was Yersin from Pasteur's group who is generally credited with discovering the causative agent for plague which is now named Yersinia pestis in his honour.

Microscope timeline also tells the story of the discovery of the plague bacillus

The evolution of the plague

Although the outbreak in 1665 was especially severe, plague outbreaks had occurred at intervals through the 17th century prior to this. While it was remembered as the Great Plague of London, it was, of course, part of a global pandemic that affected other parts of the country as well. The display charts the evolution of this pandemic strain and, in particular, acquisition of virulence factors and the capacity for transmission by fleas. It is poignant, of course, that Hooke drew the flea in Micrographia given the nature of the disease vector. He also drew the head louse, its close relative the body louse transmitting another common disease of the day, typhus.

Proposed evolution of pandemic plague

The Great Fire of London

Fire at the Cathedral

No sooner did the plague abate than in 1666 another tragedy struck, the Great Fire of London. Booksellers moved their wares into the cathedral for safe-keeping but sadly their faith was misplaced and stocks of Micrographia among others were destroyed. Much of central London was burned down, including The Sign of the Bell, although the flames stopped short of Gresham College.This was mostly taken over by the city corporation while Hooke became (among other duties!) one of three surveyors involved in determining property boundaries and resolving disputes.

The Monument

Hooke also worked closely with Wren and is credited with the fundamental work underpinning design of the dome for the new St Paul's Cathedral. The two also collaborated on the Monument to the fire which was originally intended to double as a scientific instrument.

The entrance to the Monument (temporarily closed on my visit due to a school trip in progress -- great to see kids being enthused with history and getting to hear about Hooke)

The Monument remains the highest self-standing stone tower in the world. There are are 311 steps! Note the central aperture which was intended to facilitate astronomical observations.

The viewing platform after its recent refurbishment. It features in Neal Stephenson's sci-fi book The System of the World

Of course, the old cathedral and the Monument never coexisted. The platform is a good vantage point nonetheless.

The rebuilding of London

Hooke's role as an architect has been difficult to evaluate as few of his buildings have survived. He was associated with the prestige residence Montagu House as well as the lunatic asylum commonly known as Bedlam. In terms of churches he most likely worked closely with Wren on a number of projects.

Temple Bar; after the Great Fire the second edition of Micrographia was published by Martyn in 1667 from a different shop with the same name "outwith Temple Bar". Confusingly, Temple Bar has latterly been relocated adjacent to St Paul's

Instead of visiting St Paul's I visited the much quieter Hooke church St Martin-within-Ludgate which is closeby.

St Martin-within-Ludgate, close to St Paul's, is also attributed in part to Hooke
Willen Parish Church (St Mary Magdalene) in Buckinghamshire is a Hooke church built for his former tutor at Westminster School

Dorset Garden Theatre and the river fleet

Hooke may also have been involved in Wren's design for the Dorset Garden Theatre. This was home to the Duke of York's theatre company which famously put on Shadwell's play The Virtuoso. This lampooned the Royal Society and possibly Hooke in particular. The unfinished interior of the build is influenced by the model of Langhans and notably lacking in ornamental decoration.

The Theatre was located next to the River Thames and water transport was the safest way to get there. It was also adjacent to the outfall of the River Fleet which had once been an open sewer but was greatly improved by Hooke after the fire.

Royal Society & Natural History Museum

Having visited the Monument (exterior only), Museum of London, St Paul's (exterior only) and St Martin-within-Ludgate, I travelled across the city to the Royal Society. For me the highlight of the Royal Society exhibition was one of Hooke's original sketches (crystals in urine) in a notebook adjacent to Micrographia itself.

After visiting the exhibition in the Royal Society I went to the Natural History Museum. While Micrographia was not itself in evidence, Hooke was acknowledged at the start of the extensive display gallery given over to biological illustration. The day was rounded off appropriately by a return to virtual reality in the form of the David Attenborough-narrated GearVR experience First Life.

Top left clockwise: Hooke notebook, Royal Society "Seeing Closer: 350 years of microscopy" exhibition; First Life poster, NHM; Images of Nature gallery, NHM


Thanks to all in the galleries, libraries, archives and museums sector who have made 2015 so interesting for fans of Micrographia and in my case inspired the Micrographia OpenSim build. It was sad, however, that 2015 also saw the death of Prof Lisa Jardine who did so much to return Hooke to the public gaze. Thanks also to the developers and users of OpenSim and its viewers, to Kitely and its virtual community without whom the build would not have happened.

The build remains imperfect and unfinished but its current state suffices for a guided tour. Imperfections are generally a necessary part of the human condition and Hooke remarks on such when looking at the needle or printed full-stop under the microscope. Imperfect as Hooke himself often was in his relations with others, his creativity and industry made a tremendous difference both to London and to science. As well as contributing the first image of a microbe (a fungus) under the microscope, Hooke also inspired and championed van Leeuwenhoek whose images of bacteria were the first to reveal an otherwise unseen world.

‘the Productions of art are such rude mis-shapen things, that when view’d with a Microscope, there is little else observable, but their deformity’ (Hooke, Micrographia)

It is customary at the turn of the year to reflect on the past and look to the coming year but Micrographia tempts us with a different timeframe, albeit only with questions. How will the 400th anniversary of Micrographia be marked? How will science evolve and especially our understanding and control of infectious disease in a changing world? How will people fifty years from now look back at our current imperfect efforts in virtual reality. Indeed, without the work of archivists, will such retrospection even be possible?

Visitor comment: the build has a "cool brainiac Disneyland feeL"
Created with images by celesteh - "Village Church" • ell brown - "Museum of London - Medieval London - model of medieval St Paul's Cathedral" • ell brown - "Museum of London - Medieval London - model of medieval St Paul's Cathedral" • [Duncan] - "Monument" • ahisgett - "The Monument" • Mr ATM - "Willen Church"

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