Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 839:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 839.

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 alike.

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 17th-century intelligentsia.

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 soul.

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 scientist.

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

(Theme music)

Shapin, S., Who was Robert Hooke, Robert Hooke: New Studies (M. Hunter and S. Schaffer, eds.). Wolfeboro, NH: The Boydell Press, 1989.)

I should like to offer you 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 183,  350,  and 1169.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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