Today, a peculiar tale of two scientists. 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.
Robert Boyle and Robert
Hooke: The two great English scientists of the
mid-1600s. They lived in the same part of London.
Both kept diaries. We know Boyle best for his ideal
gas law and for important work on the chemical
makeup of matter.
Hooke was a brilliant inventor of scientific
instruments. He developed the compound microscope.
And Hooke's Law is the first rule of elastic
behavior. Both Boyle and Hooke cast their shadow
over all 20th-century science. But they were not
Boyle's house was a magnet to all England and
Europe. His work was constantly on display. He was
on display. His dinner guests were the Who's Who of
Hooke merely had rooms in the college where he
taught. He often dined at Boyle's table. Boyle
never dined at his. The monastic Hooke entertained
a few close friends. One was Christopher Wren, but
most were his chess companions or his assistants.
Both Boyle and Hooke had many lab assistants. Those
assistants went on to shape 18th-century English
science. So we read the two diaries. Boyle's
assistants are anonymous. He talks about visiting
dignitaries. He's busy laying claim to leadership.
Hooke talks about his assistants. He takes pride in
them. Historian Steven Chapin tells Hooke's terms
for a new assistant:
Hooke wanted a seven-year commitment during which
time he would "fit him for the doing of my
business." It didn't cross Boyle's mind that an
assistant could ever become what he was.
In those days, when science and religion still
overlapped, Boyle tried to define the scientific
Christian Gentleman. He should be accessible, open,
truthful, and morally upright. He should be above
monetary gain. Boyle was publicly modest. When he
used the name of God, he paused reverently.
Ostensibly Boyle led while Hooke answered to
patrons. Hooke did worry about making money. Hooke
frequented coffee houses. Boyle wouldn't be caught
dead in a coffee house. When Hooke wrote "libera me
Domine" (Lord deliver me) in his diary, it was to
curse the authorities, not to pray for his immortal
The scientific community took all this at face
value. They subjected Hooke to their doubts. They
questioned his work. They held him to a higher
standard. Hooke had far more trouble than Boyle in
establishing his priority claims.
History eventually saw through the game. It's
pretty clear today that Hooke contributed more to
human knowledge. Indeed, we even find that Hooke
deserves much credit that he never bothered to
claim. And maybe that includes credit for being the
truer Christian Gentleman -- as well as the greater
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds