Mechanics of an ideas man

London's Leonardo

May 2, 2003

Jacques Heyman measures the inventions of a kaleidoscopic talent.

Robert Hooke died in March 1703. In his lifetime, Hooke was totally overshadowed by Newton as a mathematician and, as an architect, by Wren.

And this, in the final analysis, was a just assessment with regard to both Newton and Wren. But the fact remains that Hooke was an outstanding scientist, to whose energy the Royal Society owes its very existence; and he was an extremely competent architect, who did much after the great fire of London to mould the profession into its modern form. It is therefore right that this tercentenary year sees major Hookean activity. Stephen Inwood's biography of Hooke, The Man Who Knew Too Much, was published towards the end of last year, as was Lisa Jardine's On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren, which shines much light on Hooke. A conference sponsored by the Royal Society to be held in July will explore the extraordinary range of Hooke's interests.

London's Leonardo is a book of four essays, each dealing with a different aspect of Hooke. The material is, on the whole, not new, although Michael Cooper, covering Hooke's career, draws on his own research into Hooke's activities as surveyor to the City of London. However, each of the four authors gives a series of sharp images of Hooke's work and life.

Jardine, for example, uses Hooke's own writings and his published diaries to give a view of the man and his health. Hooke expended an enormous amount of energy on his range of activities, and from his late 20s until his death in his late 60s he was in a state of more or less constant ill health. His diaries record his insomnia and his compulsive self-dosing with new remedies designed to make himself feel better. His symptoms and the effects of the doses he was taking are recorded at length. For Hooke was making laboratory records of observations on his own body; whereas major items of everyday business were often recorded with single words, the medical observations were intended for future reference. Jardine makes it clear that by the time he was 65, Hooke was a physical wreck, almost certainly because of cumulative poisoning from his medicines. She paints a stark picture of his miserable last months as he lay rotting and lonely in his lodgings in Gresham College.

At about the age of 40, Hooke had published his "philosophy", which was not to concentrate on a "single Subject", "which would require the whole time and attention of a man's life", but rather "to be diligent in the enquiry of every thing we meet with. For we shall quickly find that the number of considerable Observations and Inventions this way collected, will a hundred fold out-strip those that are found by Design."

Michael Hunter, in his essay on Hooke as a natural philosopher, explores his scientific work, which was explicitly based on the view of Descartes, that the workings of the world could be explained in mechanistic terms.

Thus heat, for example, was to be explained as motion, and Hooke observed sparks struck from a flint. Throughout, Hooke insisted on experiment (the Baconian view that suffused the work of the Royal Society) and abjured mere hypothesis unsupported by observation, of which Descartes himself was sometimes guilty.

One famous set of Hooke's observations was published dramatically in Micrographia; the engraved plates of microscopic studies were so fine that they kept Pepys up all night (who was also given to self-medication). Hooke had developed the microscope, and was showing the Royal Society what could be done with it, but this was only one of his large number of "inventions".

Jim Bennett discusses some of these in his essay on Hooke's instruments. There is the air pump, for example, without which Boyle could not have made his experiments. The first edition of Boyle's Spring and Weight of the Air (1660) makes no mention of Hooke; laboratory assistants were not then acknowledged (but Hooke, later, always gave credit to his own assistants). The second edition (1662) does acknowledge Hooke, but it was too late; the law was already, as it has remained, "Boyle's law". This was an early example of Hooke's experimental genius, to be followed by the astonishing range of mechanical constructions, from the spring balance to regulate a watch, to the zenith telescope and the astronomical quadrant driven by clockwork (which incorporated his universal joint), to the compound microscope illustrated in Micrographia, complete with oil lamp and condensing lens. He hoped, modestly, that his "little Objects are to be compar'd to the greater and more beautiful Works of Nature, A Flea, a Mite, a Gnat, to a Horse, an Elephant, or a Lyon".

Micrographia was published in the plague year of 1665, just before the great fire, and represents Hooke's capacity "to concentrate on a single Subject", despite the duties entailed by his recent appointment by the Royal Society as curator of experiments, and the lectures he gave from 1665 as Gresham professor of geometry. Cooper traces Hooke's public career from these dates, and shows his increasing involvement with building and architecture in addition to his continued full-time occupation as a scientist. As surveyor for the City after the fire, his duties were concerned mainly with rebuilding. A little later he became assistant surveyor to Wren for the work on St Paul's Cathedral, and from that time almost every daily entry in his diary records a meeting with Wren - to discuss the latter's designs, or problems in the City, or Hooke's own projects. It was as if two architects were having partners' meetings, and "Wren, Hooke and Partners" may be called the first modern architectural practice.

Indeed, Wren and Hooke were the first modern architects in England (discounting the stage designer Inigo Jones). "Modern" in the sense that they were able and willing to design buildings without having been apprenticed to their profession. Before the great fire, the building trade was still medieval: a master mason, very often with his own quarry, would accept a design/build contract, working with his own men, some of whom would in turn become masters. The sheer volume of work in London from 1666 put an end to this, and it was these same master builders who were now employed as contractors to construct Wren and Hooke's designs. Recognisably modern forms of contract were devised, and the quantity surveyor emerged as a separate profession so that the work could be controlled. The old builders supplied the technical expertise, and here Hooke must have been invaluable to the "partnership"; as not quite a gentleman, he had the knack of talking to craftsmen, and his diaries record his encounters with a whole range of tradesmen (and his own contributions to new "industrial processes").

Wren, Hooke and Partners were responsible for much of the new building after the fire, and, as senior in the practice, Wren is credited with most of the designs. Of "Wren's" 56 churches, however, two were certainly entirely due to Hooke (St Benet's, Paul's Wharf and St Edmund the King), and another two were probably his. It is unfortunate that Hooke's known major buildings in London have all been destroyed or demolished. They included the great Bedlam Hospital (which was a tourist attraction for many years), Montagu House and the Royal College of Physicians. None of these designs, large as they were, needed any input from architectural science; just as Inigo Jones could translate his stage sets into brick and stone, so Wren and Hooke could confidently hand their designs to their "medieval" craftsmen. It is only when building structures are large that "science" is needed, as with the design of large-span masonry arches, and of the first domes to be built in England. Hooke (unequivocally Hooke) made two tremendous statements about these problems: that the shape of the two-dimensional arch should be that of an inverted hanging chain; and that the shape of a perfect dome should be that of a cubico-parabolical conoid.

Wren made a very late sketch of this curve for the dome of St Paul's, and the dome as built must therefore be credited to Hooke's science.

Partnerships, in science as well as architecture, can lead to disputes as to priority of discovery. Hooke's celebrated quarrels arose because others had (as Hooke thought) used his ideas in their own work. From being pleasant and open he became increasingly embittered and secretive, and his quarrel with Newton (and their mutual detestation) was settled only by Hooke's death. Newton had been for many years the clear choice for president of the Royal Society, but he accepted the position only in November 1703. Newton finally agreed that Hooke had published the idea of central attraction before the Principia Mathematica had appeared. But it is one thing to glimpse an idea, and another to prove that it is true. Newton had done the mathematics to explain planetary motion, a feat totally beyond Hooke. Hooke was an "ideas man", capable of intense bouts of study but also continually throwing off those dazzling series of "inventions" that others (before he became more circumspect) might be able to exploit in ways he could not.

The first full-length book on Hooke was by Margaret 'Espinasse, published in 1956, which covers an immense sweep in less than 200 pages, and the second was that by Inwood, referred to earlier. In between these two came Robert Hooke: New Studies, which presented nine contributions to Hooke's life and work, and a book by F. F. Centore, which explored Hooke's contributions to mechanics. There is still room for a biographer to do for Hooke what Richard Westfall did for Newton in his Never at Rest (1980). In the meantime, London's Leonardo provides some valuable critical commentaries as contributions towards a definitive Hooke biography. The volume is attractively produced, with good and plentiful illustrations, and the wide margins are used imaginatively for captions and running heads. The price is commendably low.

Jacques Heyman is emeritus professor of engineering, University of Cambridge.

London's Leonardo: The Life and Work of Robert Hooke

Author - Jim Bennett, Michael Cooper, Michael Hunter and Lisa Jardine
ISBN - 0 19 852579 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 224

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