Robert Hooke Meets Harry Potter

Connecting Robert Hooke’s Micrographia to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series

Most people who know of Hooke College of Applied Sciences know it as a place where materials analysis professionals learn how to properly use light and electron microscopes. Hooke College is also home to the Brooks Collection of antique microscopes and rare books housed on the third floor of our facility. One of the prominently displayed books is a first edition, first issue of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. The entire display is located just outside of my office, so every day I have the privilege to be amongst optical instruments and books that few others ever encounter, unless they are one of our students on a tour or visiting a museum.

It was while visiting a children’s museum that I encountered a reference to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia as part of an exhibit called “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” marking the 20th anniversary of the U.S. publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone authored by J.K. Rowling. On display were rare books and manuscripts, many used by J.K. Rowling for inspiration and ideas that appear in the Harry Potter series. Written text conversations with the illustrators were at the entrance to the exhibit. While perusing these interview conversations, my wife noticed that Jim Kay, the illustrator for the current Harry Potter anniversary volumes, said his favorite book was Micrographia by Robert Hooke.

Jim Kay exhibit panel
Photography was not allowed in the exhibit. This photo was taken in the lobby area outside of the exhibit.

Of course this made perfect sense. The illustrations in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia are amazing and would naturally influence and inspire one’s work as an illustrator. In researching Jim Kay and his relationship with Micrographia, I found that he worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. On their website, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew lists that Micrographia is one of the hidden treasures in their library. Perhaps this is where he first laid eyes on his favorite book. I later learned that he often gives paperback versions of Micrographia as gifts.

I thought that this interesting relationship between Jim Kay and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia could serve as a gateway for children (and adults) to explore microscopy and the microscopical world, develop an appreciation of drawing and hand-coloring, as well as investigating some historical points along the way. Below are some ideas and approaches for an intriguing integration between art and science.

Google Arts & Culture as a Resource

In looking for an easy way to access some of the original illustrations by Jim Kay and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, I found Google Arts & Culture to be a great resource. By simply creating a Google account you can access high-resolution images of artworks from Google’s network of partner museums. Entering “Jim Kay” into the search bar, I was able to view over 200 items related to his work, including sketches and illustrations used for the Harry Potter books. These images can be saved in a Favorites folder and then be viewed on any electronic device.

Screenshot of Micrographia illustrations
My Google Arts & Culture saved images.

I did a similar search for “Micrographia” which yielded illustrations of Robert Hooke’s flea (Schem. XXXII) and ant (Schem. XXXIV). I also had access to Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, a book containing hand-colored illustrations that was also featured in the Harry Potter exhibit as a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling. I’ll talk about hand-colored illustrations later in this post.

Google Arts & Culture has this cool feature known as Microscope View, where users can zoom in on a saved image and view the picture in greater detail. Below is the Microscope View of Robert Hooke’s illustration of the flea, which is, perhaps, the most famous engraving in Micrographia. As you can see, the detail in both images is quite good. These images can easily be traced with a pencil or printed out for coloring.

Close up view of Robert Hooke’s drawing of a flea
Robert Hooke’s flea, from Google Arts & Culture Microscope View.

Adding Color

As I mentioned above, one of the rare texts featured in the Harry Potter exhibit that caught my eye was Elizabeth Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal published in London in 1737-39. The text features hand-colored drawings of more than 500 plants. The detail and hand-coloring are truly remarkable and can also be examined using the Google Arts & Culture application. Below is a Microscope View of caprifolium (honeysuckle).

Elizabeth Blackwell’s drawing and hand-coloring of caprifolium (honeysuckle) in Google Arts & Culture.

A note to the reader: If you search for Elizabeth Blackwell’s images in Google Arts & Culture you will notice that two people named Elizabeth Blackwell have been erroneously combined. The woman pictured is Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the physician, whose biography is definitely worth reading. The illustrator Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758) also has a fascinating background and great story as to how her book came to be. She created these hand-colored drawings and descriptions of plants in order to raise enough money to get her husband out of debtors’ prison. If you search the name Elizabeth Blackwell in Wikipedia, the distinction between these two women is clearly made.

Caprifolium hand-colored illustration
Elizabeth Blackwell’s drawing and hand-coloring of Caprifolium (honeysuckle) Google Arts & Culture Microscope View.

Colored illustrations are usually more desirable and are particularly useful when an item is being described for the first time. John Delly’s article Hand Colored Microscopical Illustrations (The Microscope, Volume 45, Fourth Quarter, 1987) emphasizes this point, and describes how prior to the introduction of four-color lithography, many authors hand-colored their black and white drawings. In his article, Delly encourages the reader to acquire an inexpensive book with illustrations and try hand-coloring the drawings. He recommends Needham and Needham’s A Guide to Fresh-Water Biology as a starting point. I purchased a used copy of this book online for less than $5.00.

Fresh water invertebrates
Illustrations from Needham and Needham’s A Guide to Fresh-Water Biology.

Equipped with some colored pencils, my daughter and I began conducting Google searches for each of the pictured Miscellaneous Invertebrates:

  1. A hydrachnid, or water mite X10.
  2. A water spider X1.
  3. A gasterotrich, Chaetonotus X10.
  4. A coelenterate, Hydra, X10.
  5. A tardigrade, Macrobiotus, X20.
  6. A bryozoan, Plumatella, X3 and X30.
  7. A bristle-worm, Nais X20
  8. A sewage worm, Tubifex X20.
  9. A leech, Placobdella X3.
  10. A flat-worm, Planaria X5.
  11. A colonial rotifer, Conochilus X10.
  12. A nematode worm X10.
  13. A fresh-water sponge X1/2.
  14. Gemules and spicules from the same.

By viewing the images returned from the searches, my daughter was able to hand-color each of the drawings in Plate III on page 17.

Hand-colored pages of fresh water invertebrates
Hand-colored pages from Needham and Needham’s A Guide to Fresh-Water Biology.

One interesting observation about this exercise was that by simply entering the word of the specimen into Google, the search will provide many photomicrographs of the specimen under a number of different conditions. For example, when we entered “tardigrade” for specimen #5, my daughter was immediately drawn to the pseudo-color scanning electron micrograph of a tardigrade rather than the light microscope brightfield image. As we entered search terms from our list of specimens, the results yielded a wide variety of photomicrographs taken under darkfield and dif­­­ferential interference contrast conditions. Admittedly, in many cases, these other contrast methods were more visually interesting as compared to their brightfield counterparts.

Where to Find Common Sources of Micrographia

While electronic versions of books and images are convenient and easy to access, there is something to be said about thumbing through a book, especially a rare classic. When most people first pick up a copy of Micrographia, they immediately turn to the detailed engravings—what Robert Hooke first observed through his microscope. I have had the privilege of turning the pages (while wearing white gloves) of the original text. During a recent tour of our rare book collection, a student who was attending one of our courses was literally moved to tears after viewing the book. She had received a microscope from her parents as a gift when she was ten years old and had never seen an original copy of Micrographia.

Most people are looking for something a little more accessible. Fortunately, there are scores of new and used hardcopy and paperback versions of Micrographia available for purchase. There are also a number of online resources, including YouTube videos that feature curators speaking about the history of the book, usually with the original opened in front of them. An online version that I found the most accessible and easiest to read is an e-book produced by the University of Adelaide in South Australia. I mention ease of reading because the original text uses a script where the lowercase “s” resembles a lowercase “f”. This difference in script, while interesting, would be difficult for younger readers to decode. The text in this e-book version is easy to read. With that said, if you print the pages from this e-book, the last sentence or two of each printed page is cut off.

Editor’s note: The University of Adelaide stopped offering its e-books as of January 2020.

A Book Fit for a King

In trying to develop an understanding of the historical context of Micrographia, there is no better place to start than at the very first page of the work, which is Robert Hooke’s Letter to the King. The Letter to the King also serves as a great jumping off point to ask questions about King Charles III and the language used at the time. Below is Hooke’s Letter to the King, I have highlighted some of the old English language words in bold. From his letter, you can get a sense of what a huge honor this was for the young Robert Hooke.

To The King.

“Sir, I Do here most humbly lay this small Present at Your Majesties Royal feet. And though it comes accompany’d with two disadvantages, the meanness of the Author, and of the Subject; yet in both I am incouraged by the greatness of your Mercy and your Knowledge. By the one I am taught, that you can forgive the most presumptuous Offendors: And by the other, that you will not esteem the least work of Nature, or Art, unworthy your Observation. Amidst the many felicities that have accompani’d your Majesties happy Restauration and Government, it is none of the least considerable that Philosophy and Experimental Learning have prosper’d under your Royal Patronage. And as the calm prosperity of your Reign has given us the leisure to follow these Studies of quiet and retirement, so it is just, that the Fruits of them should, by way of acknowledgement, be return’d to your Majesty. There are, Sir, several other of your Subjects, of your Royal Society, now busie about Nobler matters: The Improvement of Manufactures and Agriculture, the Increase of Commerce, the Advantage of Navigation: In all which they are assisted by your Majesties Incouragement and Example. Amidst all those greater Designs, I here presume to bring in that which is more proportionable to the smalness of my Abilities, and to offer some of the least of all visible things, to that Mighty King, that has establisht an Empire over the best of all Invisible things of this World, the Minds of Men.”

Your Majesties Most Humble
And Most Obedient
Subject And Servant,
Robert Hooke.

A Field Trip Within the Classroom

The activities mentioned above all rely on static (both paper and electronic) ways in which to appreciate creatures that would be otherwise difficult to capture live. In the case of those creatures from Harry Potter books, only our imaginations and Jim Kay can capture them. But what would happen if we were to introduce a microscope into an art classroom? The never before-seen creatures moving about under the coverglass could be captured through drawings, hand-colored, and discussed, the same way students do after returning from a field trip to the zoo. Robert Hooke sums up this idea nicely in the last sentence of Micrographia’s Preface, “And it is my hope, as well as belief, that these my Labours will be no more comparable to the productions of many other Natural Philosophers, who are everywhere busie about greater things; then my little Objects are to be compar’d to the greater and more beautiful Works of nature, A Flea, A Mite, a Gnat, to a Horse, an Elephant, or a Lyon.”

This sounds like a wonderful outing—no school bus required!


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