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History of Science and Technology/Date of Robert Hooke's discovery of cells


QUESTION: Hello, I was wondering if you know when Robert Hooke first discovered the existence of cells?

I know he wrote the book (Micrographia) describing them and stating his discoveries about them in 1665, but since printing of that book was ordered in Nov. 23,1664, clearly he had to have discovered it earlier then that. I've seen one source say 1663, but they're not reliable and not available for contact. I'd be very grateful if anyone could answer this, preferably with the history or sources/citations to back it up. Thank you!

Here's a link to Micrographia, where it says when it was ordered.

ANSWER: Hi Rose--thanks for writing.  You've already done what I would have done and checked Hooke's public writings, though as I'm sure you know neither Hooke nor anyone else in his milieu can really be considered a reliable source with respect to dating their discoveries!  You may not have access in Thailand to some of the research resources that might help, so I'll see if I can find the answer for you when I'm on campus next week--our library unfortunately does not have this:

(though searching for the words 'cell' and 'cells' in the e-book or portions of the diary online:

doesn't turn up anything helpful)

but it does have this:

and I'll have a quick look to see if it provides anything useful.

By coincidence, I'm going to see this play next weekend:

Regards, Carolyn

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Awesome, thank you so much. I did look through his diary already also, but as it appears to have started at least 5 years after his book was published, there really doesn't seem to be much about cell discovery in there. I imagine the discovery didn't affect his day-to-day life much, especially 5 years after the fact. I've never used before, so I don't know the system. Should I leave feedback already, or would doing so shut the question down and make you unable to respond?

OK, I was at the university library last night and picked up two books on Robert Hooke--one was the one I'd mentioned previously, which seems to have nothing in it about cells, and the other was this one:

which mentions cells once.  The author discusses Hooke's description of the 'cells' of cork in Micrographia, and suggests that Hooke didn't realise at the time what he was looking at, describing them as 'pores' in which liquid could be stored rather than as the visible walls of individual living organisms.  

Two observations from me:

First, this is probably the only documentation that actually exists, and (Isaac Newton notwithstanding) given the intense competition among those in Hooke's social and intellectual circles to be first to describe something, chances are good that Hooke's first observations did not come too much before his announcement of them in print.

Second, it may not really be appropriate to describe Hooke as having 'discovered the existence of cells' as we know them today, because it doesn't appear that within his lifetime he or anyone else understood what cells actually were.

I'm sure that's both more and less than what you were hoping to find out!!  But I hope it was of some interest at any rate.  And thank you for prompting me to pick up books about Robert Hooke, and take the opportunity to read a little more about him before going to see a play about him tomorrow night.

All the best--Carolyn

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Carolyn Dougherty


I can probably answer most general questions about the history of science, technology and engineering from ancient to current; if I don't know a specific answer I can probably refer a questioner to an appropriate source. I have done original research in the history of computing and in British science and engineering in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.


I am a PhD student at the University of York, writing about the carrying trade in the 18th century; my previous work at the university includes the early history of plate railways. I have taught courses in the history of science and engineering at York and other universities, and have presented several papers on various subjects in this field at academic conferences. I am also a practicing civil engineer.

BA--Berkeley, MSc--Berkeley, MA--York, currently working on a PhD at York.

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