Robert Hooke’s Cell Theory Explained


In the mid-1600s, one group of scientists was peering into the night sky, hoping to unlock the secrets of the universe. There was another group of scientists, including Robert Hooke, who were peering into microscopes to observe the micro-world that thrived all around us. At just 26 years of age, Hooke took an assigned from Sir Christopher Wren, who had been commissioned to conduct a series of studies using the microscope.

Robert Hooke would then make critical observations about the micro-world while using the microscope. Hooke was also quite proficient in the arts, which allowed him to create drawings and illustrate the mechanics of what he saw through the microscope. This combination of skills would eventually lead to the publication of Robert Hooke’s cell theory.

Who Was Robert Hooke?

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 and was a homeschooled, self-taught scientist. His life is unique because there are three distinct phases of it. When he was a young scientific enquirer, he was often quite broke. After publishing his findings about the cell and other theories in his best-selling work called Micrographia, he became quite wealthy and achieved great standing within the scientific community.

Then, near the end of his life, he became ill routinely and would often engage in intellectual disputes due to his jealousy.

We know Robert Hooke’s cell theory, but Hooke also believed that he should have received at least partial credit for work on gravity, which has been attributed to Isaac Newton. Hooke also believed that others had leaked his own works and ideas to others before they were ready for publication, which robbed him of the credit he felt that he deserved.

Because of these disputes and the fact that Isaac Newton was President of the Royal Society at the time, Hooke’s accomplishments were often buried or destroyed. Until fairly recently, most studies about the cell and science didn’t even reference Hooke, preferring the discovery to be given to Christopher Wren instead.

The Cell Was Discovered in 1665 by Robert Hooke

Under the commission that Hooke was working on, he was looking at insects through the microscope. Encouraged by his discoveries and the ingenuity to add multiple sources of light to his specimens, Hooke was able to see items in great detail under higher levels of magnification than others could with their microscopes. His findings created a lot of personal excitement, so Hooke would often go beyond his commission.

He’d look at whatever he could get his hands on underneath the lens of the microscope. Fabrics, glass, flint, leaves – you name it and Hooke looked at it. He even spent time looking at frozen urine just to see what was there. His most profound discoveries would come, however, when he placed a slice of cork underneath the lens.

When Hooke looked at the thin cutting of cork, he discovered that there were empty spaces that could be seen. These empty spaces were contained by walls. Hooke would call these spaces cells, which was a term that would stick. He even attempted to calculate the number of cells that could be seen in a cubic inch, which came to a number greater than 1.2 billion.

What Was Lacking from Robert Hooke’s Cell Theory?

Robert Hooke might have discovered cells while being paid by the government to look through a microscope, but the actual anatomy of a cell had yet to be discovered. According to Hooke, a cell was simply an empty space that was protected by walls. He realized that cells were likely found in all matter, but he didn’t know anything about their functions or structure.

Because of this, Hooke often preferred to resort to experimentation instead of research. When publishing his cell theory, Hooke also included ideas about combustion. His experiments had led him to believe that combustion involves a substance that was mixed with air. It’s something we know to be true because oxygen is a component to combustion. It was not really understood in the 1600s, however, so the experimentation was abandoned because more research was required.

Some believe that if Hooke had stuck to his research and then continued his experiments with combustion, his knowledge of the micro-world would have likely led to the discovery of oxygen. The oxygen molecule would not be discovered until 1773 – more than a century after Hooke’s initial work in Micrographia.

Why Is Robert Hooke’s Cell Theory Not Always Taken Seriously?

Robert Hooke often published multiple theories in different scientific disciplines at the same time. In the pages of Micrographia, you can find Robert Hooke’s cell theory. He will also find references to the spectrum of color. Hooke also speculates about the molecular causes of fire. There are observations about the crystal structures of objects.

And, because of the initial commission that got him looking into a microscope in the first place, Hooke included information about the anatomy of insects as well.

In many ways, Hooke provided an initial insight into a scientific idea or concept. He would then move to the next idea or concept instead of pursuing that first thought. This is why Hooke is often given credit within cell theory as the person who “invented” the term “cell,” but not the actual theories behind what cells do.

Over the span of his life, Hooke would delve into astronomy and physics, in addition to biology.

Paleontology and Robert Hooke’s Cell Theory

Another notable component of Robert Hooke’s cell theory is the initial paleontological observations that he was able to make. In his efforts to look at everything he could underneath the microscope, Hooke got his hands on some fossilized wood. When he compared the structures of the fossil wood to the structures of ordinary wood, he was able to make a profound discovery.

Hooke concluded that fossilized objects, including fossil shells, had to be the remains of a living thing that had been preserved through mineralization. This led Hooke to believe that fossils could provide scientists with clues that were reliable with their information, potentially unlocking the history of life on our planet.

Hooke’s work on Paleontology while developing his cell theory often brought about the highest levels of criticism. Many naturalists of the time believed that extinction was something that was not theologically supported by modern religion. Despite the objections, the study of paleontology is directly associated to Hooke’s cell theory and is generally accepted by the scientific community today.

Human Memory and Robert Hooke’s Cell Theory

One of the most unique contributions that Robert Hooke made to the scientific community occurred later on in his life. In 11682, Hooke offered a lecture were he proposed that human memory was mechanical in nature, potentially powered by the very cells that he had discovered during his younger days of looking through the microscope. At the time, the concepts of memory were considered philosophical in nature and could not be measured in a scientific way.

Hooke used his previous theories to address several components of memory, including capacity, repetition, encoding, and retrieval. Many of his thoughts were very accurate and predated what we would consider to be a modern idea of human memory by 250 years.

Hooke made these key points during his lecture and within his scientific model of human memory.

  • Top-down influences, including an individual’s attention, have an effect on the memory encoding process.
  • Memory uses resonance to create parallels, allowing for cues to create the potential for memory retrieval.
  • Recent encoding makes it possible for recent memories to be easier to access than long-term memories.
  • Repetition and priming create the conditions necessary for specific memories to have a higher recall priority than other memories.

The actual theory would not be published until 1705 and it faced the same issues that his cell theory faced. Because Hooke was often all over the place when it came to theorization, it was difficult to pull out the specific observations that could change the scientific community. His theories of human memory were published with a series of works that Hooke produced on the nature of light.

What Can We Learn from Robert Hooke?

Robert Hooke always applied the scientific method to his observations, no matter what it may have been that he was studying. His most important publication was Micrographia, but he would continue his studies until the last few months before his death. He described everything from feathers to snowflakes and everything in-between.

Hooke’s career was often sidetracked because of arguments, but he also supported his community in many different ways. In 1666, when the Great Fire of London occurred, he suspended his studies and worked with Christopher Wren to survey the city. He helped to design new streets through this survey work, helping to restore the city to its previous grandeur before returning to his work.

Robert Hooke’s cell theory provides us the foundation of our understanding of the micro-world. It may only be a simple idea, but it is one that has helped to change how we approach the universe scientifically.