Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hooke, Robert

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HOOKE, ROBERT (1635–1703), experimental philosopher, was born on 18 July 1635 at Freshwater in the Isle of Wight, his father, the Rev. John Hooke, being minister of the parish. Although of a sickly constitution, he was sprightly and quick-witted; but headaches precluded study, and the design of educating him for the church was abandoned. Left to himself, he sought diversion in constructing mechanical toys, among others a wooden clock ‘that would go,’ and a model of a ship ‘with a contrivance to make it fire off some small guns, as it was sailing across a haven of a pretty breadth.’ His father died in October 1648, leaving him 100l., with which he went to London, and became for a short time a pupil of Sir Peter Lely. He then entered Westminster School, and lived in the house of Dr. Busby [q. v.] Here he acquired Latin and Greek, with a smattering of Hebrew, and other oriental languages, and astonished his teachers by mastering the six books of Euclid in one week. It is added that he did besides, ‘of his own accord, learn to play twenty lessons on the organ, and invented thirty several ways of flying.’

In 1653 he entered Christ Church Oxford, as a chorister or servitor, and proceeded M.A. on 28 Sept. 1663, on the nomination of Lord Clarendon, chancellor of the university. His mechanical skill brought him to the notice of a concourse of learned men at Oxford in 1655; he communicated his artifices for flying to John Wilkins [q. v.], then warden of Wadham College, studied astronomy by the advice of Seth Ward [q. v.], assisted Thomas Willis [q. v.] in his chemistry, and was by him recommended to the Hon. Robert Boyle [q. v.], whom he materially aided in the construction of his air-pump. Hooke is said by Wood to have also ‘read to him Euclid's “Elements,” and made him to understand Descartes.’ A small tract on capillary attraction, published by Hooke in 1661 (included in his Micrographia, p. 10), won attention from the Royal Society, and on 12 Nov. 1662 he was appointed their curator of experiments, when Boyle was thanked for dispensing with his services (Birch, Hist. Royal Society, i. 124). His election as fellow on 3 June 1663 carried with it exemption from all charges (ib. i. 250); he was frequently a member of the council, and the society's repository was committed to his care on 19 Oct. 1663. In June 1664 Sir John Cutler [q. v.] founded, for Hooke's benefit, a lecture of 50l. a year, leaving the number and subjects of his discourses to the discretion of the Royal Society (ib. i. 484); and his office of curator was, on 11 Jan. 1665, made perpetual, with a salary of 30l. and apartments in Gresham College, Bishopsgate Street, where he resided during the remainder of his life. His nomination as professor of geometry in Gresham College followed on 20 March 1665, and he read astronomical lectures in the same institution as locum tenens for Dr. Pope in 1664–5.

The registers of the Royal Society testify to the eagerness with which Hooke hurried from one inquiry to another with brilliant but inconclusive results. Among those which early engaged his attention were the nature of the air, its function in respiration and combustion, specific weights, the laws of falling bodies, the improvement of land-carriage and diving-bells, methods of telegraphy, and the relation of barometrical readings to changes in the weather. He measured the vibrations of a pendulum two hundred feet long attached to the steeple of St. Paul's; invented a useful machine for cutting the teeth of watch-wheels; fixed the thermometrical zero at the freezing-point of water; and ascertained (in July 1664) the number of vibrations corresponding to musical notes. This he explained on 8 Aug. 1666 to Pepys, who thought his ‘discourse in general mighty fine,’ but his pretension ‘to tell how many strokes a fly makes with her wings’ ‘a little too much refined’ (Diary, iv. 43, Bright's ed.) In 1665 was published his ‘Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies,’ a book full of ingenious ideas and singular anticipations. It contained the earliest investigation of the ‘fantastical colours’ of thin plates, with a quasi-explanation by interference (p. 66), the first notice of the ‘black spot’ in soap-bubbles, and a theory of light, as ‘a very short vibrative motion’ transverse to straight lines of propagation through a ‘homogeneous medium.’ Heat was defined as ‘a property of a body arising from the motion or agitation of its parts’ (p. 37), and the real nature of combustion was pointed out (p. 103) in detail, eleven years before the publication of Mayow's similar discovery (see Nicholson, Journal, iii. 497; Robison's Note 13 to Black's Elements of Chemistry, i. 535).

While the plague raged in London, Hooke was employed as philosophical assistant by Dr. Wilkins and Sir William Petty, at Durdans, the seat of the Earl of Berkeley, near Epsom; and the meetings of the Royal Society having been resumed, he read, on 21 March 1666, a discourse on gravity, containing the happy idea of measuring its force by the swinging of a pendulum. This was followed, after two months, by a paper on curvilinear motion, illustrated with the aid of the ‘circular pendulum,’ an unacknowledged loan from Horrocks (Birch, Hist. Royal Society, ii. 90; Grant, Hist. of Astronomy, p. 425). By this means Hooke showed experimentally that the centre of gravity of the earth and moon is the point describing an ellipse round the sun. The clear statement of the planetary movements as a problem in mechanics dates from this remarkable essay. About this time Hooke presented to the Royal Society the first screw-divided quadrant, an anemometer (described in Phil. Trans. ii. 444), of a form lately recommended for universal use by Professor Wild (Scott, Meteorology, p. 150), and a ‘weather-clock.’ He applied the circular pendulum to watches (Birch, Hist. Royal Society, ii. 97), experimented upon himself in an exhausted receiver, and on 12 June 1667 discoursed on the effects of earthquakes. On 19 Sept. 1667 he exhibited a model for rebuilding the city after the great fire, which, though not adopted, procured him the appointment of city surveyor. In this lucrative employment he accumulated some thousands of pounds, found after his death in an iron chest, unopened for thirty years. Among the buildings designed by him were the new Bethlehem Hospital, Montague House, and the College of Physicians; and he planned in 1691 Alderman Aske's Hospital at Hoxton.

Hooke's astronomical observations showed characteristic acuteness, originality, and inconsequence. He was the first to infer the rotation of Jupiter from the movement of a spot noted on 9 May 1664 (Phil. Trans. i. 3, 245), but left it to Cassini to determine its period. His drawings of Mars on 12 March 1666 (ib. p. 239) served Proctor, after more than two centuries, to fix that planet's exact rate of rotation. The fifth star in the Orion trapezium, rediscovered by Struve in 1826, was casually noted by him on 7 Sept. 1664 (Micrographia, p. 242; Memoirs Royal Astronomical Society, iii. 189). His observations of the comet of 1664 were communicated to the Royal Society on 1 Aug. 1666; and he made in 1669 the earliest attempt at the telescopic determination of the parallax of a fixed star. Observing γ Draconis for the purpose from July to October with a 36-foot telescope pointed through an aperture in the roof of Gresham College, he perceived displacements intimating (as he thought) a parallax of 25″ to 30″, but desisted from further inquiry. His illusory result led to Bradley's discovery of aberration. These experiments formed the subject of Hooke's Cutlerian lectures in 1670, published in 1674 as ‘An Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth by Observations.’ The first observation of a star by daylight was recorded in this little work (p. 27).

Hooke, perhaps unaware that Grimaldi had anticipated him, described the phenomena of the diffraction of light in two papers in 1672 and 1675. He was a member of the committee of the Royal Society, to which Newton's communication on the different refrangibilities of light was referred in January 1672, and on 15 Feb. imparted his grounds of objection to it (Birch, Hist. Royal Society, iii. 10). Newton made an elaborate reply (Newtoni Opera, iv. 322), but his ‘Discourse’ on colour on 9 and 16 Dec. 1675 was met by Hooke's declaration that ‘the main of it was contained in the “Micrographia”’ (Birch, Hist. Royal Society, iii. 269). Newton vindicated his originality (ib. p. 278), but a conciliatory private letter from Hooke evoked a reply acknowledging important obligations (Brewster, Life of Newton, i. 140).

In a simultaneous controversy with Hevelius, Hooke prejudiced a good cause by bad manners. Hevelius having ignored his recommendation of telescopic sights, he devoted several Cutlerian lectures to unfriendly comments on that ‘curious and pompous book,’ the ‘Machina Cœlestis.’ Hooke's acrid, though just, arguments were collected as ‘Animadversions on the First Part of the “Machina Cœlestis”’ (1674), in which he inserted descriptions of a ‘water-level’ (p. 61), and of a mode of giving clockwork motion to a parallactic instrument (p. 68).

There is no doubt of Hooke's priority in the application of a spiral spring to regulate the balance of watches; but here again his peevish temper brought him discredit. The invention, arrived at about 1658, was designed to solve the problem of longitudes, and Boyle and Brouncker endeavoured to secure him a patent, but he declined their terms, and concealed the improvement until Huygens rediscovered it in 1675. He then caused some of his ‘new watches’ to be constructed by Tompion (one of which was presented to Charles II), and published the principle involved in them of the isochronism of springs in the maxim ‘ut tensio, sic vis,’ appended in cryptographic form to ‘A Description of Helioscopes’ (1676). A quarrel with Oldenburg on the subject culminated in Hooke's accusation of him as ‘a trafficker in intelligence,’ an expression which the Royal Society obliged him to withdraw. It was contained in a postscript to his ‘Lampas, or a Description of some Mechanical Improvements of Lamps and Water-poises’ (1677).

Hooke acted as secretary to the Royal Society after Oldenburg's death, from 25 Oct. 1677 to 30 Nov. 1682, and edited seven numbers of ‘Philosophical Collections,’ substituted by him for the ‘Transactions.’ He declined the post of librarian to the Royal Society in 1679. His ‘Lectures and Collections’ (1678) included ‘Cometa,’ dealing chiefly with the great comet of 1677, and ‘Microscopium.’ His ‘Lectures de Potentiâ restitutiva’ (1678) are designated by Professor Tait (Properties of Matter, p. 194) as ‘a very curious pamphlet containing some remarkably close anticipations of modern theories.’ He expounded in it the true theory of elasticity, and (virtually) the kinetic hypothesis of gases (p. 15). His ‘Lectiones Cutlerianæ’ (1679) were a reissue, under one cover, of the discourses already separately published.

Hooke divined before Newton the true doctrine of universal gravitation, but wanted the mathematical ability to demonstrate it. The mutual attraction of the heavenly bodies was no secret to him, and he foresaw in 1670 that ‘the true understanding of this principle will be the true perfection of astronomy’ (Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth, p. 28). But his promise to ‘explain a system of the world answering in all things to the common rules of mechanical motions’ remained unfulfilled. He, however, stated the law of inverse squares in his ‘Cometa’ (1678), and a letter from him in 1679, containing a sagacious conjecture relative to the paths of projectiles, induced Newton ‘to resume his former thoughts concerning the moon’ (Brewster, Life, i. 287). Hooke's protests, on the presentation of the ‘Principia’ to the Royal Society, that ‘he gave Newton the first hint of this invention,’ evoked the scholium to the fourth proposition of the first book, admitting his anticipation of the law of inverse squares; but Newton's irritation led him to suppress his ‘Optics’ until after Hooke's death. His other inventions included an odometer, an ‘otocousticon’ as an aid to hearing, a sounding-machine, and a reflecting quadrant (Sprat, History of the Royal Society, p. 246). He first asserted the true principle of the arch, and described in 1684 a practicable system of telegraphy. The ‘wheel barometer’ and ‘double barometer,’ the universal joint, the anchor escapement of clocks, originated with him. He constructed an arithmetical machine, and in 1674 the first Gregorian telescope; propounded on 19 March 1675 a remarkable theory of the variation of the compass; recommended for helioscopes the principle of diagonal reflections; anticipated Chladni's method of showing the nodal lines in vibrating surfaces; explained in 1667 the scintillation of the stars by irregular atmospheric refractions; inferred the action of a solar repellent force in producing the tails of comets (Posthumous Works, p. 168); suggested the motion of the sun among the stars (ib. p. 506); and propounded correct notions as to the nature of fossils and the succession of living things upon the globe (ib. pp. 291, 333). Halley described his last invention, a ‘marine barometer,’ to the Royal Society in February 1700 (Phil. Trans. xxii. 791).

Hooke's mind was so prolific that there was scarcely a discovery made in his time which he did not conceive himself entitled to claim. To guard against infringements of his supposed rights, he adopted from 1682 a policy of reserve, designing thenceforward to perfect before suggesting his inventions. In June 1696 an order was granted to him for renewing his experiments at the expense of the Royal Society, but his strength was no longer equal to the task. The death, in 1687, of his niece and housekeeper, Mrs. Grace Hooke, the daughter of his elder brother, a grocer at Newport, permanently affected his spirits, and he suffered from headaches, giddiness, and faintings. A chancery suit with Sir John Cutler about his salary, decided in his favour in 1696, aggravated his ill-health. He was created a doctor of physic at Doctors' Commons by a warrant from Archbishop Tillotson in December 1691; read a ‘curious discourse’ on the tower of Babel before the Royal Society in 1692, and expounded Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’ in 1693. But his health was broken, and during the last year of his life he was rendered helpless by blindness and swelling of the legs. He died at Gresham College on 3 March 1703, at the age of sixty-seven, and was buried in the church of St. Helen, Bishopsgate Street. Among his many unfulfilled projects was that of a testamentary disposition of his estate for the benefit of natural science.

His biographer, Waller, describes him as ‘in person but despicable, being crooked and low of stature, and as he grew older more and more deformed. He was always very pale and lean, and latterly nothing but skin and bone, with a meagre aspect, his eyes grey and full, with a sharp, ingenious look whilst younger. He wore his own hair of a dark brown colour, very long, and hanging neglected over his face uncut and lank, which about three years before his death he cut off, and wore a periwig. He went stooping and very fast, having but a light body to carry, and a great deal of spirits and activity, especially in his youth. He was of an active, restless, indefatigable genius, even almost to the last, and always slept little to his death, oftenest continuing his studies all night, and taking a short nap in the day. His temper was melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous, which more increased upon him with his years.’ He led ‘a collegiate, almost monastic life,’ latterly rendered sordid by penury, and was in his way religious, though his mind was warped by congenital infirmities of body and temper.

His ‘wonderful sagacity in diving into the most hidden secrets of nature’ was in great measure neutralised by the desultoriness of his inquiries. But his power of forecasting discovery was extraordinary, and he was the greatest mechanic of his age. He professed to have made a ‘century of inventions.’

Hooke's papers were, after his death, placed in the hands of Richard Waller, F.R.S., who edited from them in 1705 a folio volume of ‘Posthumous Works,’ prefixing a life of the author, to a small extent autobiographical. The volume includes: 1. A discourse ‘On the Present Deficiency of Natural Philosophy,’ expounding a ‘Philosophical Algebra’ upon Baconian principles, for the purpose of reducing discovery to a teachable art. 2. A ‘Treatise on Light, including Observations and Speculations on the Comets of 1680 and 1682.’ 3. ‘An Hypothetical Explanation of Memory.’ 4. ‘An Hypothesis of the Cause of Gravity,’ found in a ‘propagated pulse’ of the ether. 5. ‘Discourses of Earthquakes,’ termed by Mallet ‘a diffuse sort of system of physical geology, full of suggestive thoughts’ (Quarterly Journal of Science, i. 59). 6. ‘Lectures for improving Navigation and Astronomy.’ Waller died before a projected second volume appeared, and some of the remaining manuscripts furnished Derham's ‘Philosophical Experiments and Observations’ in 1726. An abridgment of Hooke's ‘Micrographia’ was published at London in 1780. His unpublished remains were collected by Dr. Thomas Stack into one volume, believed to exist in the library of the Royal Society (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xii. 429). A few of his papers are preserved in the British Museum (Addit. MSS. 6193–4).

[Waller's Life of Hooke, Posthumous Works, 1705; Biog. Brit. iv. 1757; Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iv. 628; Birch's Hist. of the Royal Society, passim; Weld's Hist. of the Royal Society, vol. i.; Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Society, p. 332; Cunningham's Lives of Eminent Englishmen, iv. 331; Aubrey's Lives of Eminent Men, ii. 403; Martin's Biographia Philosophica, 1764, p. 322; Aikin's General Biography, 1804; Works of Hon. R. Boyle, 1772, vi. 481–509; Hutton's Mathematical Dict. 1815; Acta Eruditorum, 1707, p. 149 (review of Posthumous Works); Journal des Sçavans, December 1666 (review of Micrographia); Grant's Hist. of Physical Astronomy, passim; Whewell's Hist. of Inductive Sciences, vol. ii.; Baden Powell's Hist. of Nat. Philosophy, p. 257; Brewster's Life of Newton, vol. i. and Appendix No. viii.; Rigaud's Correspondence of Scientific Men; Ward's Lives of the Gresham Professors, 1740, i. 169; Sherburne's Sphere of M. Manilius, 1675, p. 112; General Dict. vi. 1738; Marie's Hist. des Sciences, v. 111; Poggendorff's Hist. de la Physique, p. 344, &c.; Delambre's Hist. de l'Astr. Moderne, ii. 591; Delambre's Hist. de l'Astr. au XVIIIe Siècle, p. 9; Bailly's Hist. de l'Astr. Moderne, ii. 320, 426, 463, 654; Montucla's Hist. des Mathématiques, ii. 571, 589; Mädler's Geschichte der Himmelskunde, i. 365; Wolf's Gesch. der Astronomie, p. 461; Weidler's Historia Astronomiæ, 1741, p. 534; Bradley's Misc. Works, p. xii (Rigaud); Edinburgh Review, No. 311, p. 15; Monthly Notices of Roy. Astr. Society, xiv. 77, xxv. 219; Lalande's Bibl. Astronomique; Watt's Bibl. Brit.]

A. M. C.