A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter X
The successors of Galileo in physical science
Robert Hooke
A slender, crooked, shrivelled-limbed, cantankerous little man, with dishevelled hair and haggard countenance, bad-tempered and irritable, penurious and dishonest, at least in his claims for priority in discoveries - this is the picture usually drawn, alike by friends and enemies, of Robert Hooke (1635-1703), a man with an almost unparalleled genius for scientific discoveries in almost all branches of science. History gives few examples so striking of a man whose really great achievements in science would alone have made his name immortal, and yet who had the pusillanimous spirit of a charlatan - an almost insane mania, as it seems - for claiming the credit of discoveries made by others. This attitude of mind can hardly be explained except as a mania: it is certainly more charitable so to regard it. For his own discoveries and inventions were so numerous that a few more or less would hardly have added to his fame, as his reputation as a philosopher was well established. Admiration for his ability and his philosophical knowledge must always be marred by the recollection of his arrogant claims to the discoveries of other philosophers.

It seems pretty definitely determined that Hooke should be credited with the invention of the balance-spring for regulating watches; but for a long time a heated controversy was waged between Hooke and Huygens as to who was the real inventor. It appears that Hooke conceived the idea of the balance-spring, while to Huygens belongs the credit of having adapted the COILED spring in a working model. He thus made practical Hooke's conception, which is without value except as applied by the coiled spring; but, nevertheless, the inventor, as well as the perfector, should receive credit. In this controversy, unlike many others, the blame cannot be laid at Hooke's door.

Hooke was the first curator of the Royal Society, and when anything was to be investigated, usually invented the mechanical devices for doing so. Astronomical apparatus, instruments for measuring specific weights, clocks and chronometers, methods of measuring the velocity of falling bodies, freezing and boiling points, strength of gunpowder, magnetic instruments - in short, all kinds of ingenious mechanical devices in all branches of science and mechanics. It was he who made the famous air-pump of Robert Boyle, based on Boyle's plans. Incidentally, Hooke claimed to be the inventor of the first air-pump himself, although this claim is now entirely discredited.

Within a period of two years he devised no less than thirty different methods of flying, all of which, of course, came to nothing, but go to show the fertile imagination of the man, and his tireless energy. He experimented with electricity and made some novel suggestions upon the difference between the electric spark and the glow, although on the whole his contributions in this field are unimportant. He also first pointed out that the motions of the heavenly bodies must be looked upon as a mechanical problem, and was almost within grasping distance of the exact theory of gravitation, himself originating the idea of making use of the pendulum in measuring gravity. Likewise, he first proposed the wave theory of light; although it was Huygens who established it on its present foundation.

Hooke published, among other things, a book of plates and descriptions of his Microscopical Observations, which gives an idea of the advance that had already been made in microscopy in his time. Two of these plates are given here, which, even in this age of microscopy, are both interesting and instructive. These plates are made from prints of Hooke's original copper plates, and show that excellent lenses were made even at that time. They illustrate, also, how much might have been accomplished in the field of medicine if more attention had been given to microscopy by physicians. Even a century later, had physicians made better use of their microscopes, they could hardly have overlooked such an easily found parasite as the itch mite, which is quite as easily detected as the cheese mite, pictured in Hooke's book.

In justice to Hooke, and in extenuation of his otherwise inexcusable peculiarities of mind, it should be remembered that for many years he suffered from a painful and wasting disease. This may have affected his mental equilibrium, without appreciably affecting his ingenuity. In his own time this condition would hardly have been considered a disease; but to-day, with our advanced ideas as to mental diseases, we should be more inclined to ascribe his unfortunate attitude of mind to a pathological condition, rather than to any manifestation of normal mentality. From this point of view his mental deformity seems not unlike that of Cavendish's, later, except that in the case of Cavendish it manifested itself as an abnormal sensitiveness instead of an abnormal irritability.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.