The Curious Life of Robert Hooke : The Man Who Measured London, Paperback

The Curious Life of Robert Hooke : The Man Who Measured London Paperback

5 out of 5 (1 rating)


A biography of a brilliant, largely forgotten maverick - a major figure in the 17th-century cultural and scientific revolutions.

The brilliant, largely forgotten maverick Robert Hooke was an engineer, surveyor, architect and inventor who was appointed London's Chief Surveyor after the Great Fire of 1666.

Throughout the 1670s he worked tirelessly with his intimate friend Christopher Wren to rebuild London, personally designing many notable public and private buildings, including the monument to the fire.

He was the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, and author and illustrator of 'Micrographia', a lavishly illustrated volume of fascinating engravings of natural phenomena as seen under the new microscope.

He designed an early balance-spring watch, was a virtuoso performer of public anatomical dissections of animals, and kept himself going with liberal doses of cannabis and poppy water (laudanum).

Hooke's personal diaries - as cryptically confessional as anything Pepys wrote - record a life rich with melodrama.

He came to London as a fatherless boy of thirteen to seek his fortune as a painter, rising by his wits to become an intellectual celebrity. He never married, but formed a long-running illicit liaison with his niece.

A dandy, boaster, workaholic, insomniac and inveterate socialiser in London's most fashionable circles, Hooke's irascible temper and passionate idealism proved fatal for his relationships with men of influence, most notably with Sir Isaac Newton, who, after one violent row, wiped Hooke's name from the Royal Society records and destroyed his portrait.

In this lively and absorbing biography, Lisa Jardine at last does Hooke and his achievements justice.

Illuminating London's critical role in the emergence of modern science, she rediscovers and decodes a great original thinker of indefatigable curiosity and imagination, a major figure in the 17th-century intellectual and scientific revolution.




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Like Ariosto’s Astolpho journeying to the moon to restore Orlando’s lost wits, Lisa Jardine has undertaken a noble quest to restore Robert Hooke’s reputation. A simple list of his discoveries and achievements, and his contributions to the consolidation of scientific methodology, would suggest that his story would one of those with which every educated person was familiar. However, for various reasons, and not least his own irascibility, he is now generally overlooked while his contemporaries and associates such as Christopher Wren, Edmond Halley, Robert Boyle, John Flamsteed and, Hooke’s particular bête noire, Isaac Newton are widely recognised as part of a golden age of British scientific discovery.His early years were passed on the Isle of Wight, but at the age of thirteen he was sent to London to complete his education, and attended Westminster School and then Christ Church College at Oxford. Like so many of his contemporaries he showed signs of becoming a great polymath, showing a reasonable facility with mathematics (he was eventually appointed Professor of Geometry at Gresham College) augmented by immense dexterity at designing and building apparatus for the numerous scientific experiments conducted by his principal patron Robert Boyle. As his reputation grew the demand for his instruments swelled exponentially, and he became particularly renowned for his ability to design and build telescopes. He then diverted this ability to developing microscopes which, coupled with his exceptional skill as a draughtsman, enabled him to produce exquisite drawings of fleas and other insects. He also identified anatomical structures (he was the first person to coin the term “cell” for the tiny units of which animal and plant organisms are constructed), and produced beautiful representations of the surfaces of hair follicles.In the meantime he had also been experimenting with the construction of timepieces. As a teenager he had disassembled a family clock in order to study its mechanism, and then made one of his own constructed entirely of wood. (The legendary John Harrison would later copy this childhood feat – one of the steps that set him towards his development of the famous chronometers). As instrument makers everywhere grappled with the problem of designing a timepiece of sufficient accuracy to enable reliable calculations of longitude Hooke made the tactical error of confiding in one of his fellow members of the Royal Society, who in turn inadvertently (?) communicated Hooke’s methodology to Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch rival who was also addressing this thorny issue. This led to a painful, and ultimately unresolved, dispute about the patent rights for the concept of the coil spring to replace the pendulum in accurate time pieces. Similarly, Hooke considered that his classic book Micrographia (published in 1665) had first expounded the theory that celestial bodies were attracted or repulsed by a form of gravitational force. The following year, his lecture entitled “On Gravity” outlined two further principles: “1. That all the heavenly bodies have not only a gravitation of their parts to their own proper centre, but that they also mutually attract each other within their spheres of action. 2. That all bodies having a simple motion, will continue to move in a straight line, unless continually deflected from it by some extraneous force, causing them to describe a circle, an ellipse, or some other curve.However, crucially, Hooke made no reference to the inverse square law that Newton subsequently identified. Aggrieved that he had received no acknowledgement for his work in the field, Hooke claimed that Newton had stolen his idea. Newton unreservedly denied this claim, though the dispute rumbled on for the rest of Hooke’s life.Throughout this time Hooke had been an active member of the Royal Society, serving as its “Curator” in which role he undertook to prepare and perform weekly experiments for the Society’s membership, from which many of the members’ paper were developed. However, following the Great Fire of London in 1666 he was also appointed as Surveyor of the City of London, supervising the rebuilding of those churches and other public building that had been destroyed. In this role he worked as Wren’s right-hand man, and contributed to the design of many of the buildings more commonly attributed to Wren. He became particularly renowned for his project management skills and his ability to complete construction schemes within budget. Professor Jardine’s book paints an enticing portrait of a gifted man who was incapable of turning down new work. As a consequence, his own reputation has suffered because he left so much work incomplete. He was also unwise in his choice of combatants – both Huygens and Newton secured high profile appointments in the new regime under William of Orange following the Glorious Revolution, and history has a way of favouring those on the inside rather than the maverick loners.

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