Robert Hooke was one of the greatest inventors of the seventeenth
century. Hooke’s interests knew no bounds. He made important
contributions in many areas namely astronomy, optics, mechanics,
geography, geology, architecture, materials, clock-making, naval
technology, chemistry, microbiology and palaentology. He correctly
formulated the theory of elasticity, the kinetic hypothesis of gases
and the nature of combustion. His mechanical skill was unparalleled.
He was unsurpassed in the seventeenth century as an inventor and
designer of scientific instruments. It was Hooke, who first introduced
the use of balance spring for the regulation of watches. He also
made improvements in pendulum clocks and invented a machine for
cutting the teeth of watch wheels. He greatly improved the microscope,
telescope and the barometer. He invented a revolving drum recorder
for pressure and temperature and a universal joint. His other inventions
included an odometer, an ‘otocousticon’ as an aid to
hearing, a reflecting quadrant, a land carriage, a diving bell and
a method of telegraphy. He ascertained the number of vibrations
corresponding to musical notes.. He anticipated the method for showing
nodal lines in vibrating surfaces, the motion of the Sun among stars,
correct notions as to the nature of fossils and the succession of
living things on Earth. He published his extraordinary book Micrographia
in 1665, which proved to be major milestone in the history of science.
Hooke was the first meteorologist to keep records. He was also first
to use freezing water as zero. Hooke was first to suggest that in
general all matter expands on heating and that the air is made up
of particles separated from each other by relatively large distances.
He left many of his devices and ideas to be developed by others.
Hooke was one of the founders of the Royal Society
of London. Hooke’s contribution in making the Royal Society
a professional body from a ‘club of virtuosi’ is quite
significant. A vituoso, the plural of which is virtuosi, refers
to a learned person with broad interest in arts and science. It
was Hooke, who worded the Royal Society’s credo, “To
improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures,
Mechanic practices, Engines and Inventions by Experiments (not meddling
with divinity, Metaphysics, Morals, Politics, Grammar, Rhetoric
or Logic)”. Hooke worked with Robert Boyle (1627-91) as his
paid assistant. He also collaborated with scientists as diverse
as Christian Huygens (1629-95), Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723),
Chrisotpher Wren (1632-1723) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727).
Hooke’s reputation suffered from his many controversies with
other scientists over question of priority. The most prominent among
those with whom Hooke quarreled was Isaac Newton. There is no doubt
that Newton’s genius far outshined Hooke’s. But Hooke’s
achievements were also quite impressive. However, unfortunately
if today Hooke is known it is because of Hooke’s Law of Elasticity
and for his quarrels with Newton and not because of his varied contributions,
which greatly helped to shape the seventeenth century science. No
portrait of Hooke is in existence. Even the location of his grave
is not known today.
Hooke was born in the little town of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight
on July 18, 1635. His father John Hooke was a clergyman at All Saint’s
Curch. The church stands at the end of what is now Hooke Road. In
his childhood Hooke suffered a lot, both physically and emotionally.
One was not very sure about his survival during his first 7 years.
He suffered headaches, insomnia, indigestion and several other ailments.
He could hardly eat anything except milk. As a child he was inflicted
by smallpox. Though he survived but he was scarred physically and
emotionally for life. Since his childhood, Hooke displayed considerable
skill in mechanical things. As a child he not only made a model
warship (3 feet long) with rigging and guns that could be fired
but also sailed it on the broad stretch of water, the river Yar.
He made a working clock out of wood and sundial. He had copied the
local painter’s work.
When Hooke was thirteen, his father hanged himself.
Hooke received 100 pound inheritance from his father. After the
death of his father, Hooke went to London as an apprentice to the
painter Sir Peter Lely. It is with Lely, Hooke developed his artistic
skill. However, Hooke did not remain long with Sir Lely as he could
not withstand the fumes of the pigments. Hooke entered the Westminister
School of Richard Busby. Students dreaded Busby, who had the reputation
for “flogging sense into them”. Busby recognized Hooke’s
genius and he finally took young Hooke into his own home. Hooke’s
intelligence combined with his unusual mechanical skill brought
him to the notice of Busby. Hooke was on good terms with Busby throughout
his life. It has been reported that Hooke mastered the first six
books of Euclid’s Elements in his first week at the Westminister
School. He also learnt to play the organ and to speak Latin, Greek
and a bit of Hebrew. Hooke left Westminister in 1653 and moved to
the Oxford, where he acquired a place as chorister at the Christ
Church. As chorister Hooke received a modest endowment. In Oxford,
Hooke came in contact with some of the best scientists in England
and some of whom would go on to establish the Royal Society of London.
They were impressed by Hooke’s skill at designing experiments
and building equipment and they encouraged him in many scientific
endeavours. At Oxford he studied astronomy with Set Ward and he
assisted Thomas Willis (1621-75), the English anatomist, who made
important studies of anatomy of the brain. Willis recommended Hooke
to Robert Boyle, who appointed him as his paid assistant. Hooke
assisted Boyle in constructing the air pump. While working as Boyle’s
assistant, Hooke performed experiments in which he immobilized a
dog’s lungs but kept the dog alive by blowing air into them.
These experiments were the first demonstrations of artificial respiration.
By conducting experiments with an air pump, Hooke demonstrated that
it was the air in the blood and not the actual movements of the
lungs, which kept an animal alive.
On November 12, 1662 Hooke was appointed Curator
of Experiments at the Royal Society. He was the first person to
hold this post. The post, which was initially temporary, was made
permanent in 1665 at a salary of 30 pounds per annum with apartments
in Gresham College, Bishopsgate St. He lived there for the remainder
of his life. As a Curator of Experiments, Hooke was to report or
demonstrate three to four major experiments in every weekly meeting
of the Royal Society. It was a highly challenging task. Hooke performed
this task excellently for thirty-one years. He was also nominated
Professor of Geometry, Gresham College. On October 25, 1677, Hooke
became Secretary to the Royal Society, a post he held till 1682.
Today there is no way of knowing of how Hooke looked
like as no portrait of his or likeness exists. He is often described
as an ugly–looking person. Here we quote two persons closely
associated with Hooke—his co-worker-cum-biographer and a close
friend. Richard Walker who published a biography of Hooke in 1705
wrote: “…in person but despicable, being crooked and
low of stature, and as he grew older more and more deformed. He
was always very pale and lean, and latterly nothing but skin and
bone, with a meager aspect, his eyes gray and full, with a sharp
ingenious look whilst younger. He wore his own hair of 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, having but a light body
to carry, and a great deal of spirits and activity, especially in
his youth. He was of an active, restless, indefatigable genius,
even almost to the last, and always slept little to his death, oftenest
continuing his studies all night, and taking a short nap in the
day. His temper was melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous, which
more increased upon him with years.”
His close friend John Aubrey wrote: “…of
middling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but
little below, but his head is large; his eye full and popping, and
not quick; a gray eye. He has a delicate head of haire browne, and
of an excellent moist curle.”
In 1670 Hooke discovered his law of elasticity.
It states that the stretching of a solid body is proportional to
the force applied to it. Hooke’s law of elasticity laid the
foundation for studies for stress and strain and for understanding
of elastic materials. He made use of these studies in his designs
for the balance springs of watches.
Hooke was a keen observer of fossils. He was the
first person to observe fossils under a microscope. He observed
close similarities between the structures of petrified wood and
fossil shells on the one hand, and living wood and living mollusk
shells on the other. The fossils were known and discussed since
the time of Aristotle. It was generally believed that fossils were
formed and grew within the Earth. The stones (fossils) that looked
like living beings were actually not the remains of living beings
but were created by a shaping force, or “extraordinary Plastick
virtue”. During the Renaissance (the great revival of art,
literature, and learning in Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries
based on classical sources) scholars such as Konrad Gesner collected
and displayed fossils in museums and cabinets. However, the scientists
had no idea regarding the nature and origin of fossils till the
late 17th century. Even in the seventeenth century, a number of
hypotheses had been proposed for the origin of fossils. Hooke’s
studies on fossil made him realize that fossils are not “sports
of nature” but they are remains of once-living organisms.
Other naturalists like Bernard Pallisy (1510-90) and Nicolaus Steno
(1638-86) that fossils were petrified animal and plant remains that
had been infiltrated into solid rocks by floods. The theory proposed
by Hooke for explaining the origin and nature of fossils was later
proved to be correct. However, when Hooke proposed his theory of
fossils, time was not ripe for its acceptance. A section of naturalists
were particularly disturbed by the existence of fossils of species
no longer seen. They argued that God the Creator being perfect would
not allow a species created by Him to perish. This group tried to
explain the existence of fossils in many ways. Some of these explanations
i) Like crystals, fossils are also the direct products
of nature. They form in their own right and are not remains of other
ii) They may be seen as Plato’s ideal forms—free floating
and they simply got embedded themselves into rocks.
iii) Fossils were seen as tests of God. They were placed in rocks
by God to test the faith of humankind with their riddle.
Hooke had anticipated, 250 years before Charles
Darwin, that the fossil record documents changes among the organisms
on the Earth. He had realized that species have both appeared and
gone extinct throughout the history of life on the Earth.
Hooke’s Micrographia (“Tiny Drawings) was published
in 1665. The book covered a variety of fields. It was a book with
elaborate drawings of various things viewed by Hooke with a compound
microscope and illumination system (a device that concentrated light
on the viewing area of his double lensed microscopes), which he
himself devised. Hooke observed organisms as diverse as insects,
sponges, bryozoans (minute water animals that form branching, mosslike
colonies and reproduce by budding), foraminifera (marine protozoans
with calcareous shells full of tiny holes through which slender
filaments project), and bird feathers. Micrographia was an accurate
and detailed record of his observations. Most of the 57 illustrations
contained in the book were drawn by Hooke himself and some might
have been done by the famed Christopher Wren. The illustrations
were so exacting that one could see the eye of a fly, the shape
of the stinging organ of a bee, the anatomies of flea and louse,
the structure of feathers and the form of molds. In Micrographia,
Hooke described his wave theory of light. He compared the spreading
of light vibrations to that of waves in water. Micrographia also
included a series of observations of lunar craters and Hooke’s
speculations as to the origin of these features. Hooke thought moon
craters were caused either by collisions or boiling mud. Crystallography
had its birth in this book. The book contained illustrations of
the crystal structure of snowflakes. He discussed the possibility
of manufacturing artificial fibres by a process similar to the spinning
of the silkworm. In Micrographia, Hooke coined the word cell to
describe the features of plant tissues he was able to discover under
the microscope. He called them “cells” because they
resembled the mosaic cells that monks lived in at the time. Hooke
had no definite idea about the function of the cells found in plant
tissues. He thought that like arteries and veins in animal body
the cells might serve as channels to carry fluids through the plant
material. The Micrographia also contained Hooke’s theory of
The book was a best-seller of its day. It has been
reported that one government official named Samuel Pepys stayed
up till 2:00 AM one night to read Micrographia, of which he said,
“the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.”
As it normally happens all did not like the book. Some even ridiculed.
One satirist of those dayd poked fun at Hook as “ a Sot (a
fool), that has spent 2000 pounds in Microscopes, to find out the
nature of Eels in Vinegar, Mites in Cheese, and the Blue of Plums
which he has subtly found out to be living creature.” A condensed
version of Micrographia was published in 1745. It was titled Micrographia
Restaurata. It had shorter explanation bit it contained all the
figures, which were reproduced from Hooke’s original plates.
Hooke spent a great deal of time in understanding
the mysteries of the universe. It was Hooke, who first reported
the Great Red Spot of Jupiter and he also established the rotation
of this giant planet. In 1664 Hooke discovered the fifth star in
the Trapezium, an asterism in the constellation Orion. Hooke’s
detailed drawings of Mars (1666) enabled its period of rotation
to be found more than 200 years later. Hooke made the earliest attempt
(July-October 1669) at measuring the parallax of a fixed star. Hooke’s
results led to Bradley’s discovery of stellar aberration.
In 1674 Hooke published ‘An Attempt to Prove the Motion of
the Earth by Observations.’ This was the first recorded observation
of a star in daylight. Around 1666, Hooke published a book entitled
Cometa. It contained Hooke’s close observations of the comets
of 1664 and 1665 and also data of other astronomers. It also included
a statement of the Law of Inverse Squares and the effect of Sun
on comet tails. A great deal of interest was sparked in Newton by
this book. He mentioned about this book in his notes and also in
his correspondences. Hooke noted one of the earliest examples of
a double star. He made pioneering contribution to designing of astronomical
instruments. He built the first reflecting telescope. He was first
to insist on the importance of resolving power and the advantage
of using hair lines in place of silk or metal wire. In 1666 Hooke
suggested that the force of gravity could be measured by utilizing
the motion of a pendulum and he also attempted to demonstrate that
the Earth and the Moon follow an elliptical path around the Sun.
In 1672 Hooke discovered the phenomenon of diffraction and he proposed
the wave theory of light to esplain this phenomenon. In 1678 Hooke
anticipated the inverse square law to describe planetary motions.
Hooke was an important architect of his times.
After the Great Fire which destroyed the City of London, Hooke had
exhibited a model for rebuilding the City. Hooke’s model was
not adopted. However, the City authorities appointed Hooke a City
Surveyor together with Edward Jerman and Peter Mills and also (appointed
by the King) Wren, Hugh May and Roger Pratt. Hooke and Wren jointly
were responsible for The Monument to the Great Fire. Hooke was not
given due credit for his architectural works.
Hooke designed the Bethelhem Hospital, Montague
House and the Royal College of Physicians. All these structures
were demolished in the 19th century. He also designed the Ragley
Hall (Warwickshire) and Willen Church in Buckinghamshire.
No account of Hooke’s life can be complete
without mentioning his much discussed confrontations with Newton.
The first confrontation between Newton and Hooke took place in 1672
when the former was presenting his paper on his demonstration of
white light being a composite of other colours. Newton thought very
high of his demonstration. He referred to it as “the oddest
if not the most considerable detection we hath hitherto been made
in the operations of Nature.” But Hooke felt it otherwise.
Hooke had his own theory of light and he had written about it in
his Micrographia. He claimed that more details were necessary to
prove Newton’s claim. Hooke was not alone in challenging Newton’s
claim. Christian Huygens, Ignace Pardies and the Jesuits of Liege
joined Hooke. Particularly Hooke and Huygens rejected Newton’s
claim that his theory was simply derived with certainty from experiments.
Newton was furious with Hooke. Since his childhood Newton was extremely
vulnerable to criticism. Throughout his life Newton challenged authority.
He even decided to give up the Fellowship of the Royal society.
However, after a lot of persuation by Henry Oldenburg, the then
Secretary of the Royal Society, Newton changed his mind. Oldenburg
not only offered an apology for the behaviour of an “unnamed
member’ but also agreed to wave Newton’s dues to the
Society. Newton scored a victory over Hooke. The next major confrontation
between Hooke and Newton that publicly erupted in 1684 had something
to do with the publication of Newton’s Principia. Hooke claimed
priority in the formulation of the inverse square law of gravitation.
Contrary to Hooke’s claim Newton thought that Hooke had nothing
to do with it. Many science historians have accepted Newton’s
claim. However, Hooke’s claim was not totally unfounded. Hooke
had indeed anticipated the law of square inverse. At the suggestion
of Hooke, Newton agreed to exchange correspondence to sort out the
problem Several letters exchanged between Hooke and Newton on the
subject. But when Hooke made their correspondence public Newton
refused to correspond any further. Hooke in one of his letters to
Newton, talked about the theory of gravity but he had answer from
Newton acknowledging Hooke’s theory. On not getting any response
from Newton, Hooke appealed to Halley saying that Newton had taken
the entire credit for the theory of gravity inspite of the fact
that it was Hooke who had given the idea to Newton. Halley was in
a fix. It was Halley who had persuaded Newton to publish Principia
and he himself was paying for its publication. So Halley was worried
that Newton may change his mind and stop its publication. Halley
wrote to Newton : “He (Hooke) says you had the notion from
him… how much of this is so you know best , as likewise what
you have to do in this matter, only Mr. Hooke seems to expect you
should make some mention of him in the preface, which, it is possible,
you may see reason to prefix.” Newton simply refused to accept
any claim of Hooke. Halley wrote a second letter to Newton in which
he pointed out that Hooke was not trying to lay claim to the entire
theory. He also pointed out that Hooke had not made a formal complaint
of the matter. But Newton did not change his mind. He refused to
share his credit with anyone and most certainly not with Hooke.
He even refused to write the third book of Principia. Halley had
no option other than to go along with Newton. He had already invested
much of his own resources in the publication of the first two books.
The Principia was formally presented to the Royal Society in 1687.
Again Newton scored a victory over Hooke. The book had no mention
of Hooke. Newton’s aversion to Hooke did not end by not giving
credit to Hooke for the theory of gravity. During his Presidentship
of the Royal Society Newton had severed all ties that bound the
Society to Hooke. Hooke’s portrait, the only one known to
exist in the Royal Society, disappeared. Most of Hooke’s instruments,
papers and scientific contrivances, which Hooke had fashioned with
his own hands also disappeared. This has deprived the posterity
to know all the contributions to the advancement of science Hooke
really made. Newton’s antipathy towards Hooke was so great
that even 20 years after Hooke’s death, Newton could not speak
of Hooke without loosing his calmness. Before he died, Hooke wanted
to give his life savings (Hooke spent very little of his money and
kept it locked in an iron chest) to the Royal Society for constructing
new quarters, meeting rooms and a library. Though he did not make
any will for this purpose but e had expressed his desire to Richard
Walker. Based on Walker’s testimony the Royal Society could
have claimed the money but Newton decided to the contrary.
Hooke had certainly negative traits in him. But
he certainly deserved a better treatment in the hands of Newton.
As Kathy A. Miles has written: “Robert Hooke may have had
his faults, and he may have been too quick to make assertions, but
he most certainly does not deserve his fate or lack of his recognition.
Newton’s action in severing all ties between Hooke and the
(Royal) Society did nothing to further the knowledge of science
and its development and denied the rest of us of the opportunity
to know all the contributions to the advancement of science Hooke
really made. Newton once said: “if I have seen further, it
is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. There can be little
doubt that one of these giants was Robert Hooke. It seems that it
would apparently be more appropriate to consider Hooke as the sower
of many of the seeds in Newton’s garden.”
Hooke died on March 3, 1703, at Gresham College
having been blind and bedridden the last year of his life. He was
buried at St Helen’s Bishopsgate. His remains were exhumed
and reburied somewhere in North London sometime in the 19th century
ans so his final burial place is unknown. The Hooke Memorial Window
was destroyed in the Bishopsgate bombing in the 1980s. There is
a small museum devoted to Hooke at his Father’s church in
- Seeing Further: The Legacy of Robert Hooke by Kathy A. Miles
www.starryskies.com/~kmiles/spec/hooks.htm (this article was published
in Griffith Observer, June 1996)
- Engines of our Ingenuity No.1751:Robert Hooke by John H. Lienhard.
- Engines of Our Ingenuity No.350: Boyle’s Lab Assistant
by John H. Lienhard. www.uh.edu/engines/epi350.htm.
- The History of Science: From the Ancient Greeks to the Scientific
Revolution by Ray Spagenburg and Diane K. Moser. Hyderabad: Universities
Press (India) Limited, 1999.
- The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists (Second Edition) byDavid,
Ian, John and Margaret Millar. Cambridge: Cambridge University
- Robert Hooke by Margaret Espinasse. Berkely: University of
California Press, 1962.
- Age of Kings by Charles Blitzer. New York: Time Incorporated,
- Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Centenary Edition. New York:
Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., 1997.
- A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxfod: Oxford University Press,