Cell Building Blocks

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Bubonic plague: bacterial disease carried by fleas of infected Old English rats. At its worst, it killed two million people a year. Those that caught the disease had a 90% chance of dying from it.

Great Plague of London: there have been several large outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Europe beginning in 1347. In 1665 London fell victim to the plague that has since been called the Great Plague of London... more

Microscope: an instrument used to see objects or parts of objects, which are too small to be seen with only our eyes... more

Robert Hooke (28 July 1635 – 3 March 1703)

Micrographia by Robert Hooke

The cover of Robert Hooke's Micrographia, published in 1665. In addition to illustrations of insects, snowflakes, and his famous slice of cork, he also described how to make a microscope like the one he used.

The year was 1665. A book of illustrations called Micrographia has just been published by the English natural philosopher, Robert Hooke. The camera had not yet been invented so illustrations were common for books and other publications. What was uncommon about Micrographia was that it was one of the first time drawings of the microscopic world had been published.

Within the publication more than 30 detailed illustrations appeared including the famous one from cork that provided the first documentation of a single cell. Hooke also examined hair under a microscope and made a note that some of the hairs were split at the ends. This is possibly the first notation of split ends.

Examples of Hooke's detailed drawings can be seen in the illustration of a cork and a flea below. It was in his description of cork that he first used the term "cell" even though he did not know how important his discovery would become. The cell wasn't really understood until 1839 when scientists began to discover its importance.

Why Call it a Cell?

Hooke's drawings show the detailed shape and structure of a thinly sliced piece of cork. When it came time to name these chambers he used the word 'cell' to describe them, because they reminded him of the bare wall rooms where monks lived. These rooms were called cells.

Gallery of Images from Micrographia

There were no cameras when Robert Hooke first explored the tiny world with his microscope. To bring these images to life and share them with the world, he had to draw what he saw using his new instrument. Here are a few of the amazing drawings he made and published in 1665.

Robert Hooke Cork Illustation

Robert Hooke Drone Fly Illustration

 Thin slice of cork. Click on the image to enlarge.   Drone-fly head. Click on the image to enlarge.
Robert Hooke Blue Fly Illustration

Robert Hooke Microscope

Blue fly. Click on the image to enlarge.   A drawing of his microscope. Click on the image to enlarge.
Robert Hooke Flea Illustation

Flea imaged in SEM

As it turned out, the flea (Ceratophyllus fasciatus) in this illustration was the carrier of the Bubonic Plague that was sweeping through Europe at the time. However, Hooke did not know this. Click on the image to enlarge.


A flea imaged using a scanning electron microscope. Notice how much detail Hooke was able to see with his early microscope. Click on the image to enlarge.

Robert Hooke Snowflake Illustration

Snowflake in an SEM microscope

Hooke also looked at things other than insects and plants. Here he has drawn several snow flakes. Click on the image to enlarge.   Scanning electron microscope image of a snowflake. Hooke was very accurate even with his early microscope. Click on the image to enlarge.

Additional places to explore:

Read Micrographia and view all the images at eBooks@Adelaide.


Historical Anatomies on the Web (NIH).

Scanning Electron Image of the flea from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)

Image of the scanning electron microscope snowflake from Beltsville Electron Microscopy Unit, part of the USDA.

Additional images from Wikimedia Commons.

View Citation

You may need to edit author's name to meet the style formats, which are in most cases "Last name, First name."

Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Robert Hooke
  • Author(s): Shyamala Iyer
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: September 24, 2009
  • Date accessed: June 12, 2024
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/robert-hooke

APA Style

Shyamala Iyer. (2009, September 24). Robert Hooke. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved June 12, 2024 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/robert-hooke

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Shyamala Iyer. "Robert Hooke". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 September, 2009. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/robert-hooke

MLA 2017 Style

Shyamala Iyer. "Robert Hooke". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 Sep 2009. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 12 Jun 2024. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/robert-hooke

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Robert Hooke portrait
Portrait of Robert Hooke. This is an artist's impression of Robert Hooke. It was created from the descriptions by his colleagues Aubrey and Waller. Image via Wikimedia. Painting by Rita Greer.


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