Robert Hooke was an important force in the scientific revolution of the 17th century. He contributed to many fields and associated with many of the other important minds of his time, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Particularly important were his contributions to the field of biology through development of microscopy. A perfect example of the experimentational scientist, Robert Hooke is an important figure in the history of human knowledge of the natural world.
Robert Hooke lived in interesting times. England was definitely a monarchy and there were huge distances between the aristocracy and the lower class. The reign of King James II led into "The Glorious Revolution of 1688" in which William, Prince of Orange, ascended to the throne relatively peacefully. This revolution was made fairly easy due to James' abuses of power and the people's resulting support of any alternative.
Hooke was born the 18th of 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in England. (britannica.com) As a boy, Robert survived smallpox, but not without major scarring. His father, John Hooke, was a local clergyman. When Robert was thirteen, his father hanged himself. Robert Hooke's childhood was not an entirely pleasant experience, to say the least.
With the 100 pound inheritance from his father, Robert moved to London where he developed his artistic skills with Sir Peter Lely, a painter. The formal education of this troubled boy began at Westminster School. He then moved on to Oxford for his higher learning, working his way through as a servant. He was similar in this respect to Isaac Newton, who worked through Cambridge in the same occupation.
At Oxford in 1655, Hooke became the lab assistant of Robert Boyle. Boyle, of course, is famous for his studies of the nature of gases. His namesake, "Boyle's Law" is familiar to any chemistry student. Together, Boyle and Hooke constructed an air pump, known as the Boylean air pump. (Miles, Kathy A.) This period is when Hooke developed his expertise in techniques of scientific experimentation.
Boyle assisted Hooke in acquiring the position of Curator of Experiments for the newly created Royal Society of London. In this occupation it was Hooke's responsibility to perform a wide range of experimentations. The fields of chemistry, biology, and astronomy were all classified as "natural philosophy," and this is what Hooke was responsible for investigating.
Perhaps Hooke's most famous work is that in the field of microscopy. Hooke constructed and improved the compound microscope, in the crude form of the day, using it to observe all manner of natural phenomenon. Biologically, his analysis of thin slices of cork are especially important, as it is from these observations that we acquired the term "cell." Hooke used it to describe the appearence of the cell walls of the cork. They divided it up similarly to the arrangement of the cells accupied by monks in monastary.
This and other observations were published in the 1665 "Micrographia." This is Hooke's most famous publication, and was read by many other important scientists of the time. One notable example is Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who is said to have been inspired by the text.
Hooke continued to do important work. Hooke's Law, for example, explains the behavior of elastic systems. It cannot be known for sure, but it is thought that Hooke actually was responsible for more than he is given credit for. His major rivalry was with Isaac Newton, who is famous for his work in physics, among other things. Before Newton, Hooke had already formed a rough theory of gravitation. He theorised the square inverse relationship but did not have either the time or the mathematical eloquence to clearly explain his thinking. Several letters between Newton and Hooke indicate that Newton did indeed take credit for several of Hooke's ideas.
Hooke was not only a scientist. He was a professor of Geometry at Gresham College from 1665. In 1666, after the great fire of London, he was appointed surveyor of London. In this position he designed several buildings, proving to be an excellent architect.
On a personal level, Robert Hooke was never married. He does seem to have been in love with his niece for a time. She died the same year that Newton's "Principia" was published, with no recognition of Hooke's contributions. Hooke's health deteriorated, leading to his death on March 3, 1703. Hooke had not been treated fairly in life, and in death Newton and his colleagues continued to slight him. Nevertheless, Robert Hooke is an important figure in modern biology, experimentation, and science in general.
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