But for certain misfortunes, Robert Hooke would surely have been among the most celebrated of Englishmen. He invented air bellows for Boyle, built telescopes and microscopes, discovered stars and advanced our understanding of planetary orbit. He taught himself illustration for his Micrographia, written during the plague years and enthralling London society with its magnified depictions of a flea, snow and ice flakes, the eye of a fly, and crystal formations in frozen urine. Micrographia showed for the first time the cellular construction of all life and kept a spellbound Pepys, who’d purchased it that day, up all night. In an age of intellectual ferment that knew no boundary between art and science, Hooke contributed to horology, mechanics, gravitational physics, astronomy, architecture, a model of memory and, as assistant to Wren, the rebuilding of London after the great fire.
His misfortunes? Born to obscurity and poverty he spent much of his life as the hireling of men who disdained his origins; circumstances which may or may not have caused his irascibility and, though he died fabulously rich, parsimony. Such disadvantages were trifling, however, against the fact of being born a contemporary of another polymath and intellectual leviathan, a man as deeply eccentric as Hooke and – when he wanted to be – even more deeply unpleasant. That man being, of course, one Isaac Newton.
Robert Hooke is the subject of this week’s In Our Time. Melvin Bragg, who has the best job in the world, is joined by three scholars to explore the life and ideas of the man “written out of the history of science for three hundred years”. Listen here