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The rehabilitation of Robert Hooke

History is a living, breathing creature – a fickle beast that is likely to forget even the greatest people unless it is constantly fed by its keepers. They say history is written by the conqueror but it also written by those that follow in its wake.

If history’s keepers don’t celebrate your achievements then history will look elsewhere for sustenance and you will be forgotten.

Time is littered with the corpses of the forgotten – great men and women who should be celebrated as pioneers, change-makers and revolutionaries but for one reason or another have been snubbed by the beast and are not remembered as they should be. One such victim is Robert Hooke.

Hooke was one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance – he was Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei rolled into one, a polymath who should be celebrated as an English Leonardo Da Vinci but who instead is barely remembered at all.

At a time when science was beginning to separate itself from the magic and superstition of the past and establish itself as a respectable discipline, Hooke was at the forefront.

He built one of the earliest reflecting telescopes and with it he extended the boundaries of astronomy.
With his improvements to the microscope he opened up the alien realm of the very small and, with his exquisite drawings, he held them up for the whole world to marvel at. His studies of fossils led him to become a proponent of evolution almost 150 years before Darwin and his explorations of the properties of light and air paved the way for the particle theories that would culminate in the discipline of quantum physics.
His pioneering works in the field of surveying and map-making helped pull London out of the devastation wrought by the Great Fire of 1666 and led to the first modern plan-form maps.

He came astonishingly close to deducing the nature of gravity and how it influences the movements of the planets – work that was built upon by Isaac Newton. And all this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

[Graphic: Just some of Robert Hooke's achievements: Click to Micrographiafy]

Yet chances are you have never heard of Robert Hooke. So why has this great pioneer and thinker been left shivering in the hinterlands of history?

Well, it’s all down to the people that followed him and their reluctance to feed the beast. He might have been a genius but, by all accounts, he was not a particularly likable man. Prone to outbursts of jealously, he had a knack for alienating himself from his colleagues.

For example, when Newton came to present his work on gravity at the Royal Society in 1686, Hooke launched into a rant that his work on gravity had priority over Newton’s. He argued he had brought the theory to Newton’s attention and demanded that he be given due credit in Newton’s book. Newton responded by deleting all reference to Hooke in the work.

Nor was this Hooke’s only run-in with the great and the good of 17th century science.

He fought a series of bitter patent battles, including one with Christiaan Huygens over the invention of the first balance-spring watch.

All of this meant that many of Hooke’s contemporaries were less than motivated to celebrate his work after he died.

Hooke hasn’t been completely ignored by history. He is rightly celebrated for his work on the microscope and for the physical law describing the effects of weight on a spring that bears his name. But his other achievements have fallen into obscurity, along with their creator.

It’s time to rehabilitate this irascible genius.

[Amazingly, no portait of Robert Hooke remains. It is said that, when he was appointed President of the Royal Society, Newton had the only portrait of Hooke destroyed. This new portrait comissioned by the Institute of Physics has been created by Rita Greer. With no visual sources for reference, Greer had to rely on written sources]