Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured Londonby Lisa Jardine
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… See more details below
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 the 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 -- 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 socializer in London's most fashionable circles, Hooke had an irascible temper, and his passionate idealism proved fatal for his relationships with men of influence -- most notably Sir Isaac Newton, who, after one violent argument, 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 seventeenth-century intellectual and scientific revolution.
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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke
The Man Who Measured London
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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