July 18 – Happy Birthday, Robert Hooke

Posted on July 18, 2014

Was he an unpleasant guy who tried to take credit for other people's ideas?

Or was he a misunderstood, underrated genius?

Robert Hooke, born on this date in 1635, started off life with little money but a lot of scientific curiosity. He ended up achieving wealth and great standing as a scientist, architect, surveyor and all-around polymath (a person who excels at many things). 

Historian Allan Chapman has called Hooke “England's Leonardo,” referring to Leonardo da Vinci, who was also accomplished in many different fields. But everyone has heard of Leonardo, and Hooke barely (if at all) rings a bell with most of us. 

This is probably because of Hooke's disagreements with several other star scientists of his time, such as Isaac Newton; Hooke became involved in disputes about which scientist had priority and deserved credit for various ideas and innovations. 

I would venture to say that Hooke won several of the science history battles but lost the P.R. war.

Here are some things that Hooke accomplished:

(Can you see things in this painting
that refer to these accomplishments?)
  • Curator of experiments at the Royal Society.
  • Gresham Professor of Geometry
  • Surveyor to the City of London after the Great Fire of London
  • an important architect of his time, assistant to the great Christopher Wren
  • built the vacuum pumps used in Boyle's gas law experiments
  • built some of the earliest Gregorian telescopes, observed planets rotating
  • inspired use of microscopes for scientific exploration with his book Micrographia
  • early proponent of evolution
  • investigated light and refraction of light; deduced wave theory of light
  • first to suggest that matter expands when heated
  • first to suggest that air is made of small particles spread out thinly
  • innovated in fields of surveying and map-making
  • suggested (but didn't prove) that gravity follows an inverse square law
  • discovered law of elasticity
  • developed balance spring or hairspring, to be used in watches to keep time
  • developed one of the first scientific models of human memory

When I mention that Hooke lost the P.R. war and is not as famous as his accomplishments would warrant, one important factor is that none of his portraits have survived! The portrait included here is modern and speculative.

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