Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London

Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London

by Lisa Jardine

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The brilliant, largely forgotten maverick Robert Hooke was an engineer, surveyor, architect, and inventor who worked tirelessly with his intimate friend Christopher Wren to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666.He was the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, and his engravings of natural phenomena seen under the new microscope appeared in his


The brilliant, largely forgotten maverick Robert Hooke was an engineer, surveyor, architect, and inventor who worked tirelessly with his intimate friend Christopher Wren to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666.He was the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, and his engravings of natural phenomena seen under the new microscope appeared in his masterpiece, the acclaimed Micrographia, one of the most influential volumes of the day.

But Hooke's irascible temper and his passionate idealism provedfatal for his relationships with important political figures, most notably Sir Isaac Newton: their quarrel is legendary. As a result, historical greatness eluded Robert Hooke. Now, eminent historian Lisa Jardine does this original thinker of indefatigable curiosity and imagination justice and allows him to take his place as a major figure in the seventeenth century intellectual and scientific revolution.

Editorial Reviews

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“First rate … both learned and delightfully readable.”
Washington Post Book World
“[Jardine’s] lucid and easy-reading prose paints a vivid portrait of a curiously overlooked historical figure.”
The New York Times
[Jardine's] well-documented presentation of Hooke's relations with the scientific community of a late-17th-century London he helped to reshape is a tour de force -- social history as well as biography. She brings the souring, gracelessly aging Hooke to life. ''Curious'' to the end, he remains arrestingly human. — Derek Hirst
The Washington Post
… [Jardine's] lucid and easy-reading prose paints a vivid portrait of a curiously overlooked historical figure. — Henry Petroski
Publishers Weekly
English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is known to history more for losing quarrels with better-known scientists than for his achievements. He dared challenge Newton for credit as discoverer of the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction and lost. In his dispute with Dutch scientist Christaan Huygens over who invented the isochronous pendulum clock, Hooke fared slightly better, since it was discovered that unfriendly members of the fledging Royal Society were slipping word of his discoveries to Huygens. Cambridge Renaissance scholar Jardine follows up her 2002 biography of Christopher Wren with this satisfying rehabilitation of Hooke, Wren's colleague in rebuilding London after the devastating fire of 1666. Jardine argues that Hooke played an equal role in many of the projects attributed to Wren, most notably the dome of Saint Paul's and the Monument to the Fire of London. Hooke never made the leap into greatness by adequately working out and proving his "hunches," in large part because of other scientists' demands on his time. As a young man, he was Robert Boyle's trusted assistant. At the Royal Society, which he helped found, he served as curator of experiments and secretary. After the fire he was forced to juggle society members' increasingly unreasonable demands with his work as surveyor and associate to Wren. Hooke grew ill-tempered in his later years and was finally removed from his Royal Society posts. Jardine convincingly attributes his physical deterioration to decades of self-medicating and overwork. Sure to become the standard life of Hooke, Jardine's sympathetic study will please readers interested in the early years of modern science and scientific biographies. Illus. (Feb. 5) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In the well-received On a Grander Scale, Jardine (Renaissance studies, Univ. of London) explored the life and mind of 17th-century architect Christopher Wren. Here, she turns to one of his lesser-known collaborators, Robert Hooke. An ingenious man who worked on many projects of his own and others, Hooke is often mentioned in histories on the founding of the Royal Society. Jardine chronicles his life as Robert Boyle's technical assistant, a chief operator (or experimenter) for the newly formed Royal Society, and a chief surveyor of London after the fire of 1666, for which he won wide acclaim. His personality was contentious, and his place in history to this point has been primarily in his arguments with Isaac Newton and Christian Huygens. Jardine lifts him from obscurity in an easily read and heavily annotated work that is more comprehensive than Jim Bennett's London's Leonardo. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/03.]-Eric D. Albright, Tufts Univ. Health Sciences Lib., Boston Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The little-known life of a gifted but cranky associate of Christopher Wren and bitter rival of Isaac Newton. Jardine's is the first full-scale portrait since 1956 of the cantankerous Hooke (1635-1703), a member of the Royal Society, co-restorer with Wren of London after the Great Fire of 1666, extraordinarily gifted inventor, designer, builder, artist, and scientist. The author begins with the most controversial of all of Hooke's professional disputes, his argument with Newton about who should be credited for discovering the inverse square law of gravitational attraction. Hooke clearly had the insight, says Jardine (Renaissance Studies/Queen Mary Univ., London; On a Grander Scale, 2002, etc.), but not the mathematics to prove it, and so he wrote to Newton, who proved the theory and consequently soared into celebrity. Hooke gnashed his teeth publicly and privately for years afterward. The narrative then turns back to Hooke's boyhood on the Isle of Wight, subsequently moving through his schooling in London and Oxford, his election to the Royal Society in 1663, and his incredibly busy career as an inventor, a presenter of weekly experiments for the edification of Society members, a professor of geometry at Gresham College, a writer, illustrator, experimenter-he enjoyed his tests with cannabis-and advocate for friends trying to publish their own works. Though he had a brief sexual relationship with a servant woman, Hooke never married and died miserably alone. Jardine carefully reconstructs her subject's amazing career from diaries, correspondence, and public records. She most eloquently demonstrates that he and Wren should be jointly credited for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fireand convinces as well that Hooke's irascible temperament, his tendency to take on more work than he could possibly finish, and his unprepossessing looks have consigned him to his current position as the forgotten runner-up to his more celebrated coevals. A terrific work, notable for its gravity and humor, scholarship and popular appeal. (Illustrations throughout)

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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke
The Man Who Measured London

Chapter One

The Boy from the Isle of Wight

Many other things I long to be at, but I do extremely want time.

Hooke to Robert Boyle, 5 September 1667

On Saturday, 10 April 1697, a little less than five years before his death, Robert Hooke sat down with 'a small Pocket-Diary', specially purchased for the purpose, to write his autobiography:

I began this Day to write the History of my own Life, wherein I will comprize as many remarkable Passages, as I can now remember or collect out of such Memorials as I have kept in Writing, or are in the Registers of the Royal Society; together with all my Inventions, Experiments, Discoveries, Discourses, &c. which I have made, the time when, the manner how, and means by which, with the success and effect of them, together with the state of my Health, my Employments and Studies, my good or bad Fortune, my Friends and Enemies, &c. all which shall be the truth of Matter of Fact, so far as I can be inform'd by my Memorials or my own Memory, which Rule I resolve not to transgress.

And there, to all intents and purposes, he broke off. Was he perhaps interrupted? Did some urgent piece of business draw him away from his task? Even in these, his later years, there were (as we shall see) so many competing calls on his time. Hooke lived his entire working life 'over the shop' at Gresham College, and anyone -- from the Curator of the Royal Society, Henry Hunt, to one or other of his fellow Gresham Professors -- might stop by, even outside working hours, even on a Saturday, with a scientific or technical problem to discuss, a practical task to be undertaken, or simply to exchange gossip. Hooke put his autobiography to one side, and his ambition to leave posterity a full account of his brilliant, eventful life came to nothing.

Whatever the distraction, abandoning an undertaking when he had barely begun was entirely typical of Hooke. Although he embarked on everything he did with genuine enthusiasm and with the sincere intention of carrying the task through to completion, he habitually took on too much and promised to deliver more than it was sensible for him to commit himself to. Like many other important projects he proposed for himself -- in scribbled lists, on loose sheets of paper, on the flyleafs of his books, in letters to colleagues and in his diary -- this one foundered on that most mundane of obstacles: lack of time and opportunity to complete it.

All that Hooke's literary executor Richard Waller found among his old friend's personal papers to flesh out the skeletal autobiography was a few schematic paragraphs about Hooke's boyhood and early life. They begin:

Dr. Robert Hooke was Born at Freshwater, a Peninsula on the West side of the Isle of Wight, on the eighteenth of July, being Saturday, 1635, at twelve a Clock at Noon, and Christened the twenty sixth following by his own Father Minister of that Parish.

Tantalisingly sparse, these matter-of-fact jottings at least provide a starting point. For this discarded shard of an incomplete autobiography focuses immediately on two things which shaped Hooke's life -- his Isle of Wight, seaside birthplace and his beloved father's clerical calling.

For a boy born in 1635, where you came from, and what your family's religious and political convictions were, mattered a great deal. Place of origin and parental calling were both deeply bound up with English civil war, the execution of an anointed king, and the ten-year exile of the head of the Anglican Church. However far Hooke rose above his modest beginnings, and however much he appeared to have put his origins and upbringing behind him, he carried permanently with him the mark of the dramatic political events of those early years.

Robert was the fourth and last child of John Hooke, curate of All Saints Church in Freshwater. His mother, Cecily Gyles, was from a local Isle of Wight family. Later, it would be members of her family who took care of Robert's affairs on the island, including the leasing and rent-collecting for his various properties there, after he had left and taken up permanent residence in London. Later still, they would squabble over who was to inherit his substantial legacies.

John Hooke had been on the island since at least 1610 (he had gentry relations near by in mainland Hampshire).

His first appointment (and appearance in the records) on the island was as a 'stand-in' curate that year for the church at St Helen's, near Brading, east of Newport, where there had been an unfilled vacancy since the previous year. There is no evidence that he was at this point an ordained minister, only that he was an intelligent, godly layman.

Around 1615, John Hooke joined the household of Sir John Oglander, a local gentleman remembered for his colourful personal diary of the civil war years and for his unswerving loyalty to King Charles I. The Oglanders were the most prominent family on the Isle of Wight. Sir John took in young John Hooke, by now the properly appointed curate of Oglander's local church, Brading, near the family home of Nunwell, to teach his eldest son George his Latin grammar:

Afterwards, I took Mr. Hooke, curate of Brading, into my house to teach him his accidence, in which my own care and pains were not wanting. Then not long after growing to more expenses, I procured Mr. Elgor, schoolmaster of Chichester School, to come to Newport and there I placed him, where he continued years.

John Hooke may have remained in Sir John's employment after George Oglander had moved on to the newly improved classroom instruction at Newport Grammar School, as this reminiscence implies, since it suggests additional expenditure for 'procuring' Mr Elgor ...

The Curious Life of Robert Hooke
The Man Who Measured London
. Copyright © by Lisa Jardine. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Lisa Jardine, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, is the director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, the centenary professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She lives with her husband and three children in London.

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