A Large Book of Little Things
Posted on March 31, 2017
I recently began reading a book by Lisa Jardine called “The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, The Man Who Measured London”. A largely forgotten figure, Hooke was an engineer, surveyor, architect and inventor. He is known for working with Christopher Wren to rebuild London after the great fire of 1666 and for publishing the important collection of his investigations with a microscope, “Micrographia”. An early member of the Royal Society of London, Hooke is not nearly as well known as the men he collaborated with–most famously, Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he had a long hostile rivalry.
Hooke was from the Isle of Wight and was inspired by the ocean, navigation, and by the host of minerals, fossils and resources he observed there. He was a sickly youth who was interested in everything about the natural world. From his early life of hard work and study through his success in mid-life and into his latter years marked by illness as well as intellectual disputes, his health problems plagued him his entire life.
Often he would show his specimens in a circle to mimic the view through a microscope. Micrographia was very popular and the first scientific best seller, starting a general interest in the world of microbes and things that could be observed through a microscope.
For all of his accomplishments, Hooke is relegated to obscurity–and Jardine’s book explores how and why this happened. The famous architect Christopher Wren, who Jardine also wrote a biography of, was a friend and associate of Hooke’s. It was with Hooke that Wren worked to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666 and it was Hooke who designed many of the buildings under Wren’s supervision. The combination of scientific observation and architecture is an interesting one, and is evident in Hooke’s design for the monument to the fire.
Wren ultimately signed off on the final designs that Hooke created and, as fate would have it, it was Wren who was solely credited for the work. Architecture of the 17th century was a gentlemanly pursuit for well educated men and was often based on studying Vitruvius’ work De Architectura as well as other classics. Hooke even collaborated on the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, coming up with the innovative dome design that is clearly influenced by his scientific studies.
They designed a remarkable amount of buildings around London, including the infamous St. Mary of Bethlehem, which over the years became known as “Bedlam.”
Hooke, who also had the title of city surveyor, collaborated with Wren on a new city plan for London. It is reported that Hooke suggested that they redesign the city on a grid pattern with wide boulevards and central arteries–a design that was then copied many times around the world.
Always fascinated with instruments, Hooke was an inventor with many patents and inventions to his name. By modifying and refining the microscope, Hooke achieved 50x, the most powerful magnification at the time, which allowed him to discover the cell. He invented a lot of other instruments, including the balance spring for timepieces.
I am fascinated by the intercorrelation of scientific study and design. In an increasingly specialized climate, it is easy to forget how seemingly unrelated fields are actually connected and can inform one another. I became interested in Hooke through his illustrations, but I am enjoying learning more about his brilliant and, indeed, curious life.