Hooke, Robert

, an eminent English mathematician, and one of the most inventive geniuses that the world has ever seen, was son of Mr. John Hooke, rector of Freshwater in the Isle of Wight, and born there July 18, 1635. He was designed for the church; but being of a weakly constitution, and very subject to the head-ache, he was left to follow the bent of his genius, which led him to mechanics, and first appeared in his making little toys, which he did with wonderful art and dexterity. Seeing, on one occasion, an old brass clock taken to pieces, he made a wooden one that would go: he made likewise a small ship about a yard long, fitly shaped, masted, and rigged, with a contrivance to make it fire small guns, as it was sailing across a haven of some breadth. These indications led his friends to think of some trade for him in which such talents might be useful; and after his father’s death in 1648, as he had also a turn for drawing, he was placed with sir Peter Lely, but the smell of the oil-colours increased his headaches, and he quitted painting in a very short time.*


Aubrey says he had some instructions in drawing from the celebrated Sam. Cooper, but does not know whether this was before or after he went to Lely. He gives us an apecdote of Hooke, however, which is very characteristic of that sordid regard for money which predominated all his life. His father left him 100l. which was to have been paid as au apprentice fee to Lely; but after he had been some time upon trial, Hooke left him, as thinking he could do all that was to be done, and keep his hundred pounds. When he went to Busby’s he “lodged his 100l. with him.” Letters by Eminent Persons, 1813, 3 vois. 8vo.

Afterwards he was kindly taken by Dr. Busby into his house, and supported there while he attended Westminster-school. Here he not only acquired Greek and Latin, together with some knowledge of Hebrew and other oriental languages, but also made himself master of a good part of Euclid’s Elements; and Wood adds, that while he lived with Dr. Busby he “learned of his own accord to play twenty lessons on the organ, and invented thirty several ways of flying as himself and Dr. Wilkins of Wadham- college have reported.| About 1653 he went to Christ-church, Oxford, and in 1655 was introduced to the philosophical society there; where, discovering his mechanic genius, he was first employed to assist Dr. Willis in his operations of chemistry, and afterwards recommended to Mr. Boyle, whom he served many years in the same capacity. He was also instructed about this time by Dr. Seth Ward, Savilian professor of astronomy, in that science; and from henceforward distinguished himself by a greater number of important inventions and improvements of the mechanic kind, than any one man had ever discovered. Among these were several astronomical instruments for making observations both at sea and land; and he was particularly serviceable to Boyle, in completing the air-pump. Wood tells us, that he also explained “Euclid’s Elements,” and “Des Cartes’s Philosophy,” to Boyle. In Nov. 1662, sir Robert Moray, then president, having proposed him for curator of experiments to the Royal Society, he was unanimously accepted, and it was ordered that Boyle should have the thanks of the society for dispensing with him for their use; and that he should come and sit among them, and both exhibit every day three or four of his own experiments, and take care of such others as should be mentioned to him by the society. He executed this office so much to their satisfaction, that when that body was established by the royal charter, his name was in the list of those who were first nominated by the council, May 20, 1663; and he was admitted accordingly, June 3, with a peculiar exemption from all payments. Sept. 28 of the same year, he was nominated by Clarendon, chancellor of Oxford, for the degree of M.A.; and Oct. 19, it was ordered that the repository of the Royal Society should be committed to his care, the white gallery in Gresham-college being appointed for that use. In May 1664, he began to read the astronomical lecture at Gresham for the professor, Dr. Pope, theri in Italy; and the same year was made professor of mechanics to the Royal Society by Sir John Cutler, with a salary of 50l. per annum, which that gentleman, the founder, v settled upon him for life. On Jan. 11, 1664-5, he was elected by that society curator of experiments for life, with an additional salary of“30l. per annum to sir John Cutler’s annuity, settled on him” pro tempore:“and, March folJowing, was elected professor of geometry in Greshamcollege. | In 1665, he published in folio his” Micrographia, or some philosophical descriptions of minute bodies, made by magnifying glasses, with observations and enquiries thereupon:" and the same year, during the recess of the Royal Society on account of the plague, attended Dr. Wilkins and other ingenious gentlemen into Surrey, where they made several experiments. In Sept. 1666, he produced his plan for rebuilding the city of London, then destroyed by the great fire; which was approved by the lord -may or and court of aldermen. According to it, all the chief streets were to have been built in regular lines; all the other cross streets to have turned out of them at right angles; and all the churches, public buildings, marketplacesj &c. to have beetl fixed in proper and convenient places; but the nature of the property, and the impossibility of raising funds to indemnify the landholders who would be injured by this scheme, prevented its being carried into execution. The rebuilding of the city, however, according to the act of parliament, requiring an able person to set out the ground to the several proprietors, Hooke was appointed one of the city surveyors, and Oliver, a glass-painter, the other. In this employment he acquired -the greatest part of that estate of which he died possessed; as appeared sufficiently evident from a large iron chest of money found after his death, locked down with a key in it, and a date of the time, which shewed that the contents had been so shut up for above thirty years, and seldom disturbed, for he almost starved himself and all in his house.

In 1668, Hevelius, the famous astronomer at Dantzick, presented a copy of his “Cometographia” to Hooke, in acknowledgment for an handsome compliment which Hooke had paid to him on account of his “Selenographia,” printed in 1647; and Hooke, in return, sent Hevelius a description of the dioptric telescope, with an account of his manner of using 1 it, and recommended it to him as preferable to those with plain sights. This circumstance gave rise to a great dispute betwee’n them, noticed in our account of Hevelius, hi which many learned men afterwards engaged, and which Hooke so managed, as to be univeraiiy condemned, though it has since been agreed that he had the best side of the question. In 1671 he -attacked sir Isaac Newton’s “New Theory of Light and Colours;” where, though he was forced to submit in respect to the argument, he is said to have couie off with a better reputation than in the former instance. The Royal | Society having begun their meetings at Gresham-college, in Nov. 1674, the committee in December allowed him 40l. to erect a turret over part of his lodgings, for proving his instruments, and making astronomical observations; and the year following he published “A Description of Telescopes, and some other instruments,” made by him, with a postscript, complaining of some injustice done him by Oldenburg, the publisher of the “Philosophical Transactions,” in regard to his invention of pendulum watches. This charge drew him into a dispute with that gentleman, which ended in a declaration of the Royal Society in their secretary’s favour. Oldenburg dying in Aug. 1677, Hooke was appointed to supply his place, and began to take minutes at the meeting in October, and published seven numbers of the “Philosophical Collections,” which have been always considered as a part of the “Philosophical Transactions.” Soon after this be grew more reserved than formerly, and though he read his Cutlerian lectures, and often made experiments, and shewed new inventions before the Royal Society, yet’he seldom left any account of them to be entered in their registers, designing, as he said, to fit them for himself, and make them public, which however he never performed. In 1636, when sir Isaac Newton’s Principia were published, Hooke, with that jealousy which was natural to him, claimed priority respecting the idea of gravitation. Newton, with a candour equally natural to him, admitted his claim, but shewed at the same time that Hooke’s notion of gravitation was different from his own, and that it did not coincide with the phenomena. In reality, the notion of gravitation is as ancient at least as the days of Lucretius, and is particularly notice<i by Kepler. Newton’s merit consisted, not in ascribing the planetary motions to gravitation, but in determining the law which gravitation follow:;, and in shewing that it exactly accounts for all the planetary phenomena, which no other system. does.

In 1687, his brother’s daughter, Mrs. Grace Hooke, who had lived with him several years, died; and he was so affected at her death, that he hardly ever recovered it, but was observed from that time to grow less active, more melancholy, and, if possible, more cynical than ever. At the same time a chancery-suit, in which he was concerned with sir John Cutler, on account of his salary for reading the Cutlerian lectures, made him very uneasy, and | increased his disorder. In 1691, he was employed in forming the plan of the hospital near Hoxton, (bun Jed by Aske, alderman of London, who appointed archbishop Tillotson one of his executors; and in December the same year, Hooke was created M. D. by a warrant from that prelate. He is also said to have been the architect of Bedlam, and the College of Physicians. In July 1696, his chancerysuit for sir John Cutler’s salary was determined in his favour, to his inexpressible satisfaction. His joy on that occasion was found in his diary thus expressed “Domshlgissa that is, Deo Optimo Maximo sit honor, laus, gloria, in saecula saeculorum. Amen. I was born on this day of July, 1635, and God has given me a new birth: may I never forget his mercies to me! whilst he gives me breath may I praise him!” The same year an order was granted to him for repeating most of his experiments, at the expence of the Royal Society, upon a promise of his finishing the accounts, observations, and deductions from them, and of perfecting the description of all the instruments contrived by him, which his increasing illness and general decay rendered him unable to perform. For the two or three last years of his life he is said to have sat night and day at a table, engrossed with his inventions and studies, and never to have gone to bed, or even undressed; and in this wasting condition, and quite emaciated, he died March 3, 1702, at his lodgings in Gresham-college, and was buried in St. Helen’s church, Bishopsgate- street, his corpse being attended by all the members of the Royal Society then in London.

Waller, the writer of his life, has given the following character of him, which, though not an amiable one, seems to be drawn with candour and impartiality. He was in person but a despicable figure; short of stature, very crooked, pale, lean, and of a meagre aspect, with dark brown hair, very long, and hanging over his face, uncut, and lank. Suitable to this person, his temper was penurious, melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous; which qualities increased upon him with his years. He set out in his youth with a collegiate or rather a monastic recluseness, and afterwards led the life of a cynical hermit; scarcely allowing himself necessaries, notwithstanding the great increase of his fortunes after the fire in London .*


Sir Godfrey Copley, in a letter written about the time of Hooke’s death, says, " Mr. Hooke is very crazy much concerned for fear he should outlive his


estate. He hath starved one old woman already; and I believe he will endanger himself to save sixpence for any thing he wants.“In another, written a few weeks after his death, Sir Godfrey says, I wonder old Dr. Hooke did not choose rather to leave his 1-2.000l. to continue what he had promoted and studied all the days of his life, I mean mathematical experiments, than to have it go to those whom he never saw or cared for. It is rare that virtuosos die rich, and it is pity they should if they were like him." Dr. Ducarel’s Mss. in Mr. Nichols’s possession.

He declared | sometimes, that he had a great project in his head as to the disposal of his estate, for the advancement of natural knowledge, and to promote the ends and designs for which the Royal Society was instituted; to build a handsome fabric for the society’s use, with a library, repository, laboratory, and other conveniences for making experiments; and to found and endow a physico-mechanic lecture like that of sir John Cutler. But though he was often solicited by his friends to put his designs down in writing, and make his will as to the disposal of his estate, yet he could never be prevailed on to do it, but died without any will that could be found. In like manner, with respect to his philosophical treasures, when he first became known to the learned world, he was very communicative of his inventions and discoveries, but afterwards grew close and reserved to a fault; alleclging for an excuse, that some persons challenged his discoveries for their own, and took occasion from his hints to perfect what he had not finished. For this reason he would suggest nothing, till he had time to perfect it himself; so that many things are lost which he affirmed he knew, though he was not supposed to know every thing which he affirmed. For instance, not many weeks before his death, he told Mr. Waller and others, that he knew a certain and infallible method of discovering the longitude at sea; yet it is evident that his friends distrusted his asseveration of this discovery; and how little credit was then given to it in general, appears from Waller’s own account. “Hooke,” says he, “suffering this invention to be undiscovered to the last, gave some persons cause to question, whether he was ever the possessor of it; and to doubt whether what in theory seemed very promising, would answer when put in practice. Others indeed more severely judged, that it was only a kind of boasting in him to assert that which had not been performed though attempted by many.” In the religious part of his character he was so far exemplary, that he always expressed a great veneration for the Deity, and seldom received any | remarkable benefit in life, or made any considerable discovery in nature, or invented any useful contrivance, or found out any difficult problem, without setting down his acknowledgment to God, as many places in his diary plainly shew. He frequently studied the sacred writings in the originals; for he vvas acquainted with the ancient languages, as well as with all the parts of mathematics. “To conclude,” says Waller, “all Ins errors and blemishes were more than made amends for by the greatness and extent of his natural and acquired p-trts, and more than common if not wonderful sagacity, in diving into the most hidden secrets of nature, and in contriving proper methods of forcing her to confess the truth, by driving and pursuing the Proteus through all her changes to her last and utmost recesses. There needs no other proof of this, than the great number of experiments he made, with the contrivances for them, amounting to some hundreds; his new and useful instruments and inventions, which were numerous; his admirable facility and clearness in explaining the phenomena of nature, and demonstrating his assertions; his happy talent in adapting theories to the phenomena observed, and contriving easy and plain, not pompous and amusing, experiments to back and prove those theories; proceeding from obsenations to theories, and from theories to farther trials, which he asserted to be the most proper method to succeed in the interpretation of nature. For these his happy qualifications he was much respected by the most learned philosophers at home and abroad; and as with all his failures he may be reckoned among the great men of the last age, so, had he been free from them, possibly he might have stood in the front.

His papers being put by his friends into the hands of Richard Waller, esq. secretary to the Royal Society, that gentleman collected such as he thought worthy of the press, and published them under the tide of his “Posthumous Works,” in 1705, to which he prefixed an account of his life, in folio.- It is thought, that this gentleman would have published more of Hooke’s manuscripts, had he lived. Mr. Professor Robison of Edinburgh, who ascribes the invention of spring watches to Hooke, had an opportunity of seeing some of Hooke’s Mss. that had been rescued from the fire at the burning of Gresham-college, and says that they are full of systematic views many of them, it must be acknowledged, hasty, inaccurate, and | futile, but still systematical. Hooke called them algebras, and considered thein as having a sort of inventive power, or rather as means of discovering things unknown by a process somewhat similar to that art He valued himself highly on account of this view of science, which he thought peculiar to himself: and he frequently speaks of others, even the most eminent, as childishly contenting themselves with partial views of the corners of things. He was likewise very apt to consider other inventors as encroacbers on his systems, which he held as a kind of property, being seriously determined to prosecute them all in their turn, and never recollecting that any new object immediately called him off, and engaged him for a while in the most eager pursuit. His algebras had given him many signal helps, and he had no doubt of carrying them through in every investigation. Stimulated by this overfond expectation, when a discovery was mentioned to him he was too apt to think and to say, that he had long ago invented the same thing, when the truth probably was, that the course of his systematic thoughts on the subjects with which it was connected had really suggested it to him, with such vivacity, or with such notions of its importance, as to make him set it down in his register in its own systematic place, which was his constant practice: but it was put out of his mind by some new object of pursuit. These remarks are part of a series, by the same learned professor, on the merits and inventions of Dr. Hooke, which are new, and highly necessary to enable the reader to form a just estimate of Hooke as a benefactor to science. They are to be found in the “Encyclopaedia Britannica,” under the article Watch, and in Dr. Gleig’s supplement to that work, under Hooke. No English biographer appears to have done so much justice to our philosopher. 1 >1