London’s Leonardo by Jim Bennett et al

It is a proud and correct claim that we can make in these islands that much of the foundational science which underpins the modern world took place in the C17 here. The Royal Society (founded in 1660, ) was full of brilliant men whose invention, genius and tenacity guided us out of ignorance and superstition.

One of these was Robert Hooke ( Hooke was curator of experiments of the Royal Society and a member of its council, Gresham Professor of Geometry and a Surveyor to the City of London after the Great Fire of London, in which capacity he appears to have performed more than half of all the surveys after the fire. He also built some of the earliest Gregorian telescopes and observed the rotations of Mars and Jupiter. In 1665 he inspired the use of microscopes for scientific exploration with his book, Micrographia. Based on his microscopic observations of fossils, Hooke was an early proponent of biological evolution. He also investigated the phenomenon of refraction, deducing the wave theory of light, and was the first to suggest that matter expands when heated and that air is made of small particles separated by relatively large distances.

This book juxtaposes four accounts of Hooke from different but intersecting viewpoints. Unlike the aloof and distant demeanour adopted by Newton, concealing his views and speaking through surrogates, Hooke was a public man. He bustled though the streets of London, talking and arguing in coffee houses, and lecturing to whatever audience might attend at Gresham College. He performed (the theatrical connotation is appropriate) experiments at the assembly of the Royal Society, and was lampooned in a London playhouse for his trouble. Each of the four authors here has a record of specialist research on aspects of Hooke and they have come together to provide a significant revaluation of the most important facets of Hooke’s life and work: his career as a public man, his instrument designing and making, his scientific thought, and the private world of his personal life, his illnesses and his medications. This is a fitting tribute to an amazing polymath of C17th England. To read it is to feel somewhat inadequate. That’s a predictable outcome of reading about really great men.

Enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic detail.

To accompany the book listen to the BBC Radio 4 podcast of ‘In Our Time’ on the subject of Robert Hooke. Available at  Chaired by Melvyn Bragg and with David Wootton (Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York), Patricia Fara (President Elect of the British Society for the History of Science), and Rob Iliffe (Professor of History of Science at Oxford University).

To embark on a lifetime of thought and study on Robert Hooke and his times, start with the following:

Thomas Birch, History of the Royal Society of London (Gale ECCO, 2010)

Allan Chapman, England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution (CRC Press, 2004)

Michael Cooper, A More Beautiful City: Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London After the Great Fire (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2003)

Margaret Espinasse, Robert Hooke (University of California Press, 1962)

Robert Gunther, Oxford and the History of Science (Oxford University Press, 1934)

Robert Hooke (eds. Henry W. Adams and Walter Robinson), The Diary Of Robert Hooke (Taylor, 1935)

Stephen Inwood, The Man Who Knew Too Much: The Strange & Inventive Life of Robert Hooke 1635-1703 (Macmillan, 2002)

Lisa Jardine, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London (HarperCollins, 2003)

David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (Allen Lane, 2015)


London’s Leonardo: The Life and Work of Robert Hooke

240 pages in Oxford University Press

First published 2003

ISBN  9780198525790

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