First Published: March 2012
Revised (substantive): 1 August 2012
I deny not but that there are many failures in some of those draughts, some of my own and some of the gravers committing. Humanum est.
— Robert Hooke (1635–1703), in Microscopium (London, 1678), 102.
Hooke was here defending his research from the calumnies in a book he had stumbled across, entitled La Vision Perfaite, ou les Concours des Deux Axes de la Vision en un Sceul Point de l’Object (Paris, 1677), by the Capuchin monk, Père Chérubin d’Orléans (1613–1697). Using a “binocular microscope” of his own invention, Chérubin claimed to have surpassed Hooke’s microscopical studies, by finding out, in Hooke’s words, “some mistakes and untruths in some of those figures I have formerly published in my Micrography.”
In his 5th printed Cutler Lecture, Microscopium, Hooke admits that there are errors in his earlier printed Micrographia (1665), “But those which he [Chérubin] charges for such are not,” Hooke contends, adding that Chérubin would have known this had he “pleased to have read the Description as well as looked on the Figure.”
As for Chérubin’s novel binocular microscope, it is “so far short of equalling those [microscopes] I use,” argued Hooke, that Chérubin mistook what were in fact commonplace sights for “great Discoveries.” Hooke spends a couple of pages of his lecture debating Chérubin’s methods and claims, before concluding with his usual appeal to autopsia, which Hooke always believed would best prove his point: “But let every one make their own inferences, and believe his own eyes, for they will make the best impression on his reason and belief.”
Then Hooke realizes that simply seeing for oneself is not always enough. “[T]hose that conceive in the body of a muscle [with its “many millions of millions” of microscopic parts], little more curiosity of mechanism than in a rope of the same bigness, have a very rude and false notion of it; and no wonder if they have recourse to Spirits to make out the Phaenomena.” (R. Hooke, Microscopium, 1678, 103)
The Absent Presence of Robert Hooke
THIS IS THE first in a planned series of looks at Hooke’s public relations problem and the difficulties of establishing a scientific reputation, given the politics of contemporary science and engineering, even for “the greatest mechanick this day in the world,” with a string of successful methods, theories and inventions — “they are many hundreds; he believes not fewer than a thousand” (Aubrey to Wood, letter of 15 Sept. 1689) — to his name.
When Hooke’s friend, Richard Waller (c.1660–1715), wrote his “Life of Dr. Robert Hooke,” printed at the front of his edition of The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke (1705), he too wrestled with the very politics that threatened to deny Hooke due recognition and influence within future scientific circles. Rather than engage in more polemics over who discovered what, and when, Waller chose to present a “neutral” — albeit carefully framed — documentary record that, following Hooke’s own preferred method for memorializing, would convey all “the truth of Matter of Fact”:
Had Dr. Hooke prosecuted a Design which I find he once proposed to himself, my present [biographical] Undertaking had been as vain as needless, for in a small Pocket-Diary of his I found these Words written. “Saturday April the 10th 1697. I began this Day to write the History of my own Life, wherein I will comprize as many remarkable Passages, as I can now remember or collect out of such Memorials as I have kept in Writing, or are in the Registers of the ROYAL SOCIETY; together with all my Inventions, Experiments, Discoveries, Discourses, &c. which I have made, the time when, the manner how, and means by which, with the success and effect of them, together with the state of my Health, my Employments and Studies, my good or bad Fortune, my Friends and Enemies, &c. all which shall be the truth of Matter of Fact, so far as I can be inform’d by my Memorials or my own Memory, which Rule I resolve not to transgress.”
(Waller, “Life” i)
As Margaret Ezell has already noted,
Waller was scrupulous in his use of sources, preferring wherever possible to quote Hooke’s own words. He drew on the published records of Hooke’s experiments, heavily augmented by Hooke’s diary, manuscripts, and correspondenc which were given to him by Hooke’s family. Waller also added details from his own conversations with Hooke, generally with the support of other witnesses to the remarks. His method both in the biography and the edition of the lectures was to present the Author’s true Sense with as little obstruction to Hooke’s “own Sentiments” as possible. This desire to display the evidence rather than the editor, to give documented facts rather than hypotheses, conforms to the demand of experimental evidence for facts over speculation and no doubt would have had Hooke’s hearty approval.
(Ezell, “Richard Waller, S.R.S.” 229)
Three years after his “Life of Dr. Robert Hooke” was published, Waller came into possession of Hooke’s full-sheet diary MSS., which gave him new reason to revisit his earlier rhetorical strategy. Written on a blank page at the end of Hooke’s manuscript diary, in Waller’s handwriting, is the following:
Memorandum: Mr. Dillon the husband of Dr. Hookes Neice who was Administratrix to Dr. Hook who dyed without a Will gave mee this MSS about December in the year 1708. he having found it amongst Dr. Hooks Remains. to whome and to his Wife I am obliged for all the papers I had put into my hands of that great genius Dr. Hook. Dr. Hook who was as I could prove were it a proper time the first Inventor or if you please first Hinter of those things about which Magni Nominis Heroes have contested for the Priority. / R. W.
(The Diary of Robert Hooke, 1672–1680, ed. Robinson and Adams, v)
As he announced several times in his edition of The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke, Waller was planning to produce a second volume of Hooke’s unpublished papers:
... I shall end with these Discourses, finding no more that properly belong to Navigation or Astronomy, and reserve some miscellaneous Tracts, Fragments on several Subjects, some Inventions, accounts of Experiments, &c. for a Supplement or second Volume, which I purpose to publish in some short time, if this first find any acceptance, and not increase the bulk of this, which has prov’d longer than I at first expected.
(Posthumous Works 567)
In 1674, he [Hooke] shew’d an Engine or Instrument to perform any Arithmetical Operation, but the more particular account of this and other Instruments not describ’d in this Volume, I shall reserve for another opportunity.
(Posthumous Works xix)
Whether Waller would have turned polemical the second time around, and more aggressively attempted to “prove” Hooke’s case, will never be known, since Waller died before making real progress on a second volume of Hooke’s papers, which project was then given to William Derham.
What historians are left with instead is Waller’s coolly “balanced” description of Hooke’s complex and dynamic character. Most notably, Waller’s “Life” concludes its account of the friend and mentor whom Waller believed to be a “Genius” and “so knowing and diligent an Inquirer into Nature” with the startling reminder, “To err is human.” That this aphorism repeats Hooke’s own characterization of himself as a flawed human being — and scientist — in the earlier Lectures and Collections Made by Robert Hooke, Secretary of the Royal Society. Cometa.... Microscopium... (1678) has been missed by subsequent commentators who find Waller’s “Life” of Hooke prejudicial. But this criticism of Waller’s “Life” neglects to consider that both Hooke and Waller were Christians who believed deeply in the humility of the scientific quest. As Thomas Sprat clearly stated in his 1667 History:
... it is improbable that even the hardest and most rigorous parts of Mortification itself should be injur’d by these Studies more than others; seeing many duties of which it is compos’d, do bear some resemblance to the qualifications that are requisit in Experimental Philosophers. The spiritual Repentance is a careful survay of our former Errors ... and a resolution of amendment. The spiritual Humility is an observation of our Defects, and a lowly sense of our own weakness. And the Experimenter for his part must have some Qualities that answer to these: ... it may well be concluded, that the doubtful, the scrupulous, the diligent Observer of Nature, is neerer to make a modest, a severe, a meek, an humble Christian, than the man of Speculative Science....
(The History of the Royal-Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge 366–7)
Elsewhere in his “Life of Dr. Robert Hooke” Waller carefully documents the depth of Hooke’s religious feeling:
On the 18th of July 1696. being his Birth Day, his Chancery-Suit for Sir John Cutler’s Salary, was determin’d for him, to his great satisfaction, which had made him very uneasy for several Years. In his Diary he shews his sense of it in these Terms DOMSHLGISS:A. which I read thus Deo Opt. Max. summus Honor, Gloria in secula secularum, Amen. I was Born on this Day of July 1635. and GOD has given me a new Birth, may I never forget his Mercies to me; whilst he gives me Breath may I praise him.
(Waller, “Life” xxv)
He always exprest a great Veneration for the eternal and immense Cause of all Beings, as may be seen in very many Passages in his Writings, and seldom receiv’d any remarkable Benefit from God without thankfully ackowledging the Mercy; never made any considerable discovery in Nature, invented any useful Contrivance, or found out any difficult Problem, without setting down his Acknowledgement to the Omnipotent Providence, as many places in his Diary testify, frequently in these or the like words, abbreviated thus, DOMGM. and was a frequent studier of the Holy Scripture in the Originals: If he was particular in some Matters, let us leave him to the searcher of Hearts.
(Waller, “Life” xxviii)
Indeed, Hooke was an early proponent of what we now call “intelligent design,” and his partisan take on this as a mechanical philosopher adopting “the same empiricist methodology as the natural magicians” (Henry, “Incongruous Mechanist” 169) was as controversial then, as it would be today. What the critics, who questioned his faith, missed was how Hooke’s mechanical philosophy and engineering genius led to a profound, albeit unorthodox, understanding of the powers and forces of “Nature, or the infinitely wise God of Nature” (from Hooke’s “Conjectures about ... the Nautilus,” Part 1 of 3) that few of us, then or now, can attain. As a young Robert Boyle (1627–1691) explained:
For the Works of God are not like the Tricks of Juglers, or the Pageants that entertain Princes, where concealment is requisite to wonder; but the knowledge of the Works of God proportions our admiration of them, they participating and disclosing so much of the inexhausted Perfections of their Author, that the further we contemplate them, the more Foot-steps and Impressions we discover of the Perfections of their Creator; and our utmost Science can but give us a juster veneration of his Omniscience. And as when some Country Fellow looks upon a curious Watch, though he may be hugely taken with the rich Enamel of the Case, and perhaps with some pretty Landskip that adorns the Dial-plate; yet will not his Ignorance permit him so advantageous a Notion of the exquisite Makers skill, as that little Engine will form in some curious Artist, who besides that obvious Workmanship that first entertains the Eye, considers the exactness, and knows the use of every Wheel, takes notice of their proportion, contrivance, and adaptation altogether, and of the hidden Springs that move them all: So in the World, though every Peruser may read the existence of a Deity, and be in his degree affected with what he sees, yet is he utterly unable to descry there those subtler Characters and Flourishes of Omniscience, which true Philosophers are sharp-sighted enough to discern.
(Boyle, The Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy, 1663, Part 1, Essay 3, 53–54; this work was first published in 1663, but written some years earlier, in 1652–58)
I believe that Hooke’s sense of wonder was deepened, not diminished, by his mechanical philosophy, as in the case of his ongoing fascination with the nautilus and its “curious Shell” (“Conjectures about ... the Nautilus,” Part 1 of 3) — “divided into a multitude of Cells or Cabins separated and distinguished one from another by several Diaphragmes or Partitions without any other perforation, save one small one” (from Hooke’s 1686/7 digression on the nautilus in his “Discourse of Earthquakes,” No. 3) — by which “engine” the nautilus is able to withstand the changing pressure differentials between the ocean surface and deep ocean bottom.
The Structure of the Shell of the Nautilus, which as it is very curious, and indeed very wonderful, so it is not less instructive to one that shall contemplate on it; and to me, as yet, it appears to be the only Instance of a Contrivance truly wonderful; for that I do not know any thing like it in the whole Genus of Fishes, tho’ there are some Instances that tend that Way. It is, in short, this, The Creature, it seems, to whom this Shell is adapted, by Accounts we have of it, is an Inhabitant of the Abyss, or Great Deep; which how deep it is none yet knows, nor will know, till some of my Nuntii ad Abyssum (which I have formerly acquainted you with) be sent thither, and bring back Tidings concerning it; or, till this our present Nuncius can find a Way to manifest, how far he has ascended to come up to the Day, or how far he descends to go to his Resting-place at the Bottom of the Sea. For these Progresses he is said to make, besides his Voyage, when he sails on the Top of the Ocean. Now being constituted by Nature to perform these, and yet to be without Wings or Fins, to help himself by Labour to move in any of these three Ways; it is wonderful to consider, by what a plain and easy Contrivance the All-wise Creator has endowed him with sufficient Faculties to perform the same, with very little or no Fatigue at all, but to be carry’d in his Chariot, or rather Ship, from Place to Place, as he has Occasion to change his Residence.
The Manner of which (if I am not mistaken in my Conjecture) is this: ....
(“Dr. Hook’s Conjectures about the Odd Phaenomena Observable in the Shell-Fish Called the Nautilus,” Part 1 of 3, read to the Royal Society on 2 Dec. 1696)
For the two subsequent parts of the three-part lecture read by Hooke to the Royal Society in December 1696:
Click/tap here for Part 2 of 3 of Hooke’s “Conjectures about ... the Nautilus” (read to the Royal Society on 16 Dec. 1696)
Click/tap here for Part 3 of 3 of Hooke’s “Conjectures about ... the Nautilus” (read to the Royal Society on 23 Dec. 1696)
Hooke’s studies of the wondrous nautilus, part of a subsea research program which he pursued for over 30 years, were limited to its magnificent shell.
But from this he was able to theorize (correctly) that the “Sub-marine Regions are as well stock’d with Variety of Animals and Vegetables, as the Surface of the Earth” (“Conjectures about ... the Nautilus,” Part 3 of 3), and to design advanced instrumentation for oceanographical research and access to the deep-sea bed — “which he call’d Nuntii inanimati ad sundum Abyssi emissarii” (Waller, “Life” xxv) — the ingenuity of which still impresses ocean engineers today.
Nature, we find, does accommodate every thing it produces with all Conveniencies, necessary for its Support and Well-being, and fit every Thing necessary for the Carrying on and Perfection of its Designs; so that I see no Reason to doubt, that these Sub-marine Regions are as well stock’d with Variety of Animals and Vegetables, as the Surface of the Earth, which is only Sub-aerial, only we are less knowing of them, because they are out of our Element, and we want Nuntii or Messengers, to send thither to bring us back Information, and also the Productions and Commodities that this Terra incognita, or unknown World, does afford. I have heretofore produced some such Nuntii , for this or that particular Design, but when there may be an Opportunity of sending them, I shall be able to produce divers others, for other Purposes, if God spare my Life so long as to see the Seas again free from Rovers, and that the Study of Arts does succeed the Study of Arms. It is now above thirty Years since I try’d many Experiments, for this very End, to know under how great a Pressure a terrestrial or aerial Animal could live, and consequently a Man; and I shew’d a Way also how to supply him with fresh Air from above, to whatever Depth he should be able to descend, without prejudicing his Health or Life: I shew’d also how to accommodate him for seeing with Spectacles, and acting freely in the Water as he could do in the Air, by Means of other Accoutrements, whenever he was able to endure the Pressure. And I have many other Experiments, which would be not only instructive, but useful for these and other Designs, but I want an Apparatus and Assistance to perform them. And, probably, most People will treat me as Columbus was, when he pretended the Discovery of a New World to the Westward: But I have been accustomed to such Kind of Treatments, and so the better fitted to bear them. However, I think, that such Objections as most will be apt to make, that Animals and Vegetables cannot be rationally supposed to live and grow under so great a Pressure, so great a Cold, and at so great a Distance from the Air, as many Parts at the Bottom of very deep Seas are liable and subject to; I say, I think that these Objections may be easily answer’d, by shewing, that they all proceed from wrong Notions that Men have entertain’d, from the small Experience they have had of the Effects, and Powers, and Methods of Nature, and a few Trials will easily convince them of the Erroneousness of them. We have had Instances enough of the Fallaciousness of such immature and hasty Conclusions. The Torrid and Frigid Zones were once concluded uninhabitable; and to assert Antipodes was thought atheistical, heretical, and damnable; but Time has discover’d the Falsity and Narrowness of those hasty Conclusions.
(“Dr. Hook’s Conjectures about the Odd Phaenomena Observable in the Shell-Fish Called the Nautilus,” Part 3 of 3, read to the Royal Society on 23 Dec. 1696)
For the two preceding parts of the three-part lecture read by Hooke to the Royal Society in December 1696:
Click/tap here for Part 1 of 3 of Hooke’s “Conjectures about ... the Nautilus” (read to the Royal Society on 2 Dec. 1696)
Click/tap here for Part 2 of 3 of Hooke’s “Conjectures about ... the Nautilus” (read to the Royal Society on 16 Dec. 1696)
It was through such a deep and humbling “Experience ... of the Effects, and Powers, and Methods of Nature” (“Conjectures about ... the Nautilus,” Part 3 of 3) that Hooke experienced the divine. To quote Sir Thomas Browne:
The wisedome of God receives small honour from those vulgar heads that rudely stare about, and with a grosse rusticity admire his workes; those highly magnifie him, whose judicious enquiry into his acts, and deliberate research into his creatures, returne the duty of a devout and learned admiration.
(Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, part 1, sect. 13; The Prose of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Endicott, 19)
Hooke always believed in the supremacy and perfection of “intelligent design,”
... for it is certain that Nature doth nothing frustra, but manifestly with an admirable and wise design, the truth of which Maxim will more and more evidently appear, the more the Works thereof are curiously examined and searched into; and no unprejudiced person that thoroughly examins them can fail of being convinc’d of the Truth and Certainty thereof, there being such a Harmony, Consent and Uniformity, as I may so speak, in all its Operations ....
(Digression on the nautilus in “Discourse of Earthquakes”, No. 3 [series of lectures read between 8 Dec. 1686 and 19 Jan. 1687], in Hooke’s Posthumous Works, ed. Waller, 341)
which he strove (as with his own inspired design of the U-joint) to replicate:
For in mechanics (contrary to the opinion and practice of most projecting mechanics and ignorant spectators) an invention is valuable not for the clutter, pomp, complication, and difficulty; but for the simplicity, plainness, obviousness, and easiness, both of understanding, making, using, and repairing, which makes it approach the nearer to the example of nature, which doth nothing in vain, or by longer and more difficult ways, which may be done by a shorter.
(from the Royal Society’s Journal for 18 July 1683; Gunther VII, 622)
I would argue that this faith-based scientia is the missing context for both Hooke’s and Waller’s assessment of Hooke’s flawed human character and “Experimental Natural Knowledge.” And given this different interpretive frame, it is significant that Waller’s conclusion to the “Life” links Hooke, the “ingenious Mechanician” (Posthumous Works 558), not with the legendary master-craftsman, Prometheus, who stole the secrets of the gods for the agnostic use of humankind (and ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus , has come to symbolize the hubris of modern technoscience), but with the mystic Pythagoras, a figure reverenced in 17th-century Europe and the Near East.
To conclude, all his [Hooke’s] Errors and Blemishes were more than made amends for, by the Greatness and Extent of his natural and acquired Parts, and more than common, if not wonderful Sagacity, in diving into the most hidden Secrets of Nature, and in contriving proper Methods of forcing her to confess the Truth, by driving and pursuing the Proteus thro’ all her Changes, to her last and utmost Recesses; so that what Ovid said of Pythagoras may not unfitly be apply’d to him.
Mente Deos adiit, & quae Natura negavit
Visibus humanis, oculis ea Pectoris hausit.
There needs no other Proof for this than the great number of Experiments he made, with the Contrivances for them, amounting to some hundreds; his new and useful Instruments and Inventions, which were numerous, his admirable Facility and Clearness, in explaining the Phaenomena of Nature, and demonstrating his Assertions; his happy Talent in adapting Theories to the Phaenomena observ’d, and contriving easy and plain, not pompous and amusing Experiments to back and prove those Theories; proceeding from Observations to Theories, and from Theories to farther trials, which he often asserted to be the most proper method to succeed in the interpretation of Nature. For these, his happy Qualifications, he was much respected by the most learned Philosophers both at home and abroad: And as with all his Failures, he may be reckon’d among the great Men of the last Age, so had he been free from them, possibly, he might have stood in the Front. But humanum est errare.
(Waller, “Life” xxviii)
This is not, of course, the kind of hagiography one expects from 17th-century writers paying homage to “the great Men” of their age. But it would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss Waller’s artful prose as an ineffectual memorial to Hooke’s scientific genius.
When evaluated on their terms — what both men most valued about the new scientific ethos and enterprise (as modelled by Boyle’s “priests of Nature,” aka the “Christian Virtuoso”) — this was high praise, indeed.
The deeply pious Boyle, now widely regarded as the “father of modern chemistry,” read and often quoted from John Everard’s surprisingly popular and influential English translation from the Arabic of the Hermetic text, The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus (1650). The Divine Pymander was at the center of an ongoing controversy in the 17th century regarding the ancient origins and authenticity of the Hermetic corpus, but Boyle’s interest in the work lay elsewhere: he fixated on the message itself, which preached a mystical approach to the art of knowing. For example,
Very like a Philosopher, methinks, does the Great Mercurius Trismegistus (if we grant him to be the Author of the Books ascribed to him) speak, when he tells his Son, There can be no Religion more true or just, then to know the things that are, and to acknowledge thanks for all things to him that made them; which thing I shall not cease to do: (he continues) Be Pious and Religious, O my Son! for he that does so is the best and highest Philosopher; and without Philosophy it is impossible ever to attain to the height and exactnesse of Piety and Religion.
(Boyle, The Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy, 1663, Part 1, Essay 3, 55)
And later in the same book, when discussing the role of the philosopher-priest “in divers Civiliz’d Nations” (“the Indian Gymnosophists[,] the Persian Magi, the Egyptian Sacrificers, and the old Gauls Druides”), Boyle writes:
To this let me adde, in the second place, that of Hermes Trismegistus, almost at the very beginning of his first Book, Englished by Dr. Everard: He that shall learn and study the things that are, and how they are ordered and governed, and by whom, and for what cause, or to what end, will acknowledge thanks to the Work-man, as to a good Father, an excellent Nurse, and a faithful Steward; and he that gives Thanks shall be Pious or Religious, and he that is Religious shall know both where the Truth is, and what it is; and learning that, he will be yet more and more Religious: ....
(Boyle, The Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy, 1663, Part 1, Essay 5, 104)
Historians still debate the influence of Hermetic doctrines (and their practical application by “natural magicians” and alchemists) on the development and direction of the “new science.” Hooke’s friend and colleague, John Aubrey, believed there was not enough cross-fertilization, writing at the end of the 17th century that
Natural Philosophy hath been exceedingly advanced within Fifty Years last past; but methinks, ’tis strange, that Hermetick Philosophy hath lain so long untoucht. It is a Subject worthy of serious Consideration: I have here, for my own diversion, Collected some few Remarques within my own Remembrance, or within the Remembrance of some Persons worthy of Belief in the Age before me. Those who have a desire to know more of Things of this Nature, may be pleased to peruse Histoire Prodigieuse, Writ by Pere Arnault: As also a Book intituled, Lux è Tenebris, which is a Collection of Modern Visions and Prophesies in Germany, by several Persons; Translated into Latin by Jo. Amos Comenius, Printed at Amsterdam, 1655.
(Aubrey, Miscellanies, 1696, 1)
But there is no question about the centrality of the philosopher-priest ideal to the group of reform-minded experimentalists in Boyle’s circle, including Robert Hooke, who taught Boyle “Euclid’s Elements, and made him understand Des Cartes’ Philosophy” circa 1658–1662, when employed by Boyle “to be usefull to him in his chymical operations.” (Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. by A. Clark, 1898, i. 411) Hooke never made it his mission, as did Boyle, to promote publicly the religiosity of their experimental program and mechanical philosophy. Nonetheless, both men remained true to the philosopher-priest ideal honed at Oxford in the late 1650s.
J. A. Bennett has already pointed out that our fixation with the politics of contemporary natural philosophy and the many controversies in which Hooke was mired causes us to ignore the depth and breadth of Hooke’s scientific and technological achievements, which Waller sought to document for posterity.
Too much concentration on Hooke’s controversies has given us a distorted perspective on his work. Controversy illustrates where Hooke’s work crossed that of others, not necessarily what he initially considered important, and in many cases when we look in detail, we find Hooke working on a much wider variety of possibilities than the subject of the argument.
(Bennett, “Robert Hooke as Mechanic and Natural Philosopher” 33)
In this sense, historians of science bear at least some of the blame for Hooke’s “unaccountable” absence within standard histories and textbooks of science.
“the truth of Matter of Fact”
Now let us look quickly at another episode in Hooke’s life when he attempted to persuade an ideally disinterested audience with facts, rather than passion.
Hooke’s prose style has been praised by 21st-century scientists such as the oceanographer Ellen Tan Drake, but he dealt in difficult subjects and unfamiliar ideas that required more than the Royal Society’s ideal of instrumental discourse to properly convey. Even Hooke’s good friend, John Aubrey, once remarked:
I wish he had writt plainer, and afforded a little more paper.
The occasion was an epistolary exchange with the Oxford antiquary, Anthony Wood (aka Anthony à Wood), with whom Aubrey collaborated and corresponded for about 25 years. In 1669, Wood began compiling a biographical dictionary of all the writers and prelates educated at Oxford, from the 15th year of Henry VII’s reign (1500 CE) up to Wood’s own death in 1695.
Wood’s many sources included the plethora of texts written by Oxford alumni, the university registers and libraries, the London record offices, cathedral archives, and the indefatigable researches of John Aubrey. With his unusually profuse and diverse acquaintance, Aubrey was well positioned to help Wood with such a daunting project. For years, Aubrey collected information on Oxford writers (and all manner of other men and women, too), sending his notes on 17th-century notables to Wood for incorporation into his manuscript. The resulting two-volume work, published by Wood in 1691–2 with the title Athenæ Oxonienses, “benefited immensely from Aubrey’s researches and from the lively style in which they were delivered” (Parry, n. pag.).
Robert Hooke went to Christ Church, Oxford in 1653/4 (Hooke did not receive a bachelor’s degree, but was granted his MA degree in 1663), and was a published author — hence a proper subject for Wood’s biographical register — as well as one of Aubrey’s 14 special “amici.” (Indeed, the impecunious Aubrey — who from 1671 lived the life of a peripatetic scholar, reliant on the hospitality of various patrons and friends — used Hooke’s rooms in Gresham College as the place to which he had his letters addressed.)
In September of 1689, Aubrey sent Wood crucial information about his friend Hooke, in an effort to promote Hooke’s claim to what Aubrey called “the greatest discovery in nature that ever was since the world’s creation” — referring to the recent discovery of the principles of gravity and orbital motion. Hooke and Newton were by then locked in an acrimonious dispute over priority, as explained by Hooke’s ODNB biographer, Patri J. Pugliese:
Following Oldenburg’s death in 1677, Hooke was elected as one of two secretaries to the Royal Society. In this capacity he initiated correspondence with a number of members who had not been heard from in recent years, among them Isaac Newton. In 1672, when Newton had submitted his “New theory about light and colours” to the Royal Society, it had sparked heated debate and exchanges of letters. Hooke had been particularly critical of Newton’s underlying view that light consisted of a stream of particles, though Newton had insisted that his conclusions did not depend upon that hypothesis. In spite of that earlier dispute the exchange of letters in 1677, which also dealt with the refraction of light, was thoroughly cordial.
In November 1679 Hooke again entreated Newton to communicate his thoughts on philosophical matters, inviting him to comment on Hooke’s work: “And particularly if you will let me know your thoughts of that of compounding the celestiall motions of the planets of a direct motion by the tangent & an attractive motion towards the centrall body, Or what objections you have against my hypothesis of the lawes or causes of Springinesse.” (Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 2.297)
Newton replied that he had not heard of these hypotheses. He proposed an experiment to detect the effects of the earth’s rotation on a falling body, including a diagram in which the path of fall is extended within the body of the earth. Hooke corrected Newton’s diagram only to be corrected in turn by Newton with a new diagram based on the assumption of a constant force towards the centre of the earth. Hooke replied that his own supposition was that gravitational attraction acted “in a duplicate proportion to the Distance from the Center Reciprocall” (ibid., 2.309), that is, as the inverse square of distance. Given this correspondence it is not surprising that Hooke felt that Newton had learned the inverse square law of gravity from him. He could not know that over a decade earlier Newton had not only supposed this relation, but had tested it by calculation two different ways. Hooke’s insistence that he deserved some credit from Newton for this proposition, and Newton’s refusal to acknowledge any debt to Hooke whatsoever, led to mutual resentment that never abated. While Newton had good reason not to acknowledge a debt to Hooke for the inverse square relation, recent scholarship credits Hooke with introducing Newton to the idea of analysing orbital motion as the sum of a tangential velocity and a deflection towards a centre (Westfall; Cohen, ‘Newton’s discovery’). This became a key feature of Newton’s subsequent analysis of orbital motion in the tract De Motu and in the Principia (1687), while it had not figured in his earlier demonstrations on the inverse square law.
(Pugliese, n. pag.)
Aubrey justified his own involvement in the matter when he told Wood in a postscript to his letter of 1689, “’Tis such a hard matter to get people to doe themselves right.” Aubrey felt that Hooke needed to champion his discovery and defend his claim to priority more clearly, so Aubrey drafted the following record of events for Wood:
About 9 or 10 years ago, Mr. Hooke writt to Mr. Isaac Newton, of Trinity College, Cambridge, to make a demonstration of this theory, not telling him, at first, the proportion of the gravity to the distance, nor what was the curv’d line that was thereby made. Mr. Newton, in his answer to the letter, did expresse that he had not known of it; and in his first attempt about it, he calculated the curve by supposing the attraction to be the same at all distances: upon which, Mr. Hooke sent, in his next letter, the whole of his hypothesis, scil. that the gravitation was reciprocall to the square of the distance, which a would make the motion in an ellipsis, in one of whose foci the sun being placed, the aphelion and perihelion of the planet would be opposite to each other in the same line, which is the whole coelestiall theory, concerning which Mr. Newton hath a demonstration, not at all owning he receiv’d the first intimation of it from Mr. Hooke. Likewise Mr. Newton haz in the same booke printed some other theories and experiments of Mr. Hooke’s, as that about the oval figure of the earth and sea: without acknowledgeing from whom he had them.
Aubrey then had Hooke review and comment on the draft of his letter for Wood, at which point Hooke amended this particular passage of Aubrey’s to read:
About 9 or 10 years ago, Mr. Hooke writt to Mr. Isaac Newton, of Trinity College, Cambridge, to make a demonstration of this theory, not telling him, at first, the proportion of the gravity to the distance, nor what was the curv’d line that was thereby made. Mr. Newton, in his answer to the letter, did expresse that he had not known of it; and in his first attempt about it, he calculated the curve by supposing the attraction to be the same at all distances: upon which, Mr. Hooke sent, in his next letter, the whole of his hypothesis, scil. that the gravitation was reciprocall to the square of the distance, which a would make the motion in an ellipsis, in one of whose foci the sun being placed, the aphelion and perihelion of the planet would be opposite to each other in the same line, which is the whole coelestiall theory, concerning which Mr. Newton hath a demonstration, not at all owning he receiv’d the first intimation of it from Mr. Hooke. Likewise Mr. Newton haz in the same booke printed some other theories and experiments of Mr. Hooke’s, as that about the oval figure of the earth and sea: without acknowledgeing from whom he had them, though he had not sent it up with the other parts of his booke till near a month after the theory was read to the Society by Mr. Hooke, when it served to help to answer Dr. Wallis his arguments produced in the Royal Society against it.
(Click/tap here for the complete text of Aubrey’s letter, as sent to Wood in 1689.)
Aubrey, concerned that more evidence than this was needed to bolster Hooke’s claim to priority of discovery, enclosed an annotated excerpt, in Hooke’s autograph, from the conclusion of Hooke’s first Cutler Lecture, An Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth (read to the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge in 1671, and published in 1674). The MS. enclosure varies slightly in orthography and wording from the copy of Hooke’s lecture that was printed on pp. 27–8 in 1674, without errata, so it’s impossible to know if the subtle changes to the text were introduced to the published version by the printer in 1674, or by Hooke, copying out the conclusion of his lecture for Wood, in 1689. Regardless, the more noticeable amendment to the lecture text originated with Hooke, and is in his autograph.
Of note, Hooke interpolated his transcription of the lecture for Wood in order to emphasize the tie-in between his printed lecture of 1674 and his correspondence with Newton in 1678 (click/tap here for the full text of Aubrey’s 1689 letter to Wood, enclosing the communication from Hooke). Presumably, Hooke felt that such edits would clarify matters for Wood and others, trusting — as he too often did — that the evidence clearly recorded in the journal book of the Royal Society spoke for itself.
Aubrey, on the other hand, thought more artful persuasion was called for (hence Aubrey’s closing comment to Wood, “I wish he had writt plainer, and afforded a little more paper.”) And Aubrey was right. Hooke’s and Newton’s arguments about orbital motion were at the same time boldly imaginative and nuanced; the evidence concerning what each man knew, and when he knew it, was open to interpretation; and our intellectual influences are often more indirect, associational, and correlative than demonstrably causative. Over three centuries later, scholars continue to debate the extent of Newton’s unacknowledged borrowings from Hooke, with conflicting definitions of archaic terminology at the center of the debate.
Drake, for instance, has challenged Newton scholar Richard Westfall’s attempt to discredit Hooke’s claim to priority based on Westfall’s “misinterpretation” of Hooke’s hypothesis on congruity and incongruity of bodies, which was central to his kinetic theory of matter.
Westfall (1969) seizes upon these rather archaic-sounding words [“congruity” and “incongruity” of bodies], uttered in Hooke’s first paper [Tract on Capillary Attraction, 1661 N.S.] when he was only 25 years old, to convince the reader not to take Hooke’s startling pronouncements on gravitational law too seriously, on the grounds that these ideas really show him to mean “particular” gravities rather than universal gravitation when he discusses celestial mechanics. To Westfall, Hooke was thus worlds behind Newton on the universal law. It is my opinion that Westfall misinterpreted Hooke’s concept of congruity and incongruity. Hooke is referring to bodies and motions at the atomic or molecular level rather than at the planetary level. When Hooke speaks of vibrations he is referring to the oscillations of the “particles of matter,” in his development of a kinetic theory of matter.
(Drake, Restless Genius 133n21)
Here, and elsewhere in Drake’s questioning of historians’ reliance on a highly selective (and possibly doctored) publication record, the documentary evidence is not a given, but a rhetorical construct refashioned by generations of Newton scholars, to the decided disadvantage of Hooke and his supporters.
In similar vein, Drake takes on conventional wisdom yet again with her reinterpretation of Hooke’s notion of “centripetal force,” arguing that it was this which allowed Newton to understand the physics of celestial motions and develop his laws of gravitation — as Aubrey and Hooke also asserted in their letter of 1689 to Anthony Wood (although they used different arguments, geared to a 17th-century audience, in order to make the case).
[Hooke’s] concept of centripetal force, necessary to the universal law of gravitation and later (in 1679) communicated to Newton, allowed the latter to think correctly about gravitation. Up to that moment, Newton wrote only in terms of the exact opposite effect, that of the vis centrifuga (centrifugal force). In the course of the correspondence between Newton and Hooke in the year 1679–1680, Hooke presented Newton with a complete statement of the gravitational problem including the following points:
(1) the force of attraction between two bodies is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them;
(2) this force differs within the body of the Earth;
(3) the attraction decreases with the increasing centrifugal effect in low latitudes;
(4) the gravitational force of attraction provides the centripetal force necessary to keep planets in orbit—in Hooke’s own words to Newton, “compounding the celestial motions of the planets of a direct motion by the tangent and an attractive motion towards the central body”;
(5) and calculations should be made from the centers of the Sun and planets.
Hooke published his ideas on celestial mechanics in his Attempt to prove the motion of the earth by observation, London, 1674, 13 years before the publication of Principia. Newton, however, claimed to have arrived at his universal law of gravitation at his country home in Woolsthorpe during the plague years 1665 or 1666 (it is not clear which), during his annus mirabilis (his “marvelous year” when the legendary apple fell). This date, of course, would clearly predate Hooke’s expression of the law except that there is clear proof that as late as 1675, Newton still thought that the planets and Sun were kept apart by “some secret principle of unsociableness in the ethers of their vortices,” and that gravity was due to a circulating ether that had to be replenished in the center of the Earth by a process like fermentation or coagulation (letter to Oldenburg December 7, 1675, Turnbull, 1959, vol. I:368; Patterson, 1950, p. 32–33). Hooke, in contrast, possessed a highly sophisticated understanding of the gravitational theory at least by 1679, and most likely for at least a decade before. He definitely formulated the physical hypothesis and stated the mathematical problem, although there is no evidence extant that he followed this with mathematical analysis. Many of Hooke’s papers, however, are lost, some perhaps have even been put into unsympathetic hands and therefore destroyed (Patterson, 1949, p. 339–341). Patterson considers that “the Leibniz-Hooke letters would be of particular interest could they be found, since they were from the period of Hooke’s correspondence with Newton on the subject of gravitation, and touched upon the ‘universal algebra’ upon which Leibniz was then at work” (Patterson, 1949, p. 340–341). Leibniz, of course, was another enemy of Newton and a co-founder of the calculus. A diagram constructed by Hooke was found recently among the Wren papers in the Trinity College Library, Cambridge, and photocopied by Pugliese (1989). Physicist Michael Nauenberg (1994) analyzed the diagram and concluded that Hooke was indeed very close to at least a geometric solution of the elliptical orbit. By the end of 1679, Hooke had claimed to his friends that he had worked out the whole theory; he noted in his diary for January 4th, 1680, “— perfect Theory of Heavens.” The only proof that Newton had developed his theory by the plague years is some unsubstantiated statements made by Newton himself to friends, one of them, William Whiston, almost 30 years after the supposed event. An example of Newton’s untruthfulness is cited by Patterson (1950): Newton wrote a letter to Oldenburg on June 23, 1673, to be forwarded to Huygens, in which he claimed to have expressed his gravitational theory and then referred to this letter in his later correspondence with Halley as evidence of his priority over Hooke. Later authors have supported Newton’s claims by quoting this passage from a copy of his June 23rd letter, reposited at the Royal Society. But Huygens’ editors have proved with photostatic copies that the passage concerning gravitation does not appear in Huygens’ copy of the letter. The Royal Society copy, therefore, must have been doctored to produce the desired effect. Newton gained his vast reputation, therefore, partly by planting evidence to establish priority, if not by himself, at least by his followers. He became less than civil to Hooke and always refused to give him credit for this most productive idea. Hooke was deeply saddened and hurt by this neglect of one of his greatest achievements.
(Drake, Restless Genius 32–33)
Aubrey would himself feel the sting of plagiarism several times, which must have strengthened his resolve to “get people to doe themselves right” (from Aubrey’s letter of 1689 to Anthony Wood). He first learned the need for a vigorous defense against intellectual piracy in 1681 when Richard Blackbourne of Trinity College, Cambridge, used Aubrey’s “Life of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesburie” to produce his own life of Hobbes in Latin.
Aubrey’s next run-in with a plagiarist occurred in 1692 when the preeminent botanist-zoologist, John Ray, neglected to credit Aubrey and Hooke as sources for his hypothesis on the formation of terrestrial features (the earth’s mountains, valleys, and seas), as published by Ray in his Miscellaneous Discourses Concerning the Dissolution and Changes of the World (1692). In 1691, Aubrey had sent Ray a review copy of his MS., Memoires of Naturall Remarques in the County of Wilts (published posthumously in 1847 as Natural History of Wiltshire), which included a chapter titled “An Hypothesis of the Terraqueous Globe. A Digression.” wherein Aubrey paid tribute to Hooke as “first discoverer,” circa 1663 or 1664, of the hypothesis. Ray had reviewed Aubrey’s MS. favorably, stating that he derived “great pleasure & satisfaction” from everything in it except for the section recounting Hooke’s hypothesis of the terraqueous globe; this, Ray (a theologian) found offensive, and he recommended that Aubrey delete it, contending that it “is but a Digression, & aliene from your subject, & so may very well be left out.” (qtd. in Drake, 108)
Aubrey disagreed, annotating his copy of Ray’s letter with the comment:
This Hypothesis is Mr. Hooks. I say so, and it is the best thing in the Book; it (indeed) does interfere w[it]h ye 1 chap. of Genesis.
(qtd. in Drake, 108)
So when Ray’s Miscellaneous Discourses was rushed through the press early in 1692 with “two large Digressions” concerning the creation of the world, espousing Hooke’s hypothesis of the terraqueous globe within a Christian framework stressing the power & wisdom of God — complete with Hooke’s citations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pliny, Strabo, and Kircher — with nary a mention of Hooke or Aubrey, both men were distressed. An irate Aubrey wrote to Anthony Wood:
Your advice to me was prophetique, viz. not to lend my MSS. You remember Mr. J. Ray sent me a very kind letter concerning my Naturall History of Wilts: only he misliked my Digression, which is Mr. Hooke’s Hypothesis of the terraquious Globe whom I name with respect. Mr. Ray would have me (in the letter) leave it out. And now lately is come forth a booke of his in 8o which all Mr. Hooke’s hypothesis in my letter is published and without any mention of Mr. Hooke or my booke. Mr. Hooke is much troubled about it. ’Tis a right Presbyterian trick.
(Letter from Aubrey to Wood, 13 Feb. 1692; qtd. in Drake, Restless Genius 109)
Little did Aubrey know then that Wood would soon turn on him, as well.
Wood never acknowledged Aubrey’s help in his prefaces, nor did he assist Aubrey to get into print on his own account; and the only record he left of their relationship, other than private letters, were the sour and unappreciative remarks that he put into his Life. Here he remembered Aubrey only as “a pretender to Antiquities” and as “a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased” (Life and Times, 2.117). When some of the living subjects of Athenae began to complain about their biographies in the newly published book, Wood wrote to Aubrey blaming him for supplying information that had aroused the anger of numerous gentlemen against Wood, even though it was clear that Aubrey had advised Wood to use his judgement when editing his material for publication. Aubrey came to realize that he was being exploited, and, tolerant and generous-minded though his nature was, Wood’s ingratitude finally provoked him to protest. In 1694, when Wood’s book had been published, and Wood returned some of Aubrey’s manuscripts in mutilated condition, Aubrey expostulated, “I thought you so deare a friend that I might have entrusted my life in your hands and now your unkindness doth almost break my heart” (Brief Lives, 1.13).
(Parry, n. pag.)
As for Hooke (and his rivalry with Newton), Wood had nothing much to say about either man in print (the Athenæ Oxonienses of 1691–2) or in manuscript (Wood’s autobiography and journal MSS.). This was perhaps because Newton was at Cambridge (not Oxford), and because Hooke’s decidedly unglamorous and secular career as Europe’s first professional research scientist was little esteemed by the man who pretentiously styled himself “Anthony à Wood” from 1660 on (Wood followed contemporary fashion in also Latinizing his name, using “Antonius à Bosco” as an alternate to the more “vulgar” English form from about 1670).
For whatever reason, the ferment of ideas, which so agitated the 17th-century scientific community, does not appear to have interested Wood.
No lack of a “plainer,” more leisurely explanation on Hooke’s part was responsible for this state of affairs.
It is my belief that nothing Hooke or Aubrey wrote would have drawn Anthony à Wood to inquire into the phenomena and principles of nature.
Wood was not to be provoked or engaged in Hooke’s cause, by any rhetorical means.
Aubrey’s ardent hope that “I know you will doe him right” (letter of 1689 to Anthony Wood) was always misplaced.
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