Robert Hooke

Aubrey's Brief Lives

Obituaries Index

Mr Robert Hooke, curator of the Royal Society at London, was born at Freshwater in the Isle of Wight; his father was minister there, and of the family of the Hookes of Hooke in Hants, in the road from London to Salisbury, a very ancient family and in that place for many (three or more) hundred years. His father, Mr John Hooke, had two or three brothers, all ministers.

John Hoskyns, the painter, being at Freshwater, to draw pictures, Mr Hooke observed what he did, and, thought he, 'Why cannot I do so.too?' So he gets him chalk, and red ochre, and coal, and grinds them, and puts them on a trencher [flat wooden plate] got a pencil, and to work he went, and made a picture: then he copied (as they hung up in the parlour) the pictures there, which he made like. Also, being a boy there, at Freshwater, he made a sundial on a round trencher; never having had any instruction. His father was not mathematical at all.

When his father died, his son Robert was but 13 years old, to whom he left one hundred pounds, which was sent up to London with him, with an intention to have him bound to Mr Lely the painter, with whom he was a little while upon trial; who liked him very well, but Mr ;Hooke quickly perceived what was to be done, so, thought he, 'why cannot I do this by myself and keep my hundred pounds?' He also had some instructions in drawing from Mr Samuel Cooper (prince of portrait painters of this age); but whether from him before or after Mr Lely, query?

Query when he went to Mr Busby's the schoolmaster of Westminster, at whose house he was; and he made very much of him. With him he lodged his hundred pounds. There he learned to play twenty lessons on the organ. He there in one week's time made himself master of the first six books of Euclid, to the admiration of Mr Busby (now doctor of theology), who introduced him. At school here he was very mechanical, and (amongst other things) he invented thirty different ways of flying, which I have not only heard him say but also Dr Wilkins (at Wadham College at that time), who gave him his Mathematical Magic, which did him a great kindness. He was never a King's Scholar [i.e. at Westminster School] and I have heard Sir Richard Knight (who was his schoolfellow) say that he seldom saw him in the school.

In 1658 he was sent to Christ Church in Oxford, where he had a chorister's place (in those days when the church music was put down), which was a pretty good maintenance. He was there assistant to Dr Thomas Willis in his chemistry; who afterwards recommended him to the honourable Robert Boyle esq, to be useful to him in his chemical operations. Mr Hooke then read to him (i.e. Robert Boyle) Euclid's Elements and made him understand Descartes' philosophy.

In 1662 Mr Robert Boyle recommended Mr Robert Hooke to be Curator of the experiments of the Royal Society, wherein he did an admirable good work to the commonwealth of learning in recommending the fittest person in the world to them. In 1664 he was chosen geometry professor at Gresham College. Sir John Cutler, knight, endowed a lecture on mechanics, which he read.

In 1666 the great conflagration of London happened, and then he was chosen one of the two surveyors of the city of London; by which he has got a great estate. He built Bedlam, the Physician's College, Montagu House, the Monument on Fish Street Hill and Theatre there; and he is much made use of in designing buildings

He is but of middling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is large; his eye full and popping, and not quick; a grey eye. He has a delicate head of hair, brown, and of an excellent moist curl. He is and ever was very temperate, and moderate in diet etc.

As he is of prodigious inventive head, so is a person of great virtue and goodness. Now when I have said his inventive faculty is so great, you cannot imagine his memory to be excellent, for they are like two buckets, as one goes up, the other goes down. He is certainly the greatest expert on mechanics this day in the world. His head lies much more to geometry than to arithmetic. He is a bachelor. and, I believe, will never marry. His elder brother left one fair daughter, which is his heir. In fine, (which crowns all) he is a person of great suavity and goodness.

It was Mr Robert Hooke that invented the pendulum watches, so much more useful than the other watches.

He has invented an engine for the speedy working out of division, etc or the speedy and immediate finding out of the divisor.

(From a letter to Anthony Wood): About nine or ten years ago, Mr Hooke wrote to Mr Isaac Newton of Trinity College, Cambridge, to make a demonstration of this theory (of gravity), not telling him, at first, the proportion of the gravity to the distance, nor what was the curved line that was thereby made. Mr Newton, in his answer to this letter, did express 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, that is, that the gravitation was reciprocal to the square of the distance ... which is the whole celestial theory, concerning which Mr Newton has a demonstration, not at all owning he received the first intimation of it from Mr Hooke. Likewise Mr Newton has in the same book printed some other theories and experiments of Mr Hooke's, as that about the oval figure of the earth and sea: without acknowledging from whom he had them....

Mr Wood! This is the greatest discovery in nature that ever was since the world's creation. It never was so much as hinted by any man before. I know you will do him right. I hope you may read his hand. I wish he had written plainer and afforded a little more paper.

J. Aubrey

Before I leave this town, I will get of him a catalogue of what he has written; and as much of his inventions as I can. But there are many hundreds; he believes not fewer than a thousand. It is such a hard matter to get people to do themselves right.
From John Aubrey's Brief Lives. (Edited by R Barber, Boydell Press, 1982)