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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 (more…)