Robert who? The prickly genius

The Man Who Knew Too Much
July 4, 2003

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. His start in life was not especially propitious as his father was by no means a wealthy man and died when Hooke was 13.

He was a sickly child and, although clearly talented as a draughtsman, he had to discontinue his pupilage under the painter Sir Peter Lily because of his various allergies.

Transferring to Westminster School under the great Dr Richard Busby, he seems to have shown considerable academic promise. His physical condition deteriorated, though, with the onset of curvature of his spine, which Stephen Inwood - author of this splendid and scholarly book - attributes to a condition now known as Scheuermann's kyphosis.

In 1653 he entered Christ Church, Oxford, and although he had to support himself as a chorister, soon made contact with Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, who introduced him to the new science. Hooke had found his calling and it was under the patronage of Boyle that he became an early example of a fully professional scientist. His career took off with his election as curator of experiments at the newly founded Royal Society in 1662. He was subsequently elected a fellow in 1663, and in 1665, after some controversy, was chosen to be the professor of geometry at Gresham College.

The breadth of Hooke's contributions to science is astonishing and covers mechanics, astronomy, microscopy, geology and optics. In terms of his wider influence, he was a major force behind the rebuilding of the City of London after the great fire of 1666.

Yet his contributions in most of these areas have been almost forgotten.

Most physicists, for example, can recall only Hooke's Law and are unaware of his contributions to the wave theory of light and the development of the theory of gravity. Indeed, Carlton House Terrace, the home of the Royal Society where I am writing this review, does not have a single portrait of Hooke even though he was elected secretary in succession to Henry Oldenburg in 1667, a position he held for 15 years (today secretaries serve for a maximum of five years).

In this major biography of Hooke, Inwood gives not just an account of Hooke's contributions to science, and especially the Royal Society, but also the inner contradictions of a complex man that led, as he himself feared, to his work being largely forgotten. Inwood explains that it was Wren's son who in effect airbrushed out Hooke in his biography of his father, Christopher. Far from being merely Wren's assistant, Hooke was his equal and actually designed and supervised the building of churches that today are routinely attributed to Wren. But Hooke could be very difficult and frequently accused the Royal Society of stealing his ideas. He also had a particular antipathy to Oldenburg, which led to conflicts with Christiaan Huygens and Isaac Newton, with serious consequences for Hooke. On more than one occasion he threatened to resign from the society and set up a rival organisation. All of these currents and counter-currents are captured by Inwood, who has made extensive use of Hooke's own diary as well as primary and secondary archival material. In some places, he is rather hard on Newton, describing him as "neurotic, self-centred, ambitious, intolerant, oversensitive, secretive, unforgiving and highly argumentative". But to maintain balance, he points out that these characteristics were, albeit in a somewhat attenuated form, those of Hooke himself.

Hooke did not marry, but we know from his diary that he was by no means celibate. Today his liaisons with servant girls and his niece would certainly merit severe criticism and possibly criminal proceedings. In Stuart times, such conduct seems to have been acceptable if probably obnoxious to the fastidious Newton. Is this why, one wonders, Newton, as president of the Royal Society, ensured Hooke's portrait was mysteriously lost when the society moved out of Gresham College to Arundel Court? For many years a rumour persisted that the "lost" portrait had been painted over, on Newton's instruction, with one of himself. Alas, a recent forensic investigation does not support this wonderful story, although there are three portraits of Newton in Carlton House Terrace, more than those for any other president.

This absorbing book illuminates the work of a great English scientist and gives the reader a lively and vivid account of life in Stuart London. From its coffee houses as places where intellectual and social gossip was exchanged and the chance meetings in the street of the great and the good, to the astonishing medications dished out by medical men to cure diseases from smallpox to "noises in the head", fevers, chills, insomnia and irregular bowel movement - a condition that seems to have troubled Hooke for most of his life.

The two great tragedies of the period, the plague and the Great Fire, actually helped Hooke further his reputation and personal wealth. The suspension by the Royal Society of its weekly meetings allowed him to pursue his own interests in things mechanical, and his subsequent appointment as City surveyor in 1667 firmly established him as a person of note and influence.

I wish The Man Who Knew Too Much the success it richly deserves as it helps to restore the balance between the legacy of the relatively unknown Hooke and that of his more famous contemporaries, Wren and Newton.

John Enderby is physical secretary, Royal Society.

The Man Who Knew Too Much: The Strange and Inventive Life of Robert Hooke 1635-1703

Author - Stephen Inwood
ISBN - 0 333 78286 0
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £18.99
Pages - 485

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments