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Origninal Source Material
Brief Lives (1669 - 1696) by John Aubrey
HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703)
The early years of Robert Hooke's life were spent in the town of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. His father, John Hooke was a curate and the trustee of one of the local schools. Robert Hooke was the youngest, by seven years, of the four Hooke children - two girls and two boys. By all accounts Robert was a sickly child and his poor health meant that he needed to be home schooled by his father. Robert was already showing a gift for mechanical engineering, even as a small boy. One of his constructions was a warship with cannon that actually fired! It may well have been because of his gift with his hands that, when his father died in 1648 leaving him around forty pounds, Robert Hooke was sent to London as an apprentice to the artist Peter Lely.
The apprenticeship was short lived, probably only a few months (according to an early biographer, Richard Waller, 'the smell of oil colours did not agree with his constitution, increasing his headache, to which he was ever too much subject'). In 1648 then thirteen years old, Robert Hooke found himself at Westminster School under the protection of the headmaster, Dr. Richard Busby. It is not known how this change in Hooke's circumstance came about although researchers suspect that there may have been a Royalist connection. England was in the grip of a civil war. Both John Hooke and Richard Busby were staunch Royalists, supporting the King Charles I. It might well have been this connection that secured Robert Hooke his place in Westminster School. In fact, there is evidence that Hooke never attended lessons but was tutored privately in Greek, Latin, mechanics and mathematics. In his own autobiography that he started a few years before his death, but never got around to completing, Hooke describes his time at Westminster as 'sweating over a lathe'.
In 1653, now eighteen years old, Hooke moved to Oxford to attend Christ Church College. Hooke entered the College as a servitor (a student who literally serves another, wealthier, student) to a Mr. Goodman. This was a way to enter university with reduced fees. Strangely enough, Hooke does not register as a student and he does not seem to have attended lectures. Quite soon after his arrival in Oxford he starts to work in a new laboratory that has been set up by a scientist named Thomas Willis. In his new laboratory, Willis was developing apparatus to use for experiments and Robert Hooke was a talented instrument maker. The laboratory team was very inventive; projects they worked on at this time included a 'flying machine' and a glass beehive!
Some researchers have suggested that Hooke was sent to Oxford for the purpose of becoming a laboratory assistant. John Aubrey in his Brief Lives indicates that John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham College, Oxford visited Westminster School and gave a copy of his book Mathematical Magick to the young Robert Hooke. Although Thomas Willis was a member of Christ Church College he was good friends with John Wilkins who, in turn, had a connection to Robert Boyle through the Philosophical College.
In 1655 Hooke, now twenty years old, is employed by Robert Boyle to assist him in his experiments. Hooke spends the next seven years with Boyle. Their collaboration is most famous for their experiments using a vacuum pump. The vacuum pump was a new invention by Otto von Guericke and Hooke was able to improve on von Guericke's previous design. These experiments on the properties of a vacuum and on air led to Boyle's law that states that the pressure of a fixed mass of gas at constant temperature is inversely proportional to its volume.
Through Boyle's recommendation Hooke was offered the post of Curator of Experiments at the newly formed Royal Society, a post he took up in 1662 and continued until his death. As Curator of Experiments Hooke produced experimental apparatus on a weekly basis, sometimes supporting his own lectures and at other times making apparatus to support the presentations of other members. He was not remunerated for this work for the first two years. Interestingly, Hooke never graduated from university but in 1663 he was awarded an honorary MA degree from Lord Clarendon the Chancellor of Oxford University (in June of the same year Hooke was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society) . This was probably organized by Hooke's friends in the Royal Society since possessing a degree promoted Hooke to the status of gentleman and gave him employment opportunities. The Royal Society, having gained its royal charter in 1662, was now able to pay Hooke for his work. In fact, Hooke was not only paid £30 per year as Curator of Experiments - he took up another position, as Cutlerian Lecturer in the Mechanical Arts that came with a salary of £50 per year (although this salary was not paid as promised and Hooke was forced to take Cutler to court. The court ruling, in Hooke's favour, was not settled until 1696!)
A sample of a page from Robert Hooke's diary
In 1665 Hooke accepted the position of Professor of Geometry at Gresham College. This post included a set of rooms at the college where Hooke lived for the rest of his life. His new position meant that he was not allowed to marry but his niece, Grace Hooke, moved in with him as his housekeeper. (Hooke was devastated by her death in 1687 and it reportedly changed is demenour and affected his health.) The Great Fire of London occurred in 1666 and Sir Christopher Wren employed Hooke as one of the principal architects working on the rebuilding of the city. The fire had left an estimated 65000 people homeless and Hooke took charge of half of the surveys that were carried out. It is interesting that Hooke proposed a grid system for the streets but he was over-ruled by Wren who chose to maintain the original street plan.
If Hooke had kept himself busy with his research before 1666 then he was really stretching himself after the Great Fire. He had four salaried jobs - Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, Cutlerian Lecturer, Professor of Geometry at Gresham College and architect working on the rebuilding of London. Somehow he also finds time to act as secretary for the Royal Society from 1677 to 1682. Although he was now wealthy compared to his situation during his early career, Hooke did not change his looks or his habits. When he died in 1703 he had over £9500 in a chest under his bed!
The information to the left on this page lists just some of the research Robert Hooke was involved with. This list is by no means exhaustive! In fact, Hooke was always juggling many projects at the same time. He was often too busy to apply for patents to protect his intellectual property, or perhaps he did not have the funds early on in his career. This led to (often acrimonious) disagreements with other researchers about who had the original ideas. Sometimes it was a question of acknowledging, in print, the insight that Hooke considered that he provided that helped towards an outcome - this was the case in the main dispute between Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.
The two scientists first disagreed about how different colored light is produced when white light is refracted through a prism. In 1672 Newton presented a paper on the refraction of light through a prism. Hooke's hypothesis was that the prism changes the white light as it enters the new medium which forms the different colours. Newton argued that white light is itself made on different colours that are separated by the prism. They also disagreed on the nature of light. Newton believed that light was composed of particles (corpuscles) whereas Hooke postulated that light consisted of waves.
The two men did not speak to each other for a number of years after this exchange. In 1679 Hooke, then secretary of the Royal Society, wrote to Newton to ask him about his thoughts on gravity. During an exchange of letters, Hooke probably (and inadvertently) provided the link that allowed Newton to work out the inverse square law of gravity. Hooke was furious when Newton did not acknowledge him when Newton's work 'Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica' was published in 1687. In fact, Hooke was convinced that he had already hypothesized the inverse square law. Unfortunately for Hooke, Newton was the better mathematician and was able to provide the mathematical proof to support his work. This disagreement affected Newton to the extent that he did not publish his work on optics until the year after Hooke died. It is also suspected that Newton, as President of the Royal Society after Hooke's death, suppressed Hooke's work and may have even 'lost' the only portrait of his nemesis (if a portrait ever existed).
In his Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke published in 1705 the then secretary of the Royal Society, Richard Waller, describes Hooke as follows:
'As to his person, he was despicable, being very crooked, though I have heard himself, and others, say that he was straight until about 16 years of age when he first grew awry, by frequent practicing, turning with a turn-lath, and the like incurvating exercises, being but of a thin weak habit of body, which increased as he grew older, so as to be very remarkable at (the) last: This made him but low of stature, though by his limbs he should have been moderately tall. 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 wide, and upper lip thin; his chin sharp, and forehead large; His head of middle size; He wore his own hair of a dark brown colour, very long and hanging neglected over his face uncut and lank, which about three years before his death he cut off and wore a periwig. He went stooping and very fast (till his weakness a few years before his death hindered him) having but a light body to carry, and a great deal of spirits and activity, especially in his youth.'
Some researchers believe that Newton's famous sentence 'If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants' penned in a letter to Hooke in 1676 was, in fact, a hurtful insult to Hooke (bearing in mind Waller's description).
Hooke's minutes from the Royal Society meeting 31st October 1678
Robert Hooke's health started to deteriorate in 1696. Richard Waller gives a graphic description of Hooke's decline:
'He had for several years been often taken with a giddiness in his head, and sometimes in great pain, little appetite, and a great faintness, that he was soon very much tired with walking, or any exercise. About July 1697 he began to complain of the swelling and soreness of his legs, and was much over-run with the scurvy, and about the same time being taken with giddiness he fell down stairs and cut his head, bruised his shoulder, and hurt his ribs, of which he complained often to the last. About September he thought himself (as indeed all others did that saw him) that he could not last out a month. About which time his legs swelled more and more, and not long after broke, and for want of due care mortified a little before his death. From this time he grew blinder and blinder, that at last he could neither see to read nor write. Some of the last he wrote, I believe was on 17th Dec 1702 when he sets down a memorandum about an instrument to take the horizontal diameter of the sun to the tenth of a second minute, but discovers not the way.
Thus he lived a dying life for a considerable time, being more than a year very infirm, and such as might be called bed-rid for the greatest part, though indeed he seldom all the time went to bed but kept in his clothes, and when over tired, lay down upon his bed in them, which doubtless brought several inconveniences upon him, so that at last his distempers of shortness of breath, swelling, partly of his body, but mostly of his legs, increasing and at last mortifying, as was observed after his death by their looking very black, being emaciated to the utmost, his strength wholly worn out, he died on the third of March 1703 being 67 years, 7 months and 13 days old'
His reported symptoms and illness would indicate that he suffered from poor circulation and diabetes. He was buried in the crypt of St Helen's Church in Bishopsgate. Waller reports: His corps was decently and handsomely interred in the church of St. Hellen in London, all the members of the Royal Society then in town, attending his body to the grave, paying the respect due to his extraordinary merit.
In 1891 the crypt of St Helen's Church was opened because the nave pavement was to be re-laid. It was reported at the time that the remains of those interred in the crypt were mixed up and that there was an awful odour of decay. They were able to identify ten of the bodies but these did not include the body of Robert Hooke. His remains, along with many others, were placed in a mass grave in the City of London cemetery.
In 2001 the Telegraph newspaper reported that researchers from Gresham College and City University were trying to locate Hooke's grave in time for the tercentenary of his death in 2003 but there is no evidence that this quest was successful. There are memorials to Robert Hooke in Westminster Abbey, at the Monument to the Great Fire of London and in St Paul's Cathedral.
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