Hooke memorial window, St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, City of London.
Robert Hooke was born at Freshwater, Isle of Wight, son of John Hooke, curate at All Saints' Church. The church stands at the end of what is now Hooke Road, which also has the Hooke Museum. Robert Hooke was one of the most brilliant and versatile of seventeenth-century English scientists, but he is also one of the lesser known; his persona and his contributions are far outweighed in public perception by those of Newton and of Wren. This is unfair.
No likeness exists of Robert Hooke. The picture at left is formulaic; it was the commemorative window in St Helen's Bishopsgate, lost in the IRA Bishopsgate bombing. Hooke was origianlly buried there, but his bones were moved to 'somewhere in North London' in the 19th century, so his final burial place is unknown.
He is described by two people. Firstly his friend John Aubrey, on Hooke in middle life:
'He is but of midling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is lardge, his eie full and popping, and not quick; a grey eie. He haz a delicate head of haire, browne, and of an excellent moist curle. He is and ever was temperate and moderate in dyet, etc.'
Richard Waller knew the elderly Hooke, embittered by his controversies with Christiaan Huyghens and his feeling that he had been cheated by Newton:
'As to his person he was but despicable, being very crooked, tho' I have heard from himself, and others, that he was strait till about 16 Years of Age when he first grew awry, by frequent practicing, with a Turn-Lath . . . He was always very pale and lean, and laterly nothing but Skin and Bone, with a meagre aspect, his eyes grey and full, with a sharp ingenious Look whilst younger; his nose but thin, of a moderate height and length; his mouth meanly wise, and upper lip thin; his chin sharp, and Forehead large; his Head of a middle size. He wore his own hair of a dark Brown colour, very long and hanging neglected over his Face uncut and lank....'
This is not a flattering description; even Aubrey's is hardly complimentary.
Hooke came to Westminster School during the first decade of Dr Busby's 55 year incumbency as Head Master. He remained on good terms with Busby, indeed the only remaining building that is certainly Hooke's architecture alone is the parish church at Willen, in Buckinghamshire, which was Busby's living. At Westminster Hooke was said to have acquired mastery of ancient languages, learned to play the organ, 'contrived severall ways of flying', and mastered the first six books of Euclid's Elements in a week.
Hooke acquired a place as chorister at Christ Church Oxford, leaving Westminster in 1653. The chorister role may have been simply that Hooke received a modest endowment, since the Anglican Church was abolished between 1643 and 1660. In Oxford Hooke met those who would go on to form the Royal Society, and where he was encouraged in a wide variety of scientific endeavours. In 1658 he became assistant to Robert Boyle, where his mechanical skills were of use especially in the construction of the improved version of the air pump of Otto Guericke described in Boyle's New Experiments PhysicoMechanicall (1660). In 1662 Hooke was appointed Curator of Experiments to the newly founded Royal Society, being responsible for the experiments performed at its weekly meetings. This role was as that of an employee, not at that time as an equal to the Fellows. As Curator he had rooms in Gresham College, where in 1665 he was appointed Professor of Geometry and carried out astronomical observations, and was also elected FRS. In 1677 he became one of the Secretaries to the Royal Society.
Robert Hooke's researches over nearly 40 years covered a wide variety of Natural Philosophy. Hooke suggested a wave theory of light in his Micrographia (1665), comparing the spreading of light vibrations to that of waves in water. He suggested in 1672 that the vibrations in light might be perpendicular to the direction of propagation. He investigated the colours of membranes and of thin plates of mica, and established the variation of the light pattern with the thickness of the plates.
Micrographia was a series of observations made with the aid of magnifying lenses; some of these on very small things, some on astronomical bodies. Hooke's image of a flea is famous; perhaps less well-known is his invention of the term 'cell' in a biological context as a result of his studies of cork. Micrographia includes a series of observations of lunar craters, and speculation as to the origin of these features.
Hooke is best known to those who study elementary Physics through Hooke's Law: Ut tensio, sic vis. The extension of a spring is proportional to the weight hanging from it; this work sprang from Hooke's interest in flight and the spring or elasticity of air. This work appeared in De Potentia Restitutiva in 1678. His interest in gases and their properties also found expression in his work on respiration; one experiment had him in a sealed vessel, from which the air was gradually pumped. He did not emerge from this experiment without some damage to his ears and nose.
In his Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth (1674), he offered a theory of planetary motion based on the correct principle of inertia and a balance between an outward centrifugal force and an inward gravitational attraction to the Sun. In 1679, in a letter to Newton, he finally suggested that this attraction would vary inversely as the square of the distance from the Sun. Hooke's theory was qualitatively correct, but he did not have the mathematical ability to give it an exact, quantitative expression. Hooke's interests in gravity occupied his researches for over 20 years.
If Hooke's work in optics and gravitation was overshadowed by that of Newton, he was unsurpassed in the seventeenth century as an inventor and designer of scientific instruments. Thus among many other inventions he invented the spring control of the balance wheel in watches; the compound microscope; a wheel barometer; and the universal, or Hooke's, joint, found in all motor vehicles. He made important contributions to the design of astronomical instruments, being the first to insist on the importance of resolving power, and the advantage of using hair lines in place of silk or metal wire. He built the first reflecting telescope, observed the rotation of Mars, and noted one of the earliest examples of a double star.
The title page of Micrographia
Robert Hooke is less well known as an important architect. He was appointed by the City of London as Surveyor following the Great Fire of 1666. This tested not only his architectural skills, but his administrative ones as well. Hooke designed many London buildings, but Victorian redevelopment and 20th century war have taken their toll. The Royal College of Physicians building (1679) is no more, and of the Bethlehem Hospital, or 'Bedlam', only the statues Raving Mania and Melancholy Mania survive in the Victoria and Albert Museum. He worked with Sir Christopher Wren (also an Old Westminster) on the design of The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and The Monument (to The Great Fire) in Fish Hill Street. Of Hooke's buildings outside London, the church at Willen in Buckinghamshire survives, as does Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. Neither is in original Hooke condition.
Hooke's reputation suffered during his lifetime and beyond from his many controversies with other scientists over questions of priority, such as that with Christiaan Huyghens over the spring regulator. Those with Newton, first over optics (1672) and secondly over priority in the formulation of the inverse square law of gravitation (1686), were more serious, especially given the prominence of both men in the Royal Society.
From 1696 Hooke's health deteriorated, and he suffered from swollen legs, chest pains, dizziness, emaciation, blindness - symptoms possibly of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. He died intestate on 3rd March 1703, in London, leaving £9580 and a small property on the Isle of Wight.
I am indebted for the above principally to Williams (ed), Collins Biographical Dictionary of Scientists: HarperCollins 1994; and to the marvellous lecture and article by Allan Chapman (Wadham College, Oxford): 'England's Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the art of experiment in Restoration England'. Proceedings of the Royal Institution, 67, 239-275, 1996. Dr Chapman also gave his lecture as the 1996 Henry Tizard Memorial Lecture at Westminster School.
The image of the Hooke memorial window in St Helen's Bishopsgate was given to me by the Curator of the Hooke Museum in Freshwater.
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