Robert Hooke

Robert Hooke (1635-1703) 

There are no contemporary portraits of Robert Hooke. This is a recent attempt to make a portrait of him from descriptions of the time

It was during the early 1650’s that Thomas Willis began to study the nature of fevers with Robert Hooke as his technician. Willis’ ideas about fevers combine some aspects of van Helmont’s notion of fermentation with a mechanical theory of the nature of circulation. Willis disagreed with Helmont’s account of an archeus as the cause of fever. Instead he provided a mechanical explanation: the accelerated fermentation of the blood causes it to heat up excessively, creating more pressure in the blood vessels and also speeding up the pulse.

A similar mix of views and approaches is evident in Willis’ conclusions after dissecting and examining many animal and human brains and nervous systems. Like Aristotle he distinguishes the animal from the rational soul. His anatomical work revealed the strong similarities between the brains of humans and many animals and so he concluded that the animal soul is seated in the brain and allows us and the animals to have sensations, to feel pleasure and pain and to have desires and passions. He distinguishes the animal soul from the human rational soul, which is immaterial and immortal. Willis’ religious views can thus be preserved.

Health, for Willis, involved maintaining the appropriate level and type of fermentation in the different parts of the body in order to allow it to function smoothly. This could be aided by the use of iatrochemical remedies such as his “steel syrup” which he made using his own secret recipe and sold to his patients.

Willis introduced Boyle to Robert Hooke who had shown remarkable mechanical skills as his assistant. Boyle hired Hooke as a “mechanick” and this clear relationship between virtuoso and assistant is in stark contrast to the ambiguous relationship he had with Starkey. Hooke, who, like Willis, had begun his student days as a servitor saw himself as “belonging to Boyle.” He lived in Boyle’s house and received an income from him until the early 1660s. In the early period Hooke was responsible for building the air pump which the two used to conduct Boyle’s most famous and successful series of experiments on the springiness of air. The air pump, like other significant technological innovations had a considerable cost, but it also opened up entirely new areas of experimentation. Boyle and Hooke used the device to perform the 43 experiments that included fresh evidence for the possible existence of a vacuum and various experiments that showed that fire would not burn and animals could not survive without air. (Killing small birds by depriving them of air was a favourite demonstration.)  This work resulted in Boyle’s first major scientific publication in 1660, New Experiments Physio-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects.  In the later second edition he first articulated the basis for what has come to be known as Boyle’s law (under conditions of constant temperature and quantity, there is an inverse relationship between the volume and pressure for an ideal gas.)

Although the formal roles of Hooke and Boyle were clear, there has been some question about the extent of contribution of each to the process, with an increasing appreciation of Hooke’s work emerging in recent years. The period of his close collaboration with Boyle continued until Hooke moved to London in 1662 to take up his role as the unpaid curator of experiments at the Royal Society. It is very likely that Boyle continued to support him even after this move, as he did Henry Oldenberg, who had been appointed a secretary of the Royal Society in 1660. When Hooke was eventually funded by the Royal Society it was in order to pursue the History of Trades project. However he was so involved in collecting and demonstrating experimental effects, designing and constructing technological innovations in telescopes, microscopes and watches that he devoted almost no time to the History of Trades which eventually and inevitably died a slow death. But Hooke did make a preliminary list of the various artists, craftsmen, and tradesmen who were to be included:

Surveyors, miners, potters, tobacco pipe makers, glaziers, glass grinders, looking glass makers, spectacle makers, optick glass makers, makers of counterfeit pearls and precious stones, bugle makers, lamp blowers, colour makers, colour grinders, glass painters, enamellers, varnishers, colour sellers, painters, limners, picture drawers, makers of bowling stones or marbles, brick makers, tile makers, lime burners, plasterers, furnace makers, china potters, crucible makers, masons, stone cutters, sculptors, architects, crystal cutters, engravers in stones, jewelers, locksmiths, gun smiths, edge-tool makers, grinders and forgers, armourers, needle makers, tool makers, spring makers, cross-bow makers, plumbers, type founders, printers, copper smiths and founders, clock makers, methamatick instrument makers, smelters and refiners, sugar planters, tobacco planters, flax makers, lace makers, weavers, malters, millers, brewers, bakers, vintners, distillers.

It is not hard to see why it was not possible to collect all the information about the history of trades in a way that would capture every aspect of the procedures used by the wide variety of skilled craftsmen, professionals and tradesmen. Much of the “how to” knowledge is practice based rather than reducible to recipes. At the core of many “trades” was a long term apprenticeship which involved repeating the various procedures until they could be performed without error. The idea of transmitting this kind of knowledge in a written “history of trades” is not really practicable. So, for example, even today, no one learns surgery except by practicing procedures under close supervision until they are perfectly performed. There is no text book of surgery that can substitute for such practice. Nor can there be. The same is true for other “trades” from cooking to jewelry making.

When some years later, Hooke engaged in a lengthy, very public and quite nasty conflict with Isaac Newton over the origin of some of Newton’s ideas about the path of a falling body, he never for a moment raised the issue of the extent of his contribution to Boyle’s work, where he was recompensed for his subordinate role (as a mechanic). Despite Hooke’s later estrangement from Boyle, who had become more closely associated with Newton, the dying Boyle bequeathed him his best telescope and microscope.

In 1660, after Charles II became King, Boyle and eleven others founded the Royal Society. In 1662 it received a Royal Charter but no money. Boyle’s financial support in its early days was an important contribution to its survival and success. The initial membership of 143 men included not only serious scientists, but also fashionable and influential gentlemen. Over 40 of them were trained in the law; more than 30 were members of parliament. Many with only a passing interest in science came on Thursdays to witness Hooke’s demonstrations. The Royal Society played a critical role in the rise of the new science. Given the distinction that Bacon made between fact and law, members of the Royal Society came to play a vital role as especially reliable observers who could testify as to the veracity of the matters of fact displayed to them.

But not everyone was admitted to the Royal Society. Thomas Hobbes, for example, was excluded, largely because of his skepticism about the role of experiment in gaining knowledge. During this period, Hobbes’ reputation rested as much on his mathematical and scientific activity as on his political philosophy. He had contact with most of the central figures of the period including Bacon, Descartes, Harvey and Boyle. His disagreements with Boyle about the air pump experiments are well described in Leviathan and the Air Pump by Steven Shapin.  Like Descartes, Hobbes did not believe in the possibility of a vacuum, and he argued that the air pump experiments did not constitute valid evidence against his views. The air pump could not be shown to eliminate all air from the glass container. Moreover it might still leak. But his major difference with Boyle was that knowledge could not be derived from experimentation, but rather from the deduction from evidently true first principles. Hobbes came to Euclidean geometry late in life. He found that as he studied the theorems he could deduce significant facts about the world without resort to experiment at all. If one could get the correct fundamental basic principles about a subject, then one could deduce from them indubitable facts about the world. This was a very high standard for knowledge: one that Boyle’s experiments did not meet. For him, these experiments were demonstrations of particular effects done with imperfect instruments, for the edification of gentlemen. They did not result in any real increase in understanding of the world. Nor did he accept the authority of Boyle’s peers in the Royal Society as expert witnesses testifying to the supposed knowledge gained. If the world is truly a mechanism, it can be understood mathematically and causal connections can be deduced quickly, following from a comprehensive mechanical theoretical frame.

Hobbes was a practiced controversialist. He knew everyone and fought with many of them. His attacks on Boyle were preceded by an earlier dispute with Descartes who accused him of starting the fight only to advance his own reputation. In that case Hobbes had presented an argument for materialism and against Descartes’ claim that mind and body were distinct substances. Hobbes materialism was widely identified with atheism which was, at that time, a fear that had a stronger emotive connotation than did the threat of communism in the mid- 20th century.


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