Robert Hooke

This review appeared in the Sunday Times on 14 September 2003

Lisa Jardine, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, HarperCollins, £25, pp. 422

On a Friday evening in June 1676, Robert Hooke went to a London theatre and watched himself being ridiculed on stage. It was not an enjoyable experience, for many in the audience recognised Hooke and knew him to be the model for Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, the foolish and lecherous natural philosopher portrayed before them in The Virtuoso, Thomas Shadwell’s pungent satire on the uselessness of Restoration science. Hooke, understandably, reacted with fury, cursing in his diary the “Damned Doggs” who had insulted his character so publicly. That evening in the theatre was only one of many occasions on which Hooke believed himself to have been treated unfairly, but it stands out today as a valuable reminder of just how famous he was at the height of his career. Not nearly as well-known today as either his close friend Wren or his bitter enemy Newton, Hooke did as much as either of them to define the intellectual character of his age, and Lisa Jardine’s timely biography (in the 300th anniversary year of Robert Hooke’s death) does a valuable service in restoring his lost reputation to the roll-call of British science.

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight, where his father was a curate, and was sent to London at the age of thirteen to attend Westminster School. From there Hooke gained a kind of working scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where, alongside his studies, he earned a living as a laboratory assistant, devising new scientific experiments for his teachers as well as creating the instruments needed to conduct them. It was there that Hooke met Robert Boyle, a wealthy Anglo-Irish aristocrat whose interest in chemistry had brought him to Oxford, the centre of scientific enquiry in mid-seventeenth-century England. Boyle employed the younger Hooke as his researcher and amanuensis, but the relationship between the two men was soon one of friendship and intellectual equality, which would persist for the rest of their lives.

Hooke’s later career, too, particularly as London’s Chief Surveyor following the Great Fire of 1666, would be bound up with the fortunes of another close friend, Sir Christopher Wren, and Jardine’s book has in fact been written as a companion volume to her magisterial biography of Wren, On A Grander Scale, which was published last year to great acclaim. Always alert to the meanings of personal allegiances, Jardine excels in tracing the complex networks of friendship and rivalry which flowed between Hooke and his numerous associates, whether in Oxford, London, or further afield. Hooke had a gift for forging strong intellectual friendships, upon which many of the key events of his career would depend, which makes it all the more unfortunate that he is principally remembered today, when he is remembered at all, for the quarrels which marred his later life.

Many of Hooke’s quarrels, such as his priority dispute with the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens over the invention of the balance-spring watch mechanism, were to do with his precarious position as a salaried scientific employee. Surrounded by wealthy amateurs such as Huygens, Hooke felt extremely vulnerable when their research results coincided with his. What might have been nothing more than a friendly rivalry, had it occurred between social equals, flared into a bitter personal feud, during which Hooke, who after all was not a gentleman, shocked his supporters as much as his opponents by behaving in an ungentlemanly way. These disputes grew more frequent as Hooke grew older and more overworked, and Jardine attributes his worsening temper to a lifetime of substance abuse (“benummd my head”, as he noted in his diary in September 1672). Certainly, by the late 1680s, when Hooke began his best-known quarrel, with Isaac Newton, this “generous, gregarious and good-natured” man was fast declining into an aggressive, paranoid and miserly old crank.

The dispute with Newton was over the inverse square law of gravitational attraction, which Newton first published in his Principia Mathematica in 1687, and on which much of his subsequent fame would rest. Hooke claimed, with some justification, that the hypothesis had in fact been his, but that he had left it up to Newton to supply the mathematical proof. When Newton dismissed Hooke’s claims for acknowledgement, Hooke launched a damaging campaign, in which he was bound to come off worse. Newton took his revenge, or so the story goes, by destroying the only known portrait of Hooke, by Mary Beale, which hung in the Royal Society; Jardine, however, claims to have tracked it down to a vault in the Natural History Museum, where it carries an inscription identifying the sitter as the distinguished botanist John Ray. Jardine’s claims for the portrait are compelling, and its survival serves to recast Hooke as a sort of Dorian Gray in reverse, his image lying mislabelled in a vault, waiting to be rediscovered by posterity.

Richard Hamblyn

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