Robert Hooke was an English scientist most famous for Hooke’s Law of Elasticity and for being the first to extensively use the microscope for scientific exploration thus discovering the building block of life, cell. Hooke was among the leading natural philosophers of his time and served as the Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society for forty years. Due to his disputes with other scientists, most prominently Isaac Newton, his legacy suffered but now he is considered one of the most important scientists of his era. Know about the life, family, work, achievements, disputes and death of Robert Hooke through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 His brother committed suicide at the age of 48

Robert Hooke was born on 18 July, 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, England. He was the last child of John Hooke, who was a Church of England priest and curate of the local church parish, and his wife Cecily Hooke. Robert had three siblings, a brother named John and two sisters named Ann and Katherine. On 27 March 1678, Robert’s brother John committed suicide by hanging himself. The reason for his action is not certain. He was 48 years old at the time of his death.

Memorial portrait of Robert Hooke
Memorial portrait of Robert Hooke at Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, his birthplace, by Rita Greer

 

#2 He had an artistic bend when he was young

Due to his frail health, Robert was educated at home by his father. He was an extraordinarily quick learner and was interested in painting and mechanics. He built an impressive array of mechanical devices including clocks, sundials and models of ships. When English miniature painter John Hoskins visited their house, he was so impressed by Robert’s draughtsmanship that he advised his father to settle upon an artistic career for his son.

Robert Hooke's first sundial delineator
Hooke’s sundial delineator of 1667

 

#3 He joined Oxford’s Christ Church College in 1653

When John Hooke died in 1648, the 13 year old Robert went to London to apprentice with famous painter Peter Lely. The connection turned out to be short and Robert instead joined London’s Westminster School, where apart from studying mathematics and mechanics, he learned the classical languages of Greek and Latin. In 1653, Hooke left Westminster and joined Oxford’s Christ Church College. He did not take his Master of Arts until 1662 or 1663. According to Hooke his days at Oxford laid the foundation of his lifelong passion for science.

Christ Church College in Oxford
Christ Church College in Oxford

 

#4 Along with Robert Boyle, he created the famous Machina Boyleana

During his time at Oxford, Hooke was employed as an assistant by Robert Boyle, who was among the leading scientists of the time. Hooke worked with Boyle for seven years from 1655 to 1662. Hooke and Boyle made improvements in Otto von Guericke’s air pump leading to the creation of their famous “Machina Boyleana” or “Pneumatical Engine” in 1659. It was through experiments conducted with this machine that Robert Boyle confirmed Boyle’s Law. Also Hooke and Boyle did other experiments on properties of air discovering several of its physical characteristics, including its role in combustion, respiration, and transmission of sound.

Robert Boyle's air pump
Drawing of Machina Boyleana

 

#5 Robert Hooke discovered Hooke’s Law of Elasticity in 1660

In 1660, Robert Hooke discovered the law of elasticity, which states that stretching of a solid body is proportional to the force applied to it. Known as Hooke’s Law, it laid the basis for studies of stress and strain, and for understanding of elastic materials. Hooke used his law to invent the balance spring, which for the first time enabled accurate timekeeping in portable timepieces, as a pendulum couldn’t be used in a pocket watch. There was a bitter dispute between Hooke and Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens on the priority of the invention of balance spring which continued for centuries after the death of both. Hooke’s claim is now generally favoured though Huygens did invent it independently.

Hooke's Law Graph
Plot of Force vs Elongation for a spring according to Hooke’s law (red line) and the actual plot (dashed line)

 

#6 He served as the Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society for forty years

Micrographia title page
Title page of Micrographia

In November 1660, the Royal Society of London was founded, which was the world’s first scientific body and remains the leading national organization for promotion of scientific research in Britain. Robert Hooke performed experiments during the early meetings of the society and in 1662 he was appointed Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, a position he held on to till his death 40 years later. In 1661, Hooke became a fellow of the Royal Society and on 20 March 1664, he became Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London.

#7 Robert Hooke discovered the cell

Hooke built some of the earliest Gregorian telescopes. He also built an improved compound microscope and was one of the first to utilize a microscope for scientific exploration. In January 1665, Robert Hooke’s Micrographia was published. In it he mainly described his observations with microscopes and telescopes. Micrographia became the first scientific best-seller, inspiring wide public interest in microscopy. It is famous for first use of the word cell. Hooke had looked at the bark of a cork tree and observed its microscopic structure. In doing so, he discovered and named the cell, though he didn’t discover its true biological function. He thought the objects looked like the individual rooms in a monastery, which were known as cells.

 

#8 He was one of the leading architects of his time

In 1666, when London was devastated by the Great Fire, Robert Hooke was made Surveyor to the City of London and he performed more than half of all the surveys after the fire. He was among the leading architects of the time and proposed a rebuilding plan for the city but it was not approved. Along with Christopher Wren, Hooke designed the Monument to the Great Fire of London.

Monument to the Great Fire of London
Monument to the Great Fire of London designed by Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren

 

#9 Robert Hooke had a famous dispute with Newton over gravitation

Portrait of Robert Hooke by Rita Greer
Modern portrait of Robert Hooke (by Rita Greer) based on descriptions

Robert Hooke contributed in a remarkable variety of fields. He investigated the phenomenon of refraction, deducing the wave theory of light; and was the first to suggest that matter expands when heated and that air is made of small particles separated by relatively large distances. In Micrographia Hooke argued for an attracting principle of gravitation. He also stated the inverse square law to describe planetary motions in 1678. After Isaac Newton’s Principia was out in 1686, Hooke had a long and famous feud with him. While Hooke wanted his contribution to be acknowledged, Newton argued that it was he who provided mathematical demonstration and evidence in favour of the supposition.

#10 No depiction of Hooke is known to survive

Robert Hooke spent his life largely on the Isle of Wight. He never married though he had a romantic relationship with his niece Grace Hooke, who was his long time live-in companion and housekeeper. He had close relations with Robert Boyle; Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed architects in history; and English natural philosopher and writer John Aubrey. He died at the age of 67 in London on March 3, 1703. No authenticated portrait of Robert Hooke survives. Isaac Newton, as President of Royal Society, failed to preserve (or destroyed) his only known portrait. After Hooke’s death his reputation suffered due to his disputes with other scientists but now he is considered as one of the most important scientists of his era.

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