17th Century London had its fair share of polymath geniuses: Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle (he of thermodynamics fame), Robert Hooke….hang on, “Robert who” I hear you say? Exactly…
Hooke invented the Universal Joint, the iris diaphragm used in cameras and the balance wheel in a watch. He coined the term “cell” in biology, was appointed a surveyor of the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666, designed and built the pump used by Boyle for his experiments on gas pressures, postulated the notion of extinction of species 150 years before Darwin, published Micrographia (the world’s first comprehensive illustrated work on microscopy) and devised Hooke’s Law to define the action of springs. Yet few outside the closed world of science have ever heard of him.
Wren was a great admirer and the two worked closely together on many of Wren’s building projects after the Great Fire, notably The Monument and St Paul’s Cathedral (it is believed that Hooke conceived the method of construction of the St Paul’s dome for Wren).
Relations with Newton were, however, rather less cordial. The two had an intellectual spat over the credit for certain aspects of Newton’s hypotheses over the nature of the forces acting on planetary motion. Put simply, some believe that Hooke may have provided Newton with certain of the bases that enabled him to define the laws of gravity without receiving the appropriate credit.
Newton became President of the Royal Society in the year of Hooke’s death in 1703. Part of his duties would have been responsibility for the repository of the Society including the donations of work and ideas by fellows of the Society, and many of Hooke’s contributions have been lost or dispersed with no known record of what happened to them (along with the only known portrait of the man). Whilst it would be mischevious to suggest any malevolent intent on Newton’s part, it has provided ample fuel for the “written out of history” conspiracists’ fire…
His rehabilitation is, however, under way with many modern thinkers keen to establish for Hooke what is seen as his rightful place as one of the great fathers of modern science.
Want to know more? Get along to the Greenwich Theatre on 14 October where they will be staging Hanging Hooke, a play by Take the Space which promises to shed dramatic light on the matter.