Britain’s Greatest Inventor
ROBERT HOOKE, described by his contemporaries as “the most inventive man who ever lived,” is now hailed as England’s Leonardo da Vinci. Born in 1635, Hooke was appointed curator of experiments at the Royal Society of London in 1662 and made secretary in 1677. He died in 1703. Despite his scientific prestige, however, his remains lie buried in an unknown grave somewhere in north London.
In recent years scientists and historians have worked hard to restore the reputation of this “forgotten genius,” as biographer Stephen Inwood calls Hooke. In 2003, to mark the 300th anniversary of Hooke’s death, London’s Royal Observatory Greenwich exhibited some of his extraordinary inventions and discoveries. Who was Robert Hooke, and why was he all but forgotten for so long?
Hooke was a learned man and a brilliant inventor. Among his many creations are the universal joint, used in today’s motor vehicles; the iris diaphragm, which regulates the aperture size in cameras; and the spring control in the balance wheel of watches. He formulated Hooke’s law, an equation still in use today to describe the elasticity of springs. He also developed an air pump for Robert Boyle, an eminent British physicist and chemist.
One of Hooke’s greatest achievements, however, was his design of a compound microscope, which was later built by Christopher Cock, a famous instrument maker in London. Hooke subsequently coined the word “cell” to describe the honeycomb cavities in cork, which he could examine through his instrument. “Cell” was later applied to the basic building blocks of living things.
Hooke’s book Micrographia (Small Drawings), published in 1665, brought him early fame. Its contents include accurate, beautifully drawn illustrations by Hooke himself of insect life as he saw it under his microscope. His most famous drawing is that of a flea. About 12 inches by 18 inches [30 by 45 cm], the engraving shows the flea’s claws, spines, and armor-plating. That these tiny creatures often live on people shocked well-to-do readers of the day. Ladies allegedly fainted at the sight of the picture!
After comparing the magnified point of a man-made needle with natural things, Hooke wrote: “The Microscope can afford us hundreds of Instances of Points many thousand times sharper” than those of a needle. He pointed to the hairs, bristles, and claws of insects as well as to the thorns, hooks, and hairs of leaves. These “works of Nature,” he felt, proclaim the omnipotence of their Maker. “For the first time,” says Encyclopædia Britannica, the microscope had revealed “a world in which living organisms display an almost incredible complexity.”
Hooke was the first person to examine fossils under a microscope, which led him to conclude that they were the remains or traces of long-dead organisms. Micrographia contained many more fascinating scientific observations. In fact, noted diarist Samuel Pepys, a contemporary of Hooke, called Micrographia “the most ingenious book that I ever read.” Allan Chapman, a historian of science at Oxford University, described the work as “one of the formative books of the modern world.”
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Hooke was appointed surveyor. He worked closely with his friend Christopher Wren, a fellow scientist and surveyor to the king, in rebuilding the city. Among Hooke’s many designs is London’s 202-foot-tall [62 m] Monument, erected to commemorate the fire. Hooke intended to use The Monument, the tallest freestanding stone column in the world, to test his theories on gravity.
Although the Royal Observatory Greenwich is attributed to Wren, Hooke played a major part in its design. Montague House, first home of the British Museum, was another of Hooke’s many projects.
Hooke excelled as an astronomer and was among the first to build a reflecting telescope, which he named after Scottish mathematician and astronomer James Gregory. Hooke observed that the planet Jupiter rotates on its axis, and his sketches of Mars were used two centuries later to determine the planet’s rate of rotation.
In 1687, Isaac Newton published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Released 22 years after Hooke’s Micrographia, Newton’s work described the laws of motion, including the law of gravity. But as Allan Chapman observes, Hooke “developed many of the components of gravitation theory before Newton.” Newton’s research into the nature of light had also been stimulated by Hooke’s work.
Sadly, arguments about optics and gravity soured the relationship between the two men. Newton even removed references to Hooke from Mathematical Principles. According to one authority, Newton also tried to erase Hooke’s contributions to science from the records. Additionally, Hooke’s instruments
Ironically, it was in a letter to Hooke dated February 5, 1675, that Newton wrote his famous words: “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” As an architect, astronomer, experimental scientist, inventor, and surveyor, Robert Hooke was a giant in his day.