Although you may not know it, whether walking the streets of London, closing a window in Aberdeen, or sleeping on mattress in Berlin, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) has made your life a little easier. A geometrist, physicist, biologist, artist, inventor and architect, Hooke was a man with considerable talents. In fact, many have called him “England’s Leonardo”.
Born on the Isle of Wight in 1635, Hooke was originally destined to follow his father (a curate) into the church. However, his ongoing ill health led to a change in career plans, and Hooke was able to apply himself more fully to science. Educated at Westminster School and Oxford University, his abilities were soon recognised by a key natural philosopher of the day, Robert Boyle.
It was through Boyle’s influence that in 1662 Hooke found a position to both utilise and develop his many talents, as the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society of London. In this role, and a very similar position at Gresham College, Hooke was responsible not just for devising and performing not just experiments, but also any equipment and tests required--keeping a dog alive by blowing through its lungs with bellows or proving the motion of
the Earth were all in a day’s work.
The first person to recognise and explore cells, Hooke’s interest in the unseen was to lead to the publication of
his book Micrographia in 1665. Micrographia, or the Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies, made by
Magnifying Glasses had an enormous impact both within and beyond the scientific community. Although microscopes and telescopes were used prior to Hooke’s time, his refinements of the compound microscope opened up a whole new world to the scientific eye.
Micrographia explored these discoveries, in both words and pictures. Hooke’s exceptionally detailed engravings of cell-life were accompanied by a close-up of a fly’s eye, the point of a needle, a flea, and many other tiny life-forms never seen in such detail.
Mould under the microscope.
Samuel Pepys described it in his diary as “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life”; The Royal Society states that the observations published “cannot but exceedingly please the curious reader”; even 350 years later it is described as “the most important work on microscopy ever published”.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 Hooke was made one of the three official surveyors for rebuilding the city, working closely with Sir Christopher Wren to map and redesign damaged areas. The two also worked together in creating the 202ft column (known as the Monument) which doesn’t just commemorate the fire but is also designed to lend itself to a number of scientific experiments.
Hooke’s ability for original thinking was remarkable—his inventions include the sash window, the marine barometer, mattress springs, watch coils, the universal joint. However, it was his pioneering work in microscopy which perhaps stands as his greatest triumph.
A close-up of a blue fly.
By Sharon Touzel (Assistant Librarian)
 Pepys, S. (1665) http://www.pepysdiary.com/archive/1665/01/21/index.php (accessed 18/9/11)
 [Anon]. (1665) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. No.2, 1665. pp.27-32. Royal Society of London:
 Watson, W.P. (2011) [Catalogue 17: Science, Medicine, Natural History], pp.50-52. W.P. Watson :London.
 Hooke, R. (1665) Micrographia. Jo. Martin & Ja. Allestry : London.