Robert Hooke and the Cell

In 1665 the English physicist, instrument maker, and inventor Robert Hooke (1635–1703) published a book called Micrographia describing his researches using a microscope and illustrated by his own excellent and detailed drawings. Hooke's microscope has survived and is shown in the following illustration. It is now housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. To adjust the coarse focus, the microscopist could move its tube, covered in leather with gilt tooling, up and down the vertical support, and the objective lens at the bottom could be moved on a screw thread to provide fine focus.

In one of his microscopic investigations, Hooke examined a thin slice of cork and found that it consisted of tiny open spaces bordered by tissue. The spaces reminded Hooke of the monks' cells in a monastery, so he called them cells. That is the origin of the term, but it was only one of Hooke's many observations—on optics as well as biological structures—and scholars consider Micrographia to be the first important work on microscopy.

Robert Hooke possessed one of the most inventive minds England has ever produced. He was born on July 18, 1635, at Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, an island close to the southern coast of England. His health was poor, and he spent much of his childhood alone, amusing himself by making mechanical toys. Following the death of his father when he was 13, Hooke began an apprenticeship to a portrait artist, but soon abandoned this and enrolled at Westminster School, and in 1653 he secured a place at Christ Church College, University of Oxford, where he earned money by designing scientific instruments and improving on existing instruments, selling his work to professional instrument makers. While at Oxford, Hooke met many of the leading scientists of the day. In 1660 Hooke was among the group of scientists who formed a society that two years later became the Royal Society. Hooke was employed as curator of experiments at the Royal Society, and in 1663 he was elected a fellow and the same year was made a lecturer in mechanics at the society. In 1665 he also became professor of geometry at Gresham College. Hooke was secretary to the Royal Society from 1677 to 1683. As well as being an inventor, instrument maker, and microscopist, Hooke was also London's official surveyor following the Great Fire of 1666, and he was a successful architect. Hooke never married. He died at his home in Gresham College, London, on March 3, 1703.