Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1751:
ROBERT HOOKE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, conflict as science changes form. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1620, Francis Bacon made his famous remark that nature can be commanded only if we obey her -- that we have to understand nature before we can deal with her. He believed that technology should be served by science. People listened to Bacon, and science began to interact with technology as it never had before.

Robert Hooke, born fifteen years later, became the great exemplar of Bacon's ideas. He was a generalist of astonishing range. He had important and lasting things to say about optics, mechanics, geography, architecture, materials, clock-making, and microbiology. His work in paleontology anticipated Darwin. He was a virtuoso scientist with one foot solidly set in technology.

Isaac Newton was seven years younger than Hooke but far less wed to Bacon's ideas. The texture of Newton's work had more in common with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than with his own times. Newton worked alone and with severe, rigorous abstraction. Technology was, for him, just a worldly distraction.

Newton tried to give science the purity of mathematics. He valued intensity and rigor far more than he valued Hooke's breadth of understanding. When the poet Alexander Pope looked at the specialized science that Newton was creating, he wrote,

One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit.

Newton turned to optics in 1675. When he did, he had little to say about the important foundation Hooke had laid for the field. Newton received Hooke's fairly gentle objections with morbid fury -- an anger that reached far beyond the issue.

Hooke had been a lifelong member of the Royal Society. Newton accepted the society's presidency after Hooke died in 1703. Then he set about reshaping it. Part of that reshaping was systematic action to bury Hooke. During Newton's 24-year presidency, many of Hooke's papers were lost, his apparatus was allowed to rust away, and his name wasn't mentioned.

Newton's antipathy toward Hooke flowed from absolute conviction -- not so much about scientific results as about how science should be done. Despite his sanctimony about seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, he clearly saw his forebears as pygmies.

But, in Newton's defense, I must say that science cannot always be close-coupled to technology. At some point, Hooke's vision had to give way to scientific absolutes that've not yet been rendered into any kind of human engine -- and which might not be for a very long time. It was Newton who reclaimed that high ground

This has always been a delicate balance. Bacon's conviction that science should serve technology regained its ascendancy in the late twentieth century. And that was when historians began rediscovering Robert Hooke, as well as his astonishing scientific scope and stature.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Margaret 'Espinasse, Robert Hooke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

I should like to offer a picture of Hooke. Unfortunately, I cannot. None seems ever to have been made. You see, Hooke was apparently rather unbeautiful. His close friend John Aubrey wrote that he was

... of middling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is large; his eie full and popping, and not quick; a gray eie. He has a delicate head of haire browne, and of an excellent moist curle.

When Richard Walker published his Life of Hooke in 1705, he added that Hooke was

... in person but despicable, being crooked and low of stature, and as he grew older more and more deformed. He was always very pale and lean, and latterly nothing but skin and bone, with a meagre aspect, his eyes grey and full, with a sharp ingenious look whilst younger. He wore his own hair of dark brown colour, very long, and hanging neglected over his face uncut and lank, which about three years before his death he cut off and wore a periwig. He went stooping and very fast, having but a light body to carry, and a great deal of spirits and activity, especially in his youth. He was of an active, restless, indefatigable genius, even almost to the last, and always slept little to his death, oftenest continuing his studies all night, and taking a short nap in the day. His temper was melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous, which more increased upon him with his years.

For more on Hooke, see Episodes 839, 350, and 1169. This is a revised version of Episode 183.





The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.