18th July 1635. Robert Hooke, Jack of all Trades and Master of Many.
No authenticated portrait survives of the scientist Robert Hooke, though John Aubrey left a verbal description: ‘he was of middling stature, something crooked, pale-faced…but his head is large, his eye full and popping, and not quick…and a delicate head of hair…’
However what he lacked in looks he made up for in intellect as he was a true Renaissance Man: biologist, physicist, chemist, astronomer and designer and constructor of scientific instruments; irascible he had constant battles with Isaac Newton whom he said had claimed his ideas.
Today saw the birth at Freshwater, Isle of Wight of Robert Hooke in 1635 and when 30 years later his Micrographia was published, Samuel Pepys called it the ‘most ingenious book that I ever read in my life’.
It featured drawings of his observations under a microscope alongside verbal descriptions. ‘By the means of telescopes there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of microscopes there is nothing so small, as to escape our enquiry’.
The book was published by the recently formed Royal Society where Hooke served as the Curator of Experiments, but much of the knowledge of his life comes from his friend John Aubrey, a fellow founder of the Society.
He recorded that when Hooke was a schoolboy he had invented 30 different ways of flying, with Hooke remarking that,’contemplation must be postponed for a more convenient time’.
Hooke did much work on colour and put pigments and compounds under the microscope trying to understand the relationship between colours we see, and the external world; work which was to conflict with Newton’s work.
Hooke saw his work as collaborative and part of the pioneering generation helping to further the experimental and empirical science set down by Francis Bacon and Lord Verulam (Viscount St. Alban), of the previous century.
However Hooke was aware of the possibility that his work would be appropriated by others and his originality obscured, no doubt having Newton in mind.
Hooke, whose work on gravity mirrored Newton’s, is also known for his Law on Tension and measurement of time, died on 3rd March 1703 in pitiful circumstances. His health had declined and he was found in his room at Gresham College, living miserly in lice-ridden rags: a chest in the room contained coins valued at £1m in today’s value.
historytoday.com.Vol 53.Issue 1. March 2003. Richard Cavendish.