Saturday 27 September 2014

Men of Yore: Robert Hooke

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

An artists impression of Robert Hooke.  (There is no known image of him.)

The British natural philosopher, architect and polymath, Robert Hooke is perhaps the most neglected natural philosophers of all time despite the significant role he played in the scientific revolution. His prominent contributions include: the iris diaphragm in cameras, the universal joint used in motor vehicles, the balance wheel in a watch, the origination of the word ‘cell’ in biology, he was Surveyor of the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666, architect, experimenter, worked in astronomy – yet is acknowledged mostly for Hooke’s Law.

His name is somewhat obscure today, due in part to the hostility of his well-known and dominant colleague, Sir Isaac Newton.

Early Life:
Robert was born on the 18th of July 1635 at Freshwater, in the Isle of Wight, England. He was the last of the four children of John Hooke and Mirena Blazer. His father was the minister of the Church of England. Most of his early life, Robert had a poor health due to which he received most of his early education at home from his father, who was also in charge of a local school. As a youth, Robert had a natural curiosity in his surroundings and interest in mechanical works and drawing that he pursued in various ways all through his life.

At the age of thirteen young Hooke was able to enter Westminster School, and from there went to Oxford, where some of the finest scientists in England were working at the time. There he built a good impression with his skills at designing experiments and building equipment. He was appointed as a chemical assistant to Dr Thomas Willis and later met the natural philosopher Robert Boyle, and gained a position as his assistant from about 1655 to 1662.

Contributions and Achievements:
During November 1661 he was appointed curator of experiments to the Royal Society after a proposition made by Sir Robert Murray. In 1664 Sir John Cutler settled an annual gratuity of fifty pounds on the Society for mechanical lectureship and in the following year Robert was nominated professor of geometry in Gresham College, where he later resided. After the Great Fire of 1666 he constructed a model for the rebuilding of the city, which was highly approved, although the design of Sir Christopher Wren was preferred.

Hooke’s contribution to biology is mainly his book Micrographia which was published in 1665. He developed the compound microscope and illumination system (one of the best such microscopes of his time) and used it in his demonstrations at the Royal Society’s meetings. Using it he also observed organisms as varied as insects, sponges, bryozoans, foraminifera, and bird feathers. This was a best-seller during his time.

His other contributions include: the law of elasticity, attracting principle of gravity, he resolved the problem of the measurement of the distance to a star, it was him who actually created the air pump on which Boyle’s experiments could be conducted, etc.

This inspirational founder of modern science passed away on March 3, 1703 in London, England.


An example of a polymath, whose interests ranged from urban planning (re-designing a whole capital city no less!), to astronomy, to micro-biology.  Some mens lives tend towards focussing on one particular field while other men (like Robert Hooke) take interest in many fields.  No one particular path is the 'right way' and is thus superior to the other.  Both paths are equally valid and should be equally valued.  Which means that the men who choose one path instead of the other should also be valued: the high-IQ, high-earning polymath working in the university who studies many things is equally as valuable as the moderate-IQ, moderate-earning paper-make who repetitively performs the same task over and over again (and supplies the scientist with the paper he needs to do his will).  Both perform a taks that is beneficial to themselves and to the other man.


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