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World’s first scientific ‘best-seller’ under the spotlight at the National Library of Wales


The world's first scientific best-seller, Micrographia, an illustrated book of objects viewed through a microscope, written by the seventeenth-century polymath Robert Hooke (1635-1703), is the focus of a new exhibition at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The exhibition, ‘The secret workings of nature: Robert Hooke and early science’, opens on 7 July and marks 350 years since Micrographia was published by the Royal Society in 1665.

Micrographia had a huge impact, revealing a new world beyond the imagination of most of its readers. An original copy containing Hooke’s incredibly detailed drawings of insects, plants and other objects will be on view at the exhibition.  

While Micrographia deals primarily with microscopy, it includes Hooke’s theories on other subjects such as astronomy and the origins of fossils.  In the book, Hooke is also the first person to use the term ‘cell’ to describe the structure of organic matter.

A digital version of Micrographia will be available, in addition to the hard copy. A microscope (c.1700) and telescope (c.1680) on loan from the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford will also be displayed.

The acclaimed poet, Matthew Francis, Professor of Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University's English Department, has composed a collection of poems inspired by the images in Micrographia.  A video of Matthew reading a selection of these poems can be viewed in the exhibition.

The exhibition features other early scientific books and manuscripts from the Library's collections which shed further light on the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and the new emphasis on experimentation and observation.

A first edition of Galileo's work, Dialogo . . . sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Florence, 1632) is one such book.  A ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’ offers scientific evidence that the world and the planets orbit the sun and led to Galileo's arrest for heresy by the Inquisition.

The exhibition also celebrates the contribution of a number of Welsh scientists to the Scientific Revolution:

Lewis Morris: Morris' copy of De Historia Piscium (1686) - ‘history of fish’ by John Ray and Francis Willughby – includes a wealth of additional notes and pictures by Morris. They include his personal observations and first-hand accounts of species of fish caught off the coast of Anglesey and north Wales. This is one of the Library's most important recent acquisitions and a digital version will be available in the exhibition.

Thomas Pennant: Visitors will be able to see a personal copy of Pennant's book, A History of Quadrupeds (1781), which includes original watercolour illustrations by the artist Moses Griffith.  Charles Darwin had a copy of this book on board the Beagle on his sea voyage to South America.

Robert Recorde: Originally from Pembrokeshire, Recorde is famous for inventing the equals sign (=).  His book on cosmology, The Castle of Knowledge (1556), a copy of which can be seen in the exhibition, includes one of the earliest references to the Copernican theory that the planets orbit the sun.

William Jones: Jones came from Anglesey and his book Synopsis palmariorum matheseos... (London, 1706) includes the first use in print of the symbol π (pi) to denote the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

Dr Aled Gruffydd Jones, National Library of Wales Chief Executive and Librarian, said:

“Robert Hooke was an incredibly influential figure and Micrographia’s impact on the scientific world cannot be over emphasised. The book revealed a new world of wonders that also captured the public's imagination.

“This new exhibition celebrates the pioneering spirit of the age, while also recognising the contribution of a number of Welshmen to the Scientific Revolution.”


For more information please contact Hannah Thomas on or 07810 794853 or Lydia Whitfield at Effective Communications on or 07890 953402

Editor’s notes

  • The National Library of Wales can be found off Penglais Hill in Aberystwyth.  It is clearly sign-posted along the main roads into the town.
  • Entry to the Library is free.  The Library is open to the public Monday-Friday, 9.30am-6.00pm and on Saturdays between 9.30am-5.00pm.
  • Robert Hooke was born on the Isle of Wight, England on 28 July 1635. More information on Hooke on Wikipedia