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Robert Hooke (1635-1703)

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posted on Mar, 3 2003 @ 06:23 PM
The Inspirational Father of Modern Science in England?

If ever a man lived who gave more to modern science yet - possibly through the action and ill-will of at least one of his contemporaries - has remained largely unacknowledged, it must be Robert Hooke: inventor, microscopist, physicist, surveyor, astronomer, biologist, artist...

An unattractive man, disfigured, orphaned at 13 years of age, robbed of credit for his greatest inspirations and ideas, with many of his creations almost certainly willfully destroyed or lost after his death in 1703; only now after 300 years, is his life and extraordinary achievements beginning to receive the just recognition they so truly deserve.

Robert Hooke is one of the most neglected natural philosophers of all time. The inventor of, amongst other things, the iris diaphragm in cameras, the universal joint used in motor vehicles, the balance wheel in a watch, the originator 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 known mostly for Hooke's Law. He fell out with Newton, and certainly had a difficult temperament. He deserves more from History than he received in his lifetime.

Relatively little is known about Robert Hooke's life. He was born on July 18, 1635, at Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, the son of a churchman. He was apparently largely educated at home by his father, although he also served an apprenticeship to an artist. He was able to enter Westminster School at the age of thirteen, and from there went to Oxford, where some of the best scientists in England were working at the time. Hooke impressed them with his skills at designing experiments and building equipment, and soon became an assistant to the chemist Robert Boyle. With the help of Robert Boyle, Hooke secured the job as Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, which he held from 1662 - 77 at 30/year plus the privilege of lodging at Gresham College. His task, three to four major experiments each week to be reported on and/or demonstrated to the Royal Society. He later became Gresham Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London, where he had a set of rooms and where he lived for the rest of his life.

Hooke's reputation in the history of biology largely rests on his book Micrographia, published in 1665. Hooke devised the compound microscope and illumination system shown above, one of the best such microscopes of his time, and used it in his demonstrations at the Royal Society's meetings.

A century before Cuvier, Robert Hooke considered the possibility that fossils could have belonged to organisms no longer living on this planet. Hooke's insight is all the more remarkable considering the times in which he lived. The prevailing belief was that fossils were made by some creative force in the earth, capable of creating any shape out of stone. To Hooke, this idea simply made no sense. As he put it, nature "does nothing in vain."

Perhaps the first person to use a microscope to examine the origin of fossils, Hooke recognized the similarity between modern wood and petrified wood, as shown in this illustration from his book Micrographia. What might have had an even greater impact on his views, however, was the shell of a modern nautilus. Hooke recognized the similarity between the modern nautilus and the extinct ammonite (with a corrugated rather than smooth shell) and he concluded that the ammonite fossils had also possessed protective shells. Yet Hooke also saw the differences between nautiluses and ammonites, and this raised a nagging question: Where were the ammonites now?

Perhaps his most famous microscopical observation was his study of thin slices of cork, depicted above right. In "Observation XVIII" of the Micrographia, he wrote: "I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular. . . . these pores, or cells, . . . were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this".

Hooke had discovered plant cells -- more precisely, what Hooke saw were the cell walls in cork tissue. In fact, it was Hooke who coined the term "cells": the boxlike cells of cork reminded him of the cells of a monastery. Hooke also reported seeing similar structures in wood and in other plants.

In addition to his post as Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, Hooke held the post of City Surveyor. He was a very competent architect and was chief assistant to Wren in his project to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666.

When Sir Issac Newton produced his theory of light and colour in 1672, Hooke claimed that what was correct in Newton's theory was stolen from his own ideas about light of 1665 and what was original was wrong. This marked the beginning of severe arguments between the two. In 1672 Hooke attempted to prove that the Earth moves in an ellipse round the Sun and six years later proposed that inverse square law of gravitation to explain planetary motions.

His health deteriorated over the last decade of his life, although one of his biographers wrote that "He was of an active, restless, indefatigable Genius even almost to the last." He died in London on March 3, 1703.

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