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Ep 139: Dr Robert Hooke

This week it's Fiona chatting about someone who is a slightly unsung hero. At least, that was the plan. There's a lot to celebrate about Robert Hooke. And it turns out, a bit to regret.

Hooke's Plaque at St Helen's Bishopsgate © Matt Brown (CC BY 2.0)

Hooke was crochety and difficult to work with, but contributed hugely to scientific life in London in the late 1600s. A time when you could be good at all sorts of different things, Hooke did just that. As curator of Experiments and a Fellow of the Royal Society; Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College; Surveyor for the City of London after the Great Fire; Architect working in Wren's office rebuilding the City Churches, the list goes on and on.

But, he quarrelled with Isaac Newton ( and Christiaan Huyghens) and maybe historically hasn't had the recognition he deserved. There's a possibility that as part of the feud with Newton a portrait of Hooke was "mislaid" so we don't even know what he looked like. Every now and then a portrait is found that might be him........and then usually proven not. Here's the current best guess:

Portrait of a Mathematician by Mary Beale

Artist Rita Greer has created various images of him to fill the gap, including this one, in which Hooke is surrounded by the paraphernalia of all his work.:

Memorial portrait of Robert Hooke for the Institute of Physics, Rita Greer, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Top right is drawing of the dome of St Pauls - for which he helped Wren with the shape of the curves. Behind that is his drawing of a flea:

Engraving of a flea in Micrographia, 1665, by Robert Hooke. Wellcome Collection. (CC BY 4.0)

Which he made using this: and published in this:

Microscope manufactured by Christopher Cock of London for Robert Hooke. Hooke is believed to have used this microscope for the observations that formed the basis of his book Micrographia. Photographed at Billings Microscope Collection, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and inquiries thereupon / By R. Hooke. Wellcome Collection.

© The Carlisle Kid (CC by - SA 2.0)

For a while The Biodiversity Bell stood outside St Pauls. The plaque read:

"The bell was designed by sculptor Marcus Vergette and cast at Taylor's Bell Founders in Loughborough from a mould of the same fossil-rich Portland limestone of which the base, St Paul's and so much of central London, is made. "This is the final scale model for a much larger "geological" bell to be tolled whenever a species goes extinct worldwide and will be sited at the MEMO Project on the Isle of Portland. During the aftermath of the Great Fire of London Robert Hooke first deduced that species could go extinct from giant ammonite fossils in Portland stone. "MEMO is a collaboration of scientists and sculptors determined to build a global monument recording global species extinctions into the future. The purpose is to capture the public imagination on the subject of biodiversity loss. A spiral design based on the fossil forms on the surface of the bell was granted full planning permission in 2012 for a spectacular cliff-top site on Portland overlooking the "Jurassic Coast" World Heritage Site".

MEMO stands for Mass Extinction Monitering Observatory. Find out more about them here:

Looking down the Monument stairs

The spiral form of the fossils seems to appear if you look up or down the stairs of the Monument. A co-design with Christopher Wren, they used it as a laboratory to swing pendulums and measure how fast dropped objects fell.

Many of Hooke's buildings have been replaced since. The Monument and Willen Church are two of the survivors.

Willen Church © Cameraman (CC by-SA 2.0)

He also designed Montagu House, the original home of the British Museum:

Montague House seen from the North by James Simon c. 1715


Royal College of Physicians, Warwick Lane, London: the courtyard with people in eighteenth century costume. Wood engraving by [W.H.P.]. Wellcome Collection.

Lots of windows in both those buildings. Were any of them sash windows? If you are in Bloomsbury you're never more than 20 ft away from something Robert Hooke designed. (don't quote me on that, I've just made it up, listen to the pod for the detail.)

And he's got plenty of plaques nowadays. Westminster Abbey's just says Robert Hooke 1703. It was added in 2005, carved into one of the black marble tiles of the floor beneath the Lantern. The floor that Robert Hooke was responsible for laying.

Plaque near the Monument added 2007 photo © Rita Greer, CC BY-SA 3.0

St Paul's plaque put up in 2009

Some details of Hooke's life are a little hazy. Some we know far more than we need. Thanks in part to his own diary, in which he recorded all sorts of details about his health and body. Can we as guides celebrate his professional achievements without endorsing, or ignoring his private live? The show notes here are primarily for adding images, so I'll leave you to listen to the pod to find out more.

As ever, get in touch, we love to hear from you.

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