The regular reader of this blog (are you still there?) will have long ago realised that I have a genuine fondness for polymaths and that I like to promote the memory of obscure contributors to the evolution of the science. Given these two attributes Henry Baker who was born on 8th May 1698 was predestined to be one day featured here.
Henry served an apprenticeship as a bookseller but he first came to fame as a teacher who had developed a successful method of teaching death and dumb people to read, write and lip read improving on work that had developed in the 17th century out of the general philosophical and scientific interest in real and artificial languages. You can read more about these 17th century developments in a series of fascinating post here, here, here, here and here at Jai Virdi’s blog From the Hands of Quacks.
This work brought him to the attention of the novelist Daniel Defoe who would become in the course of time his father in law when he married Defoe’s daughter Sophia. Henry was himself a writer and poet and under the pseudonym, Henry Stonecastle, together with Defoe he founded and edited The Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal. His literary activities included editing and publishing a bilingual anthology of classical Latin poetry and a ten-volume translation of the works of Molière. He also published two collections of his own poetry and a best selling book length poem with the scintillating title The Universe. A Philosophical Poem Intended to Restrain the Pride of Man. Outside of his literary activities Baker was elected to the Society of Antiquities in 1740 and the Royal Society in 1741.
Henry’s scientific interests were mainly, but not exclusively, in natural history and, as the astute reader has probably already guessed from the title of this post in microscopy. Now the history of the development of the microscope and microscopy is rather puzzling. It is not actually known who invented the microscope but it must have been contemporaneous with the invention of the telescope at the beginning of the 17th century as the microscope is basically a telescope looked through from the wrong end. Now whereas the telescope and telescopy went through a significant evolution throughout the 17th century the microscope remained virtually ignored. After some initial microscopic illustrations made and published by the Accademia dei Lincei virtually nothing happened until Robert Hooke published his Micrographia in 1665 and the researches of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the last quarter of the 17th and first quarter of the 18th centuries, scientific studies only published as papers mostly in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. By this time telescopy had become a popular pastime and many amateur astronomers throughout Europe enjoyed observing the heavens, microscopy remained, however, the preserve of a small number of experts, Leeuwenhoek, for example, not revealing the details of how he had made his observations. Henry Baker is credited with changing this situation.
Published in 1743 Baker’s The Microscope Made Easy has been described as the first laboratory manual for microscopy. The first edition had a print run of one thousand, which sold out quickly and the there were a total of six English editions by 1785 as well as translations into Dutch, French and German. As a member of the Royal Society Henry published numerous notes and articles in the Philosophical Transactions on a bewildering range of topics but his most significant paper was a scientific analysis of van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope lenses in which he rather controversially claimed that van Leeuwenhoek could not possibly have seen what he reproduced in his drawings with these lenses. In 1754 he published a second book on microscopy his Employment for the Microscope detailing his own microscopic studies of insects, polyps, rotifers, nematodes and fungal spores as well as his extensive studies of organic and inorganic salts. For this book Baker received the Copley gold medal of the Royal Society, its highest award, classing him together with much better known scientist such as Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly or Charles Darwin. In the same year he became one of the founding members of the Society of Arts, later to become the Royal Society of Arts.
When he died in 1774 he left a bequest of 100 Pounds to establish the annual Bakerian Lecture, “the Societies premier lecture in the physical sciences”, which has been held by such luminaries as Humphry Davy, Thomas Young, Richard Owen and Michael Faraday.
As a footnote it has been pointed out that today is also the 300th birthday of a much more famous 18th century polymath, David Hume, who has been honoured with a post by my friend John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts.