Getting Hooke wrong!

I actually have a finished blog post lined up for this week but somebody on twitter linked to a website called ThoughtCo. and the post, Robert Hooke Biography (1635 – 1703), which I skim read. A couple of the statements about microscopes and telescopes brought out my inner Hist_Sci HulkTM and I couldn’t resist, so you are getting a bonus blog post to make up for the lack of one last week.

ThoughtCo. tells us that:

 He invented the compound microscope and Gregorian compound telescope.


Hooke’s microscope, from an engraving in Micrographia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now, long time readers of this blog will perhaps remember that I wrote a post celebrating Hooke’s Micrographia in which I outlined the history of the microscope in the seventeenth century. The very first microscopes that appeared in the second decade of the seventeenth century, more than twenty years before Hooke was born, were compound microscope and we don’t actually know who should be credited for its invention. I suggested that several people, like Galileo, accidentally looked through a Dutch or Galilean telescope the wrong way, noticed the diminution and went on from there to develop purpose built microscopes. We do know that the Keplerian microscope, two convex lenses, was invented by Cornelis Drebbel in 1621.

As far as the Gregorian (compound) telescope (I’m not sure what the word compound is doing in there) the name of the inventor might just possibly be deducible from the name of the telescope. It was of course not Hooke but James Gregory who first thought out this piece of optical hardware. Hooke apparently earns the honours for having constructed the first working model of a Gregorian telescope, something that its inventor had failed to do.


James Gregory artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Further on in the article ThoughtCo. informs us that:

In 1665, Hooke used his primitive compound microscope to examine the structure in a slice of cork. He was able to see the honeycomb structure of cell walls from the plant matter, which was the only remaining tissue since the cells were dead. He coined the word “cell” to describe the tiny compartments he saw. This was a significant discovery because prior to this, no one knew organisms consisted of cells. Hooke’s microscope offered a magnification of about 50x. The compound microscope opened up a whole new world to scientists and marked the beginning of the study of cell biology.

Hooke did indeed apply the word cell to the walled in empty spaces that he observed in a slice of cork because as he said they reminded him of monk’s cells in a monastery. To claim that he or anybody else deduced from this that organisms consisted of cells is a step too far. All Hooke showed was that a slice of cork has empty cell like structures; the study of cell biology didn’t take off until the nineteenth century long after Hooke gave the organic cell its name.


Schem. XI – Of the Schematisme or Texture of Cork, and of the Cells and Pores of some other such frothy Bodies. Source: National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons

The same paragraph continues as follows:

 In 1670, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch biologist, first examined living cells using a compound microscope adapted from Hooke’s design.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a draper and amateur microscopist, calling him a biologist is not only incorrect but also misleading.


Portrait of Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) by Jan Verkolje Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else van Leeuwenhoek examined it is also incorrect and again somewhat misleading to say that he examined living cells. His main discoveries were bacteria and spermatozoa. The real hammer here is in the claims about van Leeuwenhoek’s choice of optical instrument. He definitely did not use a “compound microscope adapted from Hooke’s design.” Van Leeuwenhoek is famous for the fact that he made all of his ground-breaking discoveries uses high powered single lens microscopes that he designed and constructed himself. In fact when the Royal Society began to publish his discoveries in their Philosophical Transactions, it was Hooke who constructed single lens microscopes based on van Leeuwenhoek’s design.


A replica of a microscope by van Leeuwenhoek Source: Wikimedia Commons

ThoughCo. Writes the following about itself:

ThoughtCo, a Dotdash brand, is an education website that launched in March of 2017. Dotdash is a trusted media company that has been in operation since 1997 and is part of the IAC family of websites.

We take pride in the content that we create for our readers and strive to make our articles trustworthy and reliable.

They obviously don’t strive very hard or very successfully.




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3 responses to “Getting Hooke wrong!

  1. John Kane

    I thought the Gregorian compound telescope was developed by those monks as they were chanting. So much for my illusions.

    Why do people write without checking sources? Do they simply assume no one will check or that no knowledgeable person will read the piece?

  2. John Kane

    One of my favourite quotes:
    One of the things I have learned from reading secondary sources on historical cooking is that you should never trust a secondary source that does not include the primary, since you have no way of knowing what liberties the author may have taken in his “interpretation” of the recipe.
    David Friedman

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