Book Review: Benjamin Martin’s Micrographia Nova

When Benjamin Martin’s Micrographia Nova appeared in 1742, he was still an itinerant lecturer, and the book was published in Reading.

The early 1740s saw rising interest in microscopes and their use as a means of enhancing optical perception and there was an accompanying flurry of publications explaining their uses to readers and, importantly, trying to drum up sales. This was certainly the purpose of Martin’s treatise. Martin’s book contained two large plates illustrating the two types of microscope he had designed with detailed comments on their parts and usage. This portion of the book reads like an instruction manual. Oddly, the plates were engraved by Emanuel Bowen, much better known as a mapmaker.

Martin then has a section of exaggerated computation to impress upon the reader the ‘extreme minuteness of visible Animalculae’ that can be observed with the microscope. The rest of the treatise, some 40 pages or so, is devoted to a catalogue of objects worth looking at under a microscope. The catalog is impressive in its span and its testimony to Martin’s experience with the microscope if, indeed, he had observed all the items he lists, but it is short on significance. He opens with “Human hair; its bulbous Root; its long small Cylindric Form; the Substance, if black, opake; otherwise, transparent” and proceeds through parts of bodies, both human and animal with separate chapters for birds, fish, insects, and reptiles and serpents before tuning to plants and miscellaneous objects.

Martin’s descriptions can be quite vivid and colourful. Here he is on mould:

If that which we call the Vinew or Mould of any Subject be view’d, it will discover a most beautiful Scene of Vegetation of a peculiar kind; there you will discover Fields of standing Corn, i.e. Stamina, with globular Apices; and various other Plants sui Generis; and you will not rarely find those Fields and Meadows stocked with a Sort of nimble small Cattle and Herds, which skip sportively over the Lawns. You will also see their various Pursuits, Contests, and horrid Attacks and Engagements; with divers other diverting Incidents among the Inhabitants of this Terra invisa, or invisible Land.

If that isn’t enough to get you excited, Martin would have you look at snails:

Their Shells are many of them beautifully embellish’d and variegated with Colours, and curiously wrought. The Eyes of Snails are a remarkable Oddity, they are seated on the tops of their large Horns, by which means they can be drawn into the Head or thrust out at Pleasure. Their Teeth are another Microscopic Object, and it is very pretty to see ’em feed on Leaves, &c with this Instrument. This Animal is Hermaphrodite, and the parts of Generation are in the Neck, which in Coitu are easily examined by the Microscope. The Eggs of Snails are round and white, and, when hatch’d, the young tender Brood make a very pretty Scene in the Microscopic Theatre.

It is clear from the many descriptions he gives, that his aim is to encourage amateurs to explore the natural world, to revel in its complexity and to marvel at the previously hidden delights opened up by the new instrument. He does not view the microscope as a research tool. In this he is just reflecting what he does in his lectures – to instruct and delight the wealthier classes. As he says in his Preface, “I have oftentimes been requested by Gentlemen to give a Catalogue of Microscopic Objects, which I have here done, and I presume so compleat, that scarce any extraordinary Phaenomenon, which requires the Use of this Instrument, and within the Reach of a Person in private Life, will be found wanting in it”. The engraving of the microscope carries the note: “These Microscopes are Sold by J. Newbery Bookseller in Reading Berks”, emphasizing the commercial nature of the enterprise.

Of all the objects to be viewed under the microscope, Martin reserves his most fulsome praise for:

THE SEMEN; the infinitely small and numerous Animalculae in all Male Sperm are the most astonishing Spectacle, and as yet the highest Attainment of the Microscope; you cannot fail of seeing Millions of these in the smallest Quantity of the human Semen, if laid under the Microscope while warm, and view’s with the greatest Magnifier, and most strongly illuminated, by the Sun’s Light refracted and reflected upon it.

You can get your copy here.

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One thought on “Book Review: Benjamin Martin’s Micrographia Nova

  1. Pingback: Henry Baker | Kirby and his world

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