To illustrate the morphology of an ant, Robert Hooke placed one under a microscope and began to draw. The insect did not wait for his completion. Hooke captured another creature and cemented its feet together, but the struggling creature remained difficult to observe. Finally, Hooke, one of the finest experimenters of the 17th century, experimented by soaking ants in brandy until they became intoxicated.
When Hooke published his portraits of ants, fleas, and other microscopic subjects in 1665, he was lavished with accolades for his efforts. Micrographia was one of the earliest influential popular science publications. The diarist Samuel Pepys described it as “the most inventive book I have ever read.
Inspiring a craze for microscopes and a fixation on an invisible region that could only be perceived through powerful lenses, the images provided an early glimpse of how optics would advance science.
However, recognition of the invisible world was not the only way that small objects had a significant impact on Enlightenment thought. Tiny Treasures, a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, provides ample grounds for appreciating how miniaturization simultaneously benefited science.
At the same time that Hooke published Micrographia, craftsmen in the French commune of Dieppe were carving ivory globes tiny enough to fit in the palm of a gentleman. A piece on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, conceals a compass that is revealed when the sphere is unscrewed at the equator.
The globe made of ivory exemplifies the opulent taste of the era. (Made of turned wood and leather with gold embossing, Hooke’s microscope was likewise ornate.) Instruments of science and philosophy were status symbols. And status could be effectively communicated through the portability of symbols.
However, the diminutive size of a world held in the palm of one’s hand also provided an expansive perspective. The geographical compression facilitated comprehension of a subject that was too vast to be observed in its entirety in reality. Miniaturizing the world served the same purpose as magnifying an ant or insect.
When Pepys purchased his own microscope, he discovered that the view through the ocular bore little resemblance to the Micrographia plates. Even if he got his ants drunk—a trick disclosed in the text of Hooke’s book—they saw only the specifics. According to Pepys, resolving any image was challenging.
What he did not understand, and what Hooke was not eager to explain, was that Hooke’s images were composite views derived from numerous imprecise observations of imperfect specimens. The ability to synthesize so much information demonstrates Hooke’s scientific ingenuity beyond mere cunning.
Miniature commode. Peter Carl Fabergé (Russian, 1846–1920) The elements gold and nephrite The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Mrs. Albert J. Beveridge’s donation in remembrance of Delia Spencer Field Photograph: Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Again, there is a substantial correlation between microscopy and miniaturization. In past centuries, natural philosophers frequently collected and arranged miniatures in cabinets of curiosities. Through grouping and juxtaposition, these cabinets allowed for the manipulation of portable replicas of objects from the real world.
In a cabinet of curiosities, knowledge was a composite of illustrative objects. The ability to synthesize meaning was made possible by resizing the world to a human scale. Similarly to the images produced by Hooke’s microscope, the representation of reality existed only at the intersection of materialism and ingenuity.
The power of miniaturization is taken for granted in the 21st century. Moore’s Law propels technological advancement. Microchips are so minute that Hooke’s antiquated microscope could not detect the inscribed circuits.
The MFA Boston exhibit demonstrates, however, that miniaturization predates the transistor. It is widespread across cultures. And less is not always preferable.
In their era, cabinets of curiosities were extremely effective as computers; they were the ultimate thinking machines. There is every reason to believe that they could be just as effective, if not more so, than the nanoscale processors with which we cannot interact.
Hooke and Dieppe both understood the significance of resizing the world to a scale that our eyes and hands can naturally perceive. In the exhibition at the MFA, there are scores of examples from various time periods. They are prepared to make sense. The only requirement is the visitor’s creativity.