Robert Hooke was born in the village of Freshwater on the western toe of the Isle of Wight, the son of Cecily Gyles and John Hooke, a curate at All Saints’ Church. Even as a child he showed great mechanical talent. He made a sundial, took apart a clock and constructed a working model in wood, and created a toy sailing boat that could fire its miniature cannons.
Hooke came to Westminster School during the first decade of Dr Richard Busby’s 57 year incumbency as Head Master. He stayed at Busby‘s house and they remained on good terms until Busby’s death. As well as learning the usual subjects such as Latin and Ancient Greek, at Westminster Hooke also learned to play the organ and ‘contrived severall ways of flying’. His mathematical talent, which would prove useful to him in the future, allowed him to master the first six books of Euclid’s Elements in a week.
Hooke acquired a place as chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, leaving Westminster in 1653. At Oxford, Hooke was encouraged in a great number of scientific endeavours. In 1658 he became assistant to Robert Boyle, where he used his mechanical skills to construct an improved version of the air pump of Otto Guericke. This allowed Boyle and Hooke to carry out new experiments described in Boyle’s New Experiments PhysicoMechanicall (1660), to understand the properties of air. In 1662 Hooke was appointed Curator of Experiments to the newly founded Royal Society, being responsible for the experiments performed at its weekly meetings. This was an extremely important job, since the Society was dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge through experimentation. This role, however, was that of an employee, not an equal to the Fellows, and he was expected to be at their beck and call. As Curator he had rooms in Gresham College, near Holborn, where he was to live for the rest of his life. Later, in 1665 he was appointed Gresham Professor of Geometry and Fellow of the Royal Society.
Hooke’s nearly 40 years of scientific research covered an astonishing breadth.
Early inquiries included the nature of the air and its relationship to respiration and combustion; the laws of falling bodies; improvements to diving-bells; methods of telegraphy; the relationship of barometric readings to the weather; fixing the thermometrical zero at the freezing-point of water and the invention of a machine for cutting gear-wheels.
Hooke suggested many hypotheses based on his experiments that would anticipate later discoveries. Among other theories, he suggested a wave theory of light in his Micrographia (1665), comparing the spreading of light vibrations to that of waves in water. Later, in 1672, he suggested that the vibrations in light might be perpendicular to the direction of propagation. He investigated the colours of membranes and of thin plates of mica, and established the variation of the light pattern with the thickness of the plates. In the book Hooke also proposed a definition of heat as a property of a body arising from the vibration of its parts.
Micrographia contains observations of everyday objects made with the aid of a microscope. Hooke’s huge image of a flea is famous; perhaps less well-known is that the book contains the first example of the term ‘cell’ in a biological context, used here to imply an analogy with honeycomb cells in bee hives. Micrographia is of course, best known for its microscopic studies, but it also includes a series of observations of lunar craters.
Hooke is best known to those who study elementary Physics through Hooke’s Law, which states that the extension of a spring is proportional to the weight hanging from it; this work sprang from Hooke’s interest in flight and the elasticity of air. The theory appeared in De Potentia Restitutiva in 1678.
His interest in gases and their properties also found expression in his work on respiration. Following the tendency of his fellow natural philosophers to experiment on themselves, one experiment had Hooke in a sealed vessel from which the air was gradually pumped. He emerged from the experiment with pain in his ears and suffered from a brief period of deafness.
The nature of his curatorship at the Royal Society required Hooke to continually move on to new areas of research, and to leave other scholars to pursue his insights in greater depth. This often resulted in them receiving credit for the work he had begun. The pugnacious Hooke would express his resentment freely, and disagreements with fellow scientists are scattered through his life.
Most notably, he became entangled in a bitter disagreement with Sir Isaac Newton, who Hooke felt had not acknowledged him fairly in his work on gravity. In his Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth (1674), Hooke offered a theory of planetary motion based on the correct principle of inertia and a balance between an outward centrifugal force and an inward gravitational attraction to the Sun. In 1679, in a letter to Newton, he finally suggested that this attraction would vary inversely as the square of the distance from the Sun. Hooke’s theory was qualitatively correct, but he did not have the mathematical ability to give it an exact, quantitative expression. When Newton presented his very similar, but more thoroughly researched and proofed, theory of gravity, Hooke felt cheated. The two were never on cordial terms again. When the influential Newton – and his grudge – survived Hooke by 23 years, respect for Hooke’s work and achievements began to fade, partly due to Newton’s belittling of Hooke’s reputation.
If Hooke’s work on gravitation was overshadowed by that of Newton, he was unsurpassed as an inventor and designer of scientific instruments. Among many other inventions he invented a watch that used a spring rather than a pendulum; the compound microscope; a wheel barometer; and the universal, or Hooke’s, joint, found in all motor vehicles. He made important contributions to the design of astronomical instruments, being the first to insist on the importance of resolving power, and the advantage of using hair lines in place of silk or metal wire. He built the first reflecting telescope, observed the rotation of Mars, and noted one of the earliest examples of a double star.
Hooke’s experiments in architecture are even less well known. While Samuel Pepys was burying his Parmesan, Hooke stood on the roof of Gresham College to watch the Great Fire as it ripped through London. The conflagration would provide an opportunity for him. Although his grid-like plan for London, which he presented to the Royal Society only a week after the final embers were extinguished, was unsuccessful, like Sir Christopher Wren, he was to be appointed as one of the three Surveyors following the fire, commissioned to check plans for new buildings to ensure they were fireproof, settle disputes over property boundaries, and design new buildings himself. The pressure on the Surveyors was intense. Many of the 100,000 refugees from the fire were living in tents and shacks in Lincolns Inn Fields, Hatton Gardens and Covent Garden.
Although less talented than Wren and possessing little previous experience, Hooke was a capable architect who could design buildings in a variety of styles. Like much neoclassical architecture at the time, his work is influenced by the Roman writer Vitruvius’ architectural treatise, De Architectura. Unlike Wren, who by 1675 shifted his attention almost completely from science and mathematics to architecture, science always remained Hooke’s main occupation.
Victorian redevelopment and twentieth century war have taken their toll on Hooke’s architectural output. Of the Bethlehem Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’, which he designed, only the statues depicting ‘Raving Mania’ and ‘Melancholy Mania’, which gave an ominous welcome to new patients, survive in the Bethlem Museum of the Mind. He worked with Wren on the plan for The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and the Monument, which was originally designed to function as an enormous telescope, with the viewer observing the stars through the gap where the central column of the spiral staircase would otherwise have been. The planned planet-gazing sessions never happened, though, prevented by the vibrations of nearby traffic.
Of Hooke’s buildings outside London, the pretty red-brick church at Willen in Buckinghamshire, commissioned by Busby, is the most intact survivor.
You may find a list of buildings Hooke with which was involved here.
In common with several of his contemporaries, Hooke’s obsession with observation and measurement extended to himself. In Micrographia, he observed his own sperm and cloudy urine through a microscope. His diary, which is held by the London Metropolitan Archives, runs from 10 March 1672 until May 1683. As well as the weather and meetings of the Royal Society, it records his social activities and experiments, his health and mood, whether he had ejaculated that day and medicine he had taken. A hypochondriac, Hooke swallowed enormous amounts of purgatives and quack medicines, which probably hastened his descent into ill health.
He adopted Grace Hooke, the daughter of his impoverished brother, aged 11. Several years later he began a sexual relationship with her. Hooke also records in his diary liaisons with various female servants including Nell Young, who attended on Grace. It is hard to feel comfortable with Hooke’s behaviour towards his niece and servants, and of course the women’s feelings on the matter are not recorded. Grace died in 1689, aged 29. Hooke was deeply affected by her death, and his friend and biographer Richard Waller noted that he was ‘observd from that time to grow less active, more Melancholly and Cynical’.
‘His eie full and popping’
No likeness exists of Robert Hooke. A portrait, owned by the Royal Society, did exist, but it disappeared in 1717 when the society moved into permanent premises. Rumours suggesting that Newton, as President of the Society, acted on his grudge against Hooke by deliberately destroying the painting, are unlikely to be true.
Keen Hooke-ites have been scouring galleries and homes for a likeness for the last century. The latest conjectured portrait may be found here. You may judge the similarity to his descriptions for yourself.
Hooke is described by two people. Firstly his friend John Aubrey, on Hooke in middle life:
‘He is but of midling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is lardge, his eie full and popping, and not quick; a grey eie. He haz a delicate head of haire, browne, and of an excellent moist curle. He is and ever was temperate and moderate in dyet, etc.’
Richard Waller knew the elderly Hooke, embittered by his controversies with Christiaan Huyghens and his feeling that he had been cheated by Newton:
‘As to his person he was but despicable, being very crooked, tho’ I have heard from himself, and others, that he was strait till about 16 Years of Age when he first grew awry, by frequent practicing, with a Turn-Lath . . . 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 wise, and upper lip thin; his chin sharp, and Forehead large; his Head of a middle size. He wore his own hair of a dark Brown colour, very long and hanging neglected over his Face uncut and lank….’
This is not a flattering description; even Aubrey’s is hardly complimentary. His powerful body odour was also noted.
Death and burial
From 1696 Hooke’s health deteriorated, and he suffered from swollen legs, chest pains, dizziness, emaciation and blindness. He died intestate on 3rd March 1703, in London, leaving £9,580 and a small property on the Isle of Wight. He was originally buried at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, but his bones were shunted to ‘somewhere in North London’ in the nineteenth century, so his final burial place is unknown. His memorial stone in Westminster Abbey can be found in the lantern area, near Busby’s grave.
This biography draws on Collins Biographical Dictionary of Scientists: HarperCollins 1994; and to the marvellous lecture and article by Allan Chapman (Wadham College, Oxford): ‘England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the art of experiment in Restoration England’ Proceedings of the Royal Institution, 67, 239-275, 1996. Dr Chapman also gave his lecture as the 1996 Henry Tizard Memorial Lecture at Westminster School.