A Very Great Company of Radiating Pencils

Dear CF,

It has always been a great fantasy of mine to draw well.  It has also been a great fantasy of mine to work in a messy and unhygienic laboratory where Kimwipes and agar have not yet been invented, where there aren’t Biohazard containers or sharps disposal boxes, and where one could (not that one would) potentially conduct evilish experiments . In my youth I occasionally turned my bathroom into this kind of lab. The inspiration was George’s Marvelous Medicine. The occasion was a skin allergy I developed to my favorite hangout tree. (A fig, in case you were wondering.) After spying on the neighbors next door from the tree for a few hours I’d come back and try different mixtures on the rash.

In that spirit, I give you one of my favorite quiet mad scientists, Robert Hooke, whose Micrographia was published in 1665, when he was 30 years old. He experimented with optics, wrestled with various kinds of microscopy, which was in its infancy, and peppered the book with amazing illustrations, including the famous portrait of the flea.

I love him, though, for the insanity of his process, a sample of which I give you here:

The Microscope, which for the most part I made use of … was contriv’d with three Glasses; a small Object Glass at A, a thinner Eye Glass about B, and a very deep one about C: this I made use of only when I had occasion to see much of an Object at once; the middle Glass conveying a very great company of radiating Pencils, which would go another way, and throwing them upon the deep Eye Glass.

But when ever I had occasion to examine the small parts of a Body more accurately, I took out the middle Glass, and only made use of one Eye Glass with the Object Glass, for always the fewer the Refractions are, the more bright and clear the Object appears. And therefore ’tis not to be doubted, but could we make a Microscope to have one only refraction, it would, cæteris paribus, far excel any other that had a greater number.

Okay, so this might not strike you as all that wild and crazy. Pedantic, even pedestrian. But then we get this:

And hence it is, that if you take a very clear piece of a broken Venice Glass, and in a Lamp draw it out into very small hairs or threads, then holding the ends of these threads in the flame, till they melt and run into a small round Globul, or drop, which will hang at the end of the thread; and if further you stick several of these upon the end of a stick with a little sealing Wax, so as that the threads stand upwards, and then on a Whetstone first grind off a good part of them, and afterward on a smooth Metal plate, with a little Tripoly, rub them till they come to be very smooth; if one of these be fixt with a little soft Wax against a small needle hole, prick’d through a thin Plate of Brass, Lead, Pewter, or any other Metal, and an Object, plac’d very near, be look’d at through it, it will both magnifie and make some Objects more distinct then any of the great Microscopes.

WHO DOES THIS? How on earth did he generate that particular series of “ifs”? In what universe do you decide that the way to better magnify an object is to make a Venetian-glass-and-wax equivalent of a Sonicare toothbrush head, suitably polished?

In Robert Hooke’s awesome universe, that’s where.

Here is his drawing of a fly’s compound eye:


Here is his drawing of a nettle:


And here is his account of how he poked himself repeatedly with the nettle to figure out how it worked:

This I found by this experiment, I had a very convenient microscope with a single Glass which drew about half an Inch, this I had fastned into a little frame, almost like a pair of Spectacles, which I placed before mine eyes, and so holding the leaf of a Nettle at a convenient distance from my eye, I did first, with the thrusting of several of these bristles into my skin, perceive that presently after I had thrust them in I felt the burning pain begin; next I observ’d in divers of them, that upon thrusting my finger against their tops, the Bodkin (if I may so call it) did not in the least bend, but I could perceive moving up and down within it a certain liquor, which upon thrusting the Bodkin against its bafis, or bagg B, I could perceive to rise towards the top, and upon taking away my hand, I could see it again subside, and shrink into the bagg; this I did very often, and saw this Phaenomenon as plain as I could ever see a parcel of water ascend and descend in a pipe of Glass. But the basis underneath these Bodkins on which they were fast, were made of a more pliable substance, and looked almost like a little bagg of green Leather, or rather resembled the shape and surface of a wilde Cucumber, or cucumeris asinini, and I could plainly perceive them to be certain little baggs, bladders, or receptacles full of water, or as I ghess, the liquor of the Plant, which was poisonous, and those small Bodkins were but the Syringe-pipes, or Glyster-pipes, which first made way into the skin, and then served to convey that poisonous juice, upon the pressing of those little baggs, into the interior and sensible parts of the skin, which being so discharg’d, does corrode, or, as it were, burn that part of the skin it touches; and this pain will sometimes last very long, according as the impression is made deeper or stronger.

I want that little pair of Spectacles.



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