Robert Hooke: the man who knew everything

He is but of midling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is lardge, his eie full and popping.
John Aubrey, Antiquarian and friend of Robert Hooke

View of the Royal Observatory, by Francis PlaceView of the Royal Observatory, by Francis Place, about 1676. Repro ID: A395 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London By the mid-17th century, much of what underpinned Western thought was being questioned and replaced by a new way of thinking based on experimentation and observation.

Robert Hooke emerged as one of the leaders of this new age. Born in 1635 in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, he was educated at home until the age of 13 and then at Westminster School. In 1653, he went on to Oxford University. His interests spanned a wide range of topics. Best known as an astronomer and instrument maker, he was also a skilled physician, surveyor, architect, anatomist and artist.

Robert Hooke’s 10-foot mural quadrant made for the Royal ObservatoryRobert Hooke’s 10-foot mural quadrant made for the Royal Observatory, about 1676. Repro ID: A7121-10 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London Hooke died in March 1703. No portraits of him survive. Like his image, his reputation is somewhat forgotten; yet his diverse skills and originality of thought made him an equal to the most eminent scholars of his day.

Building the Royal Observatory

In 1675 it was proposed that an observatory be built at Greenwich with the purpose of providing accurate astronomical information for navigators. Although Sir Christopher Wren is often credited as the architect and designer of the Royal Observatory, contemporary accounts suggest that it was Robert Hooke who played the major role in its design and construction.

Hooke versus Flamsteed

A page from Robert Hooke’s diaryA page from Robert Hooke’s diary. Reproduced with kind permission of the Guildhall Library, Corporation of London: MS1758Robert Hooke and John Flamsteed had a volatile relationship. Their longstanding mutual dislike and mistrust of each other was heightened when they were forced into co-operation in 1676. The largely unknown Flamsteed had been placed in charge of the new Royal Observatory at Greenwich. As a skilled astronomer and instrument maker with a great interest in mechanical precision, this was a position for which Hooke felt better qualified. Hooke was given the task of furnishing the Observatory with instruments. Predictably Flamsteed was less than impressed with Hooke’s instruments.

Longitude and the balance spring

Robert Hooke’s drawing of a flea from Micrographia, 1665Robert Hooke’s drawing of a flea from Micrographia, 1665. Reproduced with kind permission of St Bride Printing Library, Corporation of London: ref. 21069

The development of the pendulum-controlled clock in the late 1650s revolutionized mechanical timekeeping. The pendulum is an ideal timekeeping device because its swing is kept constant by a natural restoring force – gravity. Hooke was certain that a balance spring would act as an artificial restoring force in portable timekeepers and improve their accuracy. This, he felt, would enable him to solve a problem which he had thought about for many years: how to determine longitude at sea.

Key objects

Robert Hooke’s diary, 1672–1683

Bone flea-glass telescopeBone flea-glass telescope, maker unknown, about 1700. Ref ID: DSC00015 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London Robert Hooke kept a personal diary from March 1672 to May 1683. As few records about his hectic professional and private life survive, the diary provides valuable and unique insight into his life and character. He documents his ideas and conversations with colleagues alongside details of his meals, ailments and sex life.

Micrographia Restaurata: or, the Copper Plates of Dr Hooke’s…discoveries by the Microscope, London, 1745 (reissued from Robert Hooke’s original)

Micrographia received great critical acclaim when it was originally printed in 1665. Hooke’s detailed drawings revealed a microscopic world of organisms and fantastic structures as they had never been seen before. This edition is a reissued version showing the book’s influence was still being felt almost a century later.

Replica of Robert Hooke’s compound microscope

Repeating pocket watch by Daniel QuareRepeating pocket watch by Daniel Quare, London, about 1700. Ref ID: DSC00010 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London A copy of the compound microscope Hooke used to observe the specimens illustrated in Micrographia. There is a lens at either end of the instrument and a third inside the barrel.

Bone flea-glass telescope

Both a telescope and a microscope. When the telescope tube is unscrewed a simple microscope, or flea-glass, is revealed. By placing a specimen on the pin, it can be magnified using the small lens. This method of observation was also used by Hooke when making his drawings for Micrographia.

Repeating pocket watch

Pocket watch movement by Thomas TompionPocket watch movement by Thomas Tompion, London, about 1700. Ref ID: DSC00012 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London A fine and typical example of a Quare pocket watch. When the pendant at the top of the watch is pressed, the hour and quarter are struck on a bell inside the case. This enabled the owner to tell the time in the dark. The ornate piercing in the silver case allows the sound to be easily heard.

Pocket watch movement

By 1700, almost all watches being made were fitted with a balance spring. The celebrated watchmaker, Thomas Tompion, was a friend of both Hooke and Flamsteed. He was the first to apply a systematic method of production to watch and clockmaking. He was also the first manufacturer, of any kind, to apply a serial number to his products.

Table klepsydra

The klepsydra measures a 30-minute time period using the flow of water. The dome on top is detachable so that it can be turned upside down and reset, like an egg timer.

On 31 May 1674, Hooke wrote in his diary; 'Slept little at night…Meditated about clepsydra’.

Gregorian telescope

Table klepsydraTable klepsydra, Italian, about 1670. Ref ID: E0120 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London The principle of the Gregorian telescope was first described by James Gregory in the 1660s. It contains two mirrors which reflect the light inside the tube to produce a magnified image. Gregory was unable to obtain sufficiently accurate mirrors to make his telescope, and it was Hooke who first constructed one, which he demonstrated in 1674.


Robert Hooke Resources

Robert Hooke's family and birthplace

England's Leonardo'. A lecture by Allan Chapman

Gallery details

Curator: Robert Warren and Kristian Martin

Graphics and design: Robin Kiang

Conservation: Laurence Birnie, Derek Brain, Matthew Read, Dennis Hayler

Lenders: The Guildhall Library, Corporation of London, St Bride Printing Library, Corporation of London, The Whipple Museum of the History of Science and The Science Museum