Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, and the Royal Society
Notes and Records has published an article that brings attention to three manuscript letters by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton. We asked the author, Thomas Matthew Vozar, some questions about his studies.
Tell us briefly about your article and your research area.
My general area of expertise is early modern literary, cultural, and intellectual history, with a particular focus on Britain and Europe in the seventeenth century. My new article for Notes and Records brings to light several letters by the eminent seventeenth-century English scientists Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton (both of whom also at different times led the Royal Society) held in the Darmstaedter manuscript collection at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library).
What prompted you to look at the collection of Ludwig Darmstaedter?
As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hamburg I'm currently working on a book about humanistic scholarship and politics in the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s, generously funded by a grant from the German government, and I was originally drawn to the Darmstaedter collection by some unrelated correspondence by mid-seventeenth-century humanists like the French classical scholar Claudius Salmasius.
Can you discuss briefly the Darmstaedter collection as a whole?
The Darmstaedter collection is a massive manuscript collection, containing hundreds of thousands of documents, at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Formed by its namesake, the Jewish-German chemist and historian of science Ludwig Darmstaedter (1846–1927), around the turn of the twentieth century, the collection is particularly rich in manuscripts relating to figures in the history of science, its founder's chief interest, though it is in fact quite wide-ranging -- there is even, for instance, a letter to Darmstaedter himself from the great African-American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. The collection was hidden away in a monastery during the Second World War, so it survived intact, and today it remains one of the largest manuscript repositories at the library. Many of its holdings are recorded in the German union catalogue Kalliope (online at https://kalliope-verbund.info/), though it is my understanding that this work is still in progress.
Were you surprised to find these letters in his collection? What was your first reaction?
Whatever the main purpose of an archival visit -- and as I mentioned, the original impetus for this research was not related to Hooke, Newton, or the Royal Society at all -- I make a point of keeping my eyes open for other items of interest in a collection's catalogue. This is also how I recently made the discovery of a previously unknown letter by the sixteenth-century poet Philip Sidney in the Netherlands, which is forthcoming in the journal Renaissance Studies. I made sure to plan time at the end of my Berlin visit to examine the Hooke and Newton manuscripts that I had found listed in Kalliope, while understanding that these might well turn out to be photocopies of letters that were already known, as is sometimes the case. Thankfully my thoroughness paid off! My first reaction, when I realized what I had in front of me, was naturally elation and enthusiasm -- there's a real thrill when one makes an archival discovery such as this, as well as a visceral sense of connection to these major historical figures.
What do you think the larger significance is of the Hooke and Newton letters that you analysed?
Given the significance of Hooke and Newton themselves in the history of science, their correspondence is of intrinsic interest. That is why Newton's extensive correspondence was edited some decades ago in an edition of seven volumes, and that is why Will Poole and Felicity Henderson are currently undertaking an edition of Hooke's extant correspondence. Early modern men and women wrote letters with incredible frequency, and correspondence offers an invaluable means of approaching their lives and thoughts. Hooke's letter to Newton, the most interesting of the three, speaks to the relationships that these men had with the recently deceased Henry Oldenburg, founding editor of Philosophical Transactions, and the Liège-based Jesuit Anthony Lucas, who disputed the results of Newton's prism experiments. Correspondence also served to connect thinkers across Europe in what was called the Republic of Letters, and this is well represented by the second letter, in which Hooke writes to a French scholar named Nicolas Toinard, a frequent correspondent of John Locke. The third letter, written by Newton himself, is a simple message informing someone of his admission into the Royal Society, but it serves to link Newton to its addressee, the Comte de Briançon, a diplomat from the Duchy of Savoy.
What for instance, does this correspondence tell us about Newtonian optics, astronomy, or Hooke as publisher of Philosophical Transactions?
The newly discovered letter from Hooke to Newton, which I date to February 1678, is concerned with a major public controversy in Newton's early career when his early prism experiment and pioneering theory of optics were challenged by Lucas. Newton and Lucas had published an exchange on this topic in Philosophical Transactions, then under the editorship of Oldenburg, and after Oldenburg's death in 1677 Lucas insisted that Hooke, the new Secretary of the Royal Society, print another contribution of his in the journal. Hooke had an infamously acrimonious relationship with Oldenburg, and instead of continuing his predecessor's journal Hooke substituted his own alternative, which was published irregularly under the title Philosophical Collections. The Berlin letter offers the first indication that Hooke would take just this direction, or that he might not publish anything at all on behalf of the Society, when he tells Newton here that he responded to Lucas 'that I Did not designe to print transactions'. There are several other points of interest in the same letter. For instance, in a previously published letter sent 18 December 1677 Newton had asked Hooke if he could provide ‘a line or two’ about a replication of the prism experiment that Hooke had performed before the Royal Society. The Berlin letter, which is a draft in Hooke's own hand, includes a deleted sentence responding: ‘I haue found something of the account of the Expt you desired but tis soe imperfectly related that tis insignificant’. This raises several questions. Was the sentence in question excluded from the version of the letter that Hooke ultimately sent to Newton? The deletion implies that it was. If so, was the account truly 'soe imperfectly related' as to be unusable, indeed unworthy of mention? Or was Hooke suppressing evidence? If so, was this suppressed evidence supportive of Newton's experiment or contradictory? These are just a few of the questions posed by this fascinating letter.
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Robert Hooke, Letter to Isaac Newton, [February 1678], Slg. Darmstaedter F1c 1665 Hooke, Robert, f. 1r, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Berlin). In the public domain.