Robert Hooke Biography (1635-1703)


Robert Hooke was one of a special breed of scientist whose intellect and ingenuity spanned many different disciplines. Like his contemporaries Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Christiaan Huygens, Hooke worked in many fields, often withremarkable results.

Hooke was born in Britain, on the Isle of Wight in 1635. A sickly child who was stricken with smallpox at an early age, he was not expected to survive more than a few years. His persistent ill health forced him to remain indoors, where he found amusement in taking apart and reassembling mechanical devices.By his tenth birthday he had become adept at constructing intricate mechanical toys, including working boats and clocks.

After his father's death in 1648, Hooke was sent to London to attend boardingschool, where the headmaster recognized his potential and placed him in a curriculum that included Latin, Greek, and mathematics. Hooke attended Oxford in 1653. Though he never completed his bachelor's degree, it was at Oxford that Hooke met some of Britain's greatest scientists, around whom the British Royal Society would later form. Among these was the physicist Robert Boyle, forwhom Hooke served as a laboratory assistant. Under Boyle's tutelage Hooke constructed the precursor to the modern air pump, the first in a long line of ingenious scientific tools he would invent.

Using this new air pump, Boyle performed the research that would ultimately lead him to the finding known today as Boyle's law. (Boyle's Law states that there is an inverse relationship between the volume and pressure of an ideal gas, at constant temperature.) In fact, some scientists have suggested that Hooke himself was the author of this law, reasoning that Hooke may have been pressured to relinquish credit for his discovery to his instructor.

Around this same time many European inventors were vying to develop the firstaccurate device to determine longitude on a sailing ship. Already in use, the chronometer, essentially a modified clock, was unreliable since the pendulum used to regulate its motion was thrown off by the ship's rocking. Sometimenear 1660 Hooke introduced a chronometer design based upon a spring rather than a pendulum. (Today Hooke's name is associated with the law that, in many situations, the force on an object is proportional to its displacement from its resting, or equilibrium, position.) Although his design was sound, he was unable to find investors to back him, and it was not until 1674 that ChristianHuygens patented his own spring-driven chronometer. Hooke immediately claimed that Huygens' invention was a derivative of his own, beginning a dispute that remains unresolved to this day.

That was not the only confrontation Hooke had with one of his peers. Perhapsthe most famous was his feud with Isaac Newton, which began in the early 1670s. Newton, then a young student, had submitted a paper on light and colors tothe British Royal Society. Hooke reviewed the paper and quickly dismissed it. Newton published a second paper on light in 1675, introducing a theory describing light as an undulatory wave. Hooke's reply was that Newton had stolenthis wave theory outright from his own earlier publication, Micrographia.

Hooke later made a similar claim to Newton's theory of gravitation. The verbal battles between these two scientists were very bitter, several times driving Newton to a nervous breakdown. While his true contribution to the canon oftheoretical science is unclear, Hooke was unquestionably one of society's most productive inventors of scientific equipment. Among his list of accomplishments are the universal joint, the reflecting telescope, the compound microscope, the wheel barometer, the anemometer, the spring-driven wristwatch, the "cross-hairs" sight for telescopes, and new standards for microscopy. The bulkof his inventions were constructed during his term as Curator of Experimentsfor the British Royal Society, where he was commissioned to explore new avenues and create new devices.

Though mechanics was certainly his first love, Hooke turned to architecture after a great fire burned most of London in 1666. To help with the reconstruction of the city and to aid his colleague, English architect Christopher Wren(1632-1723), Hooke designed several prominent buildings, most of which stillstand.

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