Universal joint, lens grinder, balance-spring mechanism, St Paul's...

September 26, 2003

Iyes, but what else did Robert Hooke ever do for us? Lisa Jardine recalls a forgotten genius.

Robert Hooke was a brilliant man in a brilliant European generation. It was Hooke who, in a letter to Isaac Newton, first proposed the inverse square law of gravitational attraction, and who played a crucial part in discovering the law of expansion of gases that we know as Boyle's law (as well as the law of elasticity still known as Hooke's law).

Hooke, who lived from 1635 to 1703, devised the balance-spring mechanism to drive an accurate pocket watch and perfected the universal joint still used for the drive-shafts of cars.

Hooke's prototype lens-grinding machine and his technical components for telescope and microscope-manufacture and operation were a vital part of the experimental foundation for the European scientific revolution. It was Hooke's groundbreaking structural engineering that allowed Wren to achieve his architecturally innovative design for the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, Hooke who laid out the street-plan for London's rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1666 and to whom the design of several notable City churches can today confidently be attributed. He was, in other words, an extraordinary polymath, an original scientific thinker, an outstandingly adept experimentalist, an architect, surveyor and instrument designer of note.

So why are his contemporaries and colleagues Newton, Christopher Wren, Edmond Halley and Robert Boyle remembered while Hooke is largely forgotten?

The story used to be that it was Hooke's unfortunate temperament that deprived him of the admiration of posterity. He was, we were told, cantankerous and quarrelsome, foolishly inclined to claim priority for ideas generally "in the air", and without the social ease that gains clever men the respect of their contemporaries. There has also been a long-standing suggestion that the fundamental problem was Hooke's class - he was not born a gentlemen.

Neither of these proposed explanations will do. It is difficult to find an early European scientist who was not absurdly competitive and litigious where new discoveries were concerned. Even the famously even-tempered Wren was roused to indignation when Sir William Petty claimed the invention of an automated seed-drill, developed for agricultural use by the young Wren, as his own. Newton was notoriously obsessive about priority, while on the Continent, the astronomer Johannes Hevelius, the mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and the gifted experimentalist Christiaan Huygens engaged in bitter disputes with fellow scientists over discoveries and inventions.

As for the suggestion that Hooke's menial origins were his downfall, this is ill-founded. His father was a respectable clergyman on the Isle of Wight, where the Hookes were close to the island's leading families; later, Hooke was on easy terms with the governor and owned significant properties on the island. Hooke's education at Westminister School under the great headmaster Dr Busby ensured his belonging thereafter to the ranks of the well-connected and influential. Hooke's patrons and mentors included some of the most powerful and well-regarded men of his day - Bishop John Wilkins, Boyle and Wren. In the period following the Great Fire, Hooke, as city surveyor, achieved a position of civic prominence and respect among members of the Corporation of London; as a result of his inventions in clocks and watches, he was regularly admitted into the company of Charles II and his brother the duke of York (later James II) - both horological enthusiasts. In his prime, Hooke was - judging from the entries in his diary recording purchases of fashionable clothing and general care with his appearance - something of a dandy. He was gregarious and well liked, circulating on a daily basis between the most fashionable and exclusive coffee houses in the City, and dining at the very best tables, including the notable salon of Boyle's sister, Lady Ranelagh. Newton, by contrast, came of modest country stock with few elite connections and was notoriously difficult and reclusive for much of his life.

To understand Hooke's curiously faltering posthumous reputation, we need to look at the pattern of his early career. Hooke's misfortune, it seems, had to do with his genius being multifaceted - he was gifted, and his talents recognised, in too many distinct intellectual and practical domains.

Hooke's first serious employer, the scientific virtuoso Robert Boyle, seventh son of the earl of Cork and a man of independent means, was a full-time intellectual and experimentalist. He kept his young assistant hard at it in his laboratories in Oxford and London, as well as expecting him to act as amanuensis and general factotum.

In 1662, while Hooke was still in his 20s, fellow chemical enthusiast Sir Robert Moray volunteered Hooke as the first curator of experiments at the newly founded Royal Society. For the next four years, Hooke juggled his still onerous duties for Boyle with a demanding weekly schedule of experiments designed and conducted for the fellows of the Royal Society at their regular meetings. Hooke was also in charge of the society's fast-growing collection of rarities and curiosities, the "Repository", whose contents later went to form part of the British Museum's foundation collections.

Then, in the autumn of 1666, the Great Fire catapulted Hooke into a further set of obligations. He was appointed city surveyor by the Corporation of London, and for the next ten years was one of a small team that carried out a gruelling programme of measured surveys of properties destroyed by the fire, determining property boundaries, negotiating transfers of land required for street-widening and improvements, and arbitrating in disputes between property-owners.

This was a full-time job in itself, yet Hooke continued with his Royal Society duties, including several extended periods of astronomical observation using telescopes he had installed at his Gresham College residence, and delivering weekly lectures on the "history of trades", open to the general public.

From the late 1660s onwards, Hooke also undertook salaried employment with his close friend Wren, the royal surveyor responsible for the king's interests in the rebuilding of London. As chief officer to the Wren architectural office, Hooke carried a burden of responsibilities as heavy and varied as that for the Royal Society. He was site architect for many of the Wren churches; he ran the engineering side of the office and the quantity surveying activities. At the height of the rebuilding of London, he and Wren met at least once a day and sometimes more. Hooke did not finally relinquish his responsibilities for Wren until the early 1690s.

To understand the implications of these many daily obligations for Hooke's standing and long-term reputation, it is instructive to look across the English Channel at the career of Hooke's contemporary and rival, the Dutch virtuoso Huygens. He was the son of the Dutch diplomat Sir Constantijn Huygens (knighted in London by James I). Recognised in childhood as a scientific prodigy (as was Hooke), Christiaan's father secured a position for him in Paris in the 1660s, in the new Academie des Sciences, with a substantial annual salary from the French king. Thereafter he was able to devote himself to exactly the same range of scientific activities as Hooke, unencumbered by financial worries or conflicts of time and interest.

On a number of occasions, Huygens and Hooke came into conflict over priority claims for important scientific inventions - notably, both claimed to have developed efficient vacuum pumps, both produced prototype machines for grinding accurate lenses, and both claimed to have perfected the balance-spring mechanism for a precision watch. Each time this happened, Huygens was able to turn his efforts singlemindedly to justifying the superiority of his own invention, while Hooke found himself prevented from giving adequate attention to the matter because of competing demands on his time and ingenuity. In the case of the balance-spring watch, Hooke lost a clear lead over Huygens in the race to produce a satisfactory working prototype in the summer of 1665 when, while Huygens worked with Paris clock-makers to correct deficiencies in their model, Hooke was obliged to work on a series of experiments on fluid density for Boyle, calculations for the trajectory of the 1664 comet for Moray, and experiments with new carriage designs, air pumps and quadrants for the Royal Society. Hardly surprisingly, he fell behind Huygens, who subsequently claimed a patent for the manufacture of balance-spring watches according to his own design, in both Paris and London.

"Many other things I long to be at, but I do extremely want time," Hooke wrote to Boyle in 1667. He was 32 years old and at the peak of his powers.

By the time of his death, he was a wealthy man, recognised across Europe for his theoretical and practical contributions to the new science, and honoured by the City of London for his part in its restoration. But in the cutthroat competition between individual scientists to solve the most significant problems of the day, and between inventors and instrument designers to win the race to produce satisfactory working prototypes, Hooke was regularly pushed out of first place. The irony is that Robert Hooke was, in the end, apparently too good at too many things for his reputation to stand the test of time.

Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary and an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge. Her book The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man who Measured London is published by HarperCollins, £25.00.

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
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments