Hooke, Robert (1635–1703)

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Editor: Jonathan Dewald
Date: 2004
Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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About this Person
Born: July 18, 1635 in Freshwater, England
Died: March 03, 1703 in London, England
Nationality: English
Occupation: Physicist
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Page 201

HOOKE, ROBERT (1635–1703)

HOOKE, ROBERT (1635–1703), English natural philosopher, microscopist, experimenter, surveyor and architect, and pioneer palaeontologist. A sickly child who grew into a crookbacked, pale, lean, and anxious hypochondriac, Hooke was a gifted mechanic who became, arguably, the leading natural philosopher in England before Isaac Newton, perhaps rivaled only by his patron, Robert Boyle. Hooke attended Westminster School before entering Christ Church, Oxford, as a chorister in 1653. He soon became part of the circle of experimental natural philosophers brought together by John Wilkins, warden of Wadham College. Here he met, and in 1658 became assistant to, Robert Boyle, and embarked upon his career as an experimental philosopher. The work they did together, using an air pump designed and built by Hooke, proved important and highly influential. In 1662 Boyle allowed Hooke to take up the post of curator of experiments for the newly founded Royal Society of London. Hooke's brief was not only to try experiments suggested by the fellows, but also to bring three or four "considerable Experiments" to each meeting. Few could have managed this at all, but Hooke made an astonishing success of it, and was quite literally the mainstay of the society for well over a decade. In 1666 Hooke was appointed by the city as one of the surveyors on the rebuilding committee established after the Great Fire of London. His friend Sir Christopher Wren was appointed by the king. Like Wren, Hooke did not confine his activities to surveying but also proved to be a highly gifted architect, although never achieving the recognition accorded to Wren. In the early 1670s Hooke became embroiled first with Newton and then with the leading Dutch mathematician, Christiaan Huygens, and the secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in bitter priority disputes. Even though the fellows tended to support Oldenburg, after his death in 1677 they appointed Hooke to succeed him. However, this seems to have marked the point of Hooke's intellectual decline. He was ejected from the post after five years and received scant consideration in 1686 when he tried (with some justification) to claim priority for the planetary dynamics expounded in Newton's soon-to-be-published Principia Mathematica (1687). In 1687 his niece and mistress, Grace, died and left Hooke emotionally devastated and reclusive. He Page 202  |  Top of Article produced no more significant work and died embittered and alone even though he left over £9,000 in cash (money that he must have accrued as surveyor for the City of London).

Hooke's scientific achievements were considerable. He developed, but never fully expounded, a unique system of mechanical philosophy that depended upon supposed incessant vibrations of matter. Ingeniously explaining solidity, for example, in terms of particles vibrating so rapidly that they could beat off any intruding body; and chemical reactions in terms of vibrations of two substances in harmony (in cases of combination) or in discord (in cases of disaggregation), Hooke's main problem was to explain such putative vibrations. Although he never succeeded in this, he was led to many suggestive experiments on the nature of vibrations and what he called "simple harmonic motions." His theory and practice was closely linked not only to the first statement of what is now known as Hooke's Law (stress is proportional to strain), and his awareness of the dynamic equivalence of vibrating springs and pendulums, but also to his insight in 1658 that a clock might be driven by a spring instead of a pendulum—an idea that was first made to work in practice by Huygens in 1674 but that Hooke believed should have been acknowledged as his invention. The influence of his vibratory physics can even be seen in Hooke's recognition that light was a periodic phenomenon, as demonstrated in his analysis of colors produced in soap bubbles and other thin films. Hooke was inspired by his optical theories to develop the idea that planetary motions could be explained in terms of a single attractive force from the sun bending the straight-line motion of a planet into an elliptical orbit. Furthermore, he guessed that this force would vary in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between the sun and the planet. He published this speculation in 1666 and drew it to Newton's attention in correspondence in 1679. Hooke couldn't prove it mathematically, but when Newton subsequently proved it, at the request of Edmund Halley in 1684, he did not correct Halley's assumption that Newton had hit on the idea himself. This proof, of course, was to be the centerpiece of Newton's Principia Mathematica, which Halley now persuaded him to write. Small wonder that Hooke was outraged when he heard that his original idea was not acknowledged in the Principia.

Hooke was undoubtedly an insightful and ingenious theorist of great influence even though he never quite succeeded in establishing the truth of any of his theoretical ideas. His industry and ingenuity has, nevertheless, ensured his position in the history of science. He invented the universal joint, the iris diaphragm, a calibrated screw adjustment for telescopes, and the wheel barometer. He was also one of the first to take seriously the idea that fossils represented the genuine remains of ancient creatures (previously it was assumed they were simply features in the rocks which accidentally mimicked living forms), and was led by his knowledge of them to conclude that the surfaces of the earth could change, land giving way to sea and vice versa, and that the number and kinds of species of plants and animals were not fixed. Perhaps his most lasting monument, however, is his one major book, Micrographia (1665), the first major work of microscopy. Although justly famous for its meticulous and genuinely surprising descriptions of microscopic phenomena, and for its superb illustrations, Micrographia also includes some of Hooke's most fruitful theoretical speculations and his most profound comments upon good practice in natural philosophy.


Bennett, Jim, M. Cooper, M. Hunter, and L. Jardine. London's Leonardo: The Life and Work of Robert Hooke. Oxford, 2003.

'Espinasse, Margaret. Robert Hooke. Berkeley, 1956.

Gal, Ofer. Meanest Foundations and Nobler Superstructures: Hooke, Newton and the "Compounding of the Celestial Motions of the Planetts." Dordrecht, 2002.

Hunter, Michael, and Simon Schaffer, eds. Robert Hooke: New Studies. Wolfeboro, N.H., 1989.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3404900525