Mr Hooke - the hidden face of genius
Hooke's Law illustrated
The Royal Society, Library and Information Services.
Robert Hooke (1635-1703) has been described as the British Leonardo and the world's first professional scientist. His name is linked to a range of disciplines that today would be represented by an entire university science faculty. It is hard to look around a room or travel down a London street without seeing or using something whose design owes much to his research. Bed springs, the universal joint (used in cars), sash windows, cameras, watches, and even the street layout of London all bear the mark of his genius.
Hooke's ability to apply his enquiring mind to such a diverse range of disciplines and problems is today seen as an achievement.
But when he was alive, his tendency to explore a bit of everything (and, some would say, complete very little) irritated many of his more specialised contemporaries, even though they were often to benefit from his work. The hostility between Hooke and Isaac Newton is legendary, and may well have contributed to the subsequent lack of recognition for his work.
Hooke's achievements can be appreciated by following his involvement with the Royal Society, where he served as Original Fellow (elected in 1663), first Curator of Experiments (1662-1688), Secretary (1677-1682) and Council member (five separate spells). This association means the Society's archives are rich in Hooke's material, and this exhibition marks the tercentenary of his death with a display of his publications, original manuscripts showing his scientific discoveries, and one of his many "to do" lists.
The post of Curator of Experiments represented the first professional job for a scientist, and it was here that Hooke really made his mark. Working at a time when science was moving from "a work of the brain and fancy" to the investigation of material things, he was expected to devise and perform his own experiments to Fellows, as well as to design equipment and tests for ideas recommended by the Society.
Hooke published a number of papers and documents detailing the investigations he undertook for the Society. His masterpiece, the first scientific discourse on microscopy, Micrographia, came out in 1665, and is on display in the exhibition. Samuel Pepys records in his diary:
Before I went to bed, I sat up till 2 a-clock in my chamber, reading of Mr. Hookes Microscopicall Observacions, the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life. (21 January 1665).
Micrographia was remarkable in many ways.