Today I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Hooke who was born on this day in 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. He was a sickly child, though I haven’t been able to find out what the problem was. He was also the sort of child who loved to take things apart to see how they worked. He was also pretty good at drawing and used to make his own drawing materials from chalk, coal and iron ore. His father expected him to find work as a clockmaker or an illustrator of manuscripts.
He studied at Westminster School and afterwards at Christ Church College, Oxford. He quickly discovered his lifelong love for mechanics, he really enjoyed building things. At Oxford, around 1665, he became assistant to Robert Boyle, refining the equipment that he used for his experiments.
To put him in some sort of historical perspective King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and his successor, Oliver Cromwell, was not keen on scientific research. He didn’t like anything very much, except God, the Bible and being very serious. Hooke became part of a small group of people who were trying to keep alive the spirit of scientific enquiry. They may or may not have called themselves the Invisible College. I hope they did, because it’s a great name. Then in 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king. He was a much more enlightened person, as we have discussed before when we’ve talked about theatre. Under his reign Hooke and his circle formed the nucleus of the newly formed Royal Society.
Hooke’s role in the Society was as Curator of Experiments, which meant the when he or anyone else came up with a theory, he would design an experiment to test it. He must have learned loads of different things from this work but it led to his tendency to claim credit for other people’s ideas. Not that he didn’t have plenty of his own. He invented the anchor escapement, which regulates the movement of a pendulum clock and the balance spring inside a watch. He improved the design of the microscope to make it easier to focus and also introduced a way of lighting the specimen being examined. Through it he observed a microscopic structure inside plants which he named ‘cells’ because they reminded him of the cells in a honeycomb. He also observed the same structure in fossil samples and was able to conclude that they were once living things.
In 1665 he wrote a book called Micrographia. It was the first book to be published by the Royal Society. It contained loads of detailed drawings of things that he had observed through his microscope. It was a hugely important book because it revealed a world that nobody knew existed. It was also the first scientific best seller. Samuel Pepys said it was “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.” The drawings are pretty amazing and Hooke drew them all himself.
He was a busy man, his work at the Royal Society was not his only job. He was also Surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to Christopher Wren. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, he seems to have been responsible for surveying more than half the buildings damaged by the fire. He also had a hand in the design of the Greenwich Observatory, Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Unfortunately, in later life he grew rather bad tempered and fell out with a lot of people. There was an argument about who invented the watch spring between himself and Christiaan Huygens which raged on long after the death of both of them. Probably his most famous falling out was with Isaac Newton and it was over who had come up with a theory about gravity. The two men just didn’t get on at all, Newton was a single minded sort of a fellow whereas Hooke had a much more creative approach and his ideas were all over the place. It was probably his irascible nature that is the reason we have no real idea what he looked like. There must have been paintings of him, but no one bothered to keep them. The Royal Society certainly had one but it mysteriously went missing after Isaac Newton was appointed President of the Royal Society.
Apologies for such a long post. Thank you for bearing with me. I can’t show you a picture of him, so here are some of his lovely illustrations instead. Also, as you’ve read this far I’m going to reward you by telling you that in Hooke’s personal diaries he often inserted a special symbol that recorded every time he had an orgasm.