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Robert Hooke
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Birth Place: 
Freshwater, Isle of Wight
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Death Place: 
One of the greatest experimental scientists of the 17th century, Robert Hooke was a natural philosopher whose scientific interests included physics, chemistry, biology, geology, paleontology and astronomy. He formulated a mathematical equation describing elasticity in solid materials, known as “Hooke’s Law,” that is used today. A talented draftsman, he was also a leading architect. Born on the Isle of Wight in 1635, he was a sickly child and was educated at home by his father, an Anglican minister. He showed a talent for drawing at an early age, and at thirteen he was sent to London to be an apprentice to the painter Peter Lely (1618-1680). The apprenticeship was brief; he want to live with Richard Busby (1606-1695), the headmaster of the Westminster School, where he learned mathematics, Greek and Latin and how to play the organ. In 1653 or 1654 Hook became a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford. He later worked as an assistant to scientists, first Thomas Willis (1621-1675) and then Robert Boyle (1627-1691). He received a Master of Arts degree in 1663. The Royal Society had been formed by Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and others in 1660, and in 1662 Hook became its Curator of Experiments. His job was to perform three or four experiments at the weekly meetings of the Society for the education of the members. He then became the Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London in 1664; he lived in rooms at the College for the rest of his life. In 1661 King Charles II (1630-1685) had directed Wren to investigate insects and small creatures with the microscope. Wren passed the task on to Hook, and by 1663 the noted scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) remarked upon Hooke’s drawings of insects, reflecting his observations through a microscope. The Royal Society published the results of his studies in 1665 in the book "Micrographia" ("Small Drawings"), which is in the Museums’ collection. It contains 38 engraved plates after Hook’s drawings, including the famous images of an ant and a flea. In the book Hooke coined the word “cell” to describe what we now call plant cells in thin slices of cork that he observed through a microscope and depicted in the book. A week after London’s Great Fire of 1666 Hook presented a model for the reconstruction of the city to the Royal Society. Although his plan was not adopted, Hook was appointed one of the three Surveyors responsible for rebuilding, a task that went on for years. He designed important buildings, including the Bethlem Hospital for the insane in Moorfields (known as Bedlam) and the Royal College of Physicians, both of which were demolished in the 19th century. In addition to his many accomplishments, he is remembered for his disputes with Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other scientists over who should receive credit for various discoveries and inventions. His scientific work continued for the most of the balance of his life, although by the end of the century he suffered from ill health and blindness. Hooke died in London on March 3, 1703. (TNB 3/2013) Selected bibliography: Griffiths, Antony and Robert A. Gerard. The Print in Stuart Britain 1602-1689. Exhibition catalog, pp. 269-270, 276-279. London: British Museum Press, 1998. Pugliese, Patri J. ‘Hooke, Robert (1635–1703)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006.