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Primer: Robert Hooke September 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Popular history rarely communicates the fullness of scientists’ careers, concentrating instead on key “contributions” as they are often called.  In the case of Robert Hooke (1635-1703), this would be an especially unfortunate approach, because he is an unusually vibrant figure in the “Scientific Revolution” era, a cultural-intellectual force who cannot be easily boiled down to a certain discovery or insight.  The casual observer may be familiar with Hooke’s Law, which states the proportionality of the force of a spring to the distance it is stretched.  Others might know a few other points, such as his authorship of Micrographia (1665), which was essentially a lavishly illustrated work of popular science extolling the importance of the activities of the then-new Royal Society of London, focusing on his own observations using a microscope he designed (above).  Recently, the literature seems to be encapsulating his diverse skills and interests by packaging him as a Leonardo da Vinci-type character.

Hooke initially gained a strong reputation as a designer of machinery and scientific instruments, and, beginning in 1655, he was employed by the royalist Robert Boyle in Oxford to design air pumps and air pump experiments, while the Cromwellian regime was still in place.  The effects of reduced air in an evacuated chamber in various kinds of experimental set-ups quickly became emblematic of the power of experimental inquiry.  After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the enthusiasm for new modes of inquiry moved its center to London where the Royal Society was established.  Robert Hooke was named to the full-time paid position of curator of experiments for the Royal Society in 1662, where he lent his mechanical expertise as well as his showmanship to public performances of experiments, often with visiting dignitaries in the audience, when it was important that everything go according to design.

Hooke also became a fixture in the London technical and philosophical vanguard.  He struck up relationships with several London instrument-makers, who constructed instruments according to his specifications, and with whom he shared his thoughts on technique and design.  His relationship with the clockmaker Thomas Tompion was especially productive as Hooke entered into a heated competition with the Dutch natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens to produce more accurate timepieces, which were especially crucial to solving the problem of determining longitude at sea, for which there was a cash prize on continual offer.  It is this activity that resulted in Hooke’s formulation of his law, encoded as an anagram so as to ensure secrecy while guaranteeing priority (he unscrambled it two years later).  Hooke, who had a difficult personality, was continually suspicious that his ideas were being stolen, and he bore grudges against particular individuals, such as the Royal Society’s secretary, Henry Oldenburg, whom he accused of being a spy on behalf of Huygens.

Hooke participated in a wide swathe of London society.  The king took a personal interest in the work of Hooke and Tompion.  After the Great Fire of London in September 1666, Hooke was hired by another intellectual fixture of London in that period, Christopher Wren, to partake in the surveying and reconstruction of the City.  Hooke was a key figure in the design of the dome of the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, which Wren designed.  On the other end of the formality spectrum, Hooke was also a fixture of London’s new and boisterous coffee shop scene, where lively debates ranging from natural history to philosophy to invention took place, and where the latest “intelligences” were shared.

Hooke’s interests varied widely.  In addition to his mechanical ingenuity, he participated actively in natural philosophical and mathematical debates, ranging from what fossils were to the way the universe works—he later became a bitter enemy of Isaac Newton, whom he suspected stole the inverse square law of gravitation from him.  He held a private interest in medicine, experimenting constantly with the ingestion of various substances, which he hoped would cure him of his incessant ills, although they certainly did him more harm than good.

One thing Hooke was not was a Fellow of the Royal Society.  As he was not a member of the gentry class, and as he was a hired employee of the Society, he was not a disinterested observer capable of reaching philosophical agreement.  In this respect he was simply the most visible of what Steven Shapin has called the “invisible technicians”, the people whose contributions to knowledge-making were hidden when it came time to distill experimental work into philosophical “truth”.

Not that it mattered much.  Hooke’s intellectual work was well-appreciated in his time, and he was later named secretary of the Royal Society, who managed the Society’s all-important correspondence networks.  However, later in life, his fortunes turned on his enmity with Isaac Newton, who was also a cantankerous figure who became extremely powerful in intellectual circles following the publication of the Principia Mathematica.  Newton became president of the Royal Society months after Hooke’s death, and some have suggested that Newton may have been somehow responsible for the fact that no portrait of Hooke survives.  (Lisa Jardine thought she might have found one, but, as near as I can tell, the Univsersity of Cincinnati Libraries have the last word on this, though I’m not up on this particular issue).

Hooke is now an extremely well-understood figure.  I’ve mentioned Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits as a scholarly but accessible tour through Royal Society culture, and it contains a lot on Hooke; but Jardine has also come out with a full-scale biography: The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, the Man who Measured London (2005).  Also see London’s Leonardo: The Life and Work of Robert Hooke (2003) by Jim Bennett, Michael Cooper, Michael Hunter, and Lisa Jardine.  There’s plenty more out there, but that should tide over the curious.

Bonus Update: Video of Jardine discussing Hooke


1. Michael Robinson - September 18, 2008

Nice piece Will. Maybe you should think about publishing this as a Google “knol”

2. Thony C. - September 19, 2008

In this respect he was simply the most visible of what Steven Shapin has called the “invisible technicians”, the people whose contributions to knowledge-making were hidden when it came time to distill experimental work into philosophical “truth”.

In the sentence that I have quoted above you create the impression, at least for me, that Hooke was not recognised as a scientific theorist. This is far from the truth as he produced important theories in many areas of inquiry e.g. the wave theory of light. Otherwise a nice post that does credit to one of unfortunately many late 17th century scientists who tend to disappear in Newton’s over dimensioned shadow.

3. Will Thomas - September 19, 2008

Thanks for the comments, Michael and Thony.

To Thony: I start the next paragraph by explaining that Hooke’s accomplishments were, in fact, well-recognized. So I agree with you, and hopefully that will come through now that we’ve had a chance to clarify. (By the way, thanks for the backup over at Wikipedia).

To Michael: I haven’t had much experience with knols, and both this and the Wikipedia history of physics article have put me in the awkward position of pretending to be an early modernist. I’m thinking about farming these Hump Day posts out to scholars who can spare the time to write up a quick <1000 words general interest primers. Any suggestions or volunteers would be appreciated.

4. Thony C. - September 20, 2008

One interested farmer! I assume you can read my email address so send me an email.
Thony C.

5. Will Thomas - September 22, 2008

Thanks for the interest, Thony. If you had to put in your email address to comment, I don’t actually have access to that, but you can get mine in the “about” tab of this site. I see you have a strong interest in Kepler. A broad discussion of his career and the aims of his work as an astronomer and natural philosopher would make a very good Wednesday post.

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