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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man who Measured London [Hardcover]

Lisa Jardine
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

15 Sep 2003

A biography of a brilliant, largely forgotten, maverick – a major figure in the seventeenth century cultural and scientific revolutions.

The brilliant, largely forgotten maverick Robert Hooke was an engineer, surveyor, architect and inventor who was appointed London's Chief Surveyor after the Great Fire of 1666. Throughout the 1670s he worked tirelessly with his intimate friend Christopher Wren to rebuild London, personally designing many notable public and private buildings, including the Monument to the fire. He was the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, and author and illustrator of Micrographia, a lavishly illustrated volume of fascinating engravings of natural phenomena as seen under the new microscope. He designed an early-balance spring watch, was a virtuoso performer of public anatomical dissections of animals, and kept himself going with liberal doses of cannabis and poppy water (laudanum).

Hooke's personal diaries-as cryptically confessional as anything Pepys wrote-record a life rich with melodrama. He came to London as a fatherless boy of thirteen to seek his fortune as a painter, rising by his wits to become an intellectual celebrity. He never married, but formed a long-running illicit liaison with his niece. A dandy, boaster, workaholic, insomniac and inveterate socializer in London's most fashionable circles, Hooke's irascible temper and passionate idealism proved fatal for his relationships with men of influence, most notably with Sir Isaac Newton, who, after one violent row, wiped Hooke's name from the Royal Society records and destroyed his portrait.

In this lively and absorbing biography, Lisa Jardine at last does Hooke and his achievements justice. Illuminating London's critical role in the emergence of modern science, she rediscovers and decodes a great original thinker of indefatigable curiosity and imagination, a major figure in the seventeenth-century intellectual and scientific revolution.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; First Edition edition (15 Sep 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007149441
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007149445
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 16.4 x 4.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 762,092 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Praise for On A Grander Scale (2002):

'A wonderful book which looks set to be the definitive life of Wren for a long time to come' –Kathryn Hughes, Mail on Sunday

'Jardine writes with ease, style, enthusiasm and humanity'
–Kerry Downes, TLS

'A full and fascinating biography…Jardine is particularly good on the extraordinary width of Wren's interests and achievements'
–Antonia Fraser, New Statesman

'Imaginative, fluent and scholarly'
–Linda Colley, The Times

About the Author

Lisa Jardine CBE is Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, and Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge and Jesus College, Cambridge. She writes and reviews for all the major UK national newspapers and magazines and for the 'Washington Post', and has presented and appears regularly on arts, history and current affairs programmes for TV and radio. She is a regular writer and presenter of 'A Point of View', on BBC Radio 4. She judged many important literary prizes including the 2000 Orwell Prize and the 2002 Man Booker Prize. She is the author of a number of best-selling general books, including 'Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance', 'Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution', and biographies of Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. Lisa Jardine is married to the architect John Hare and has three children.

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First Sentence
"On Saturday, 10 April 1697, a little less than five years before his death, Robert Hooke sat down with 'a small Pocket-Diary', specially purchased for the purpose, to write his autobiography: I began this Day to write the History of my own Life, wherein I " Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Professor Jardine does it again. She had a tougher task than with her equally scholarly and perhaps more enjoyable biography of Wren, On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren, in that her protagonist is both less well known and less - well, likeable - than Wren. However, she succeeds in drawing a convincing picture of Hooke as an overworked, irascible, but thoroughly competent man, who to a large extent was the powerhouse behind so many of the scientific, technical and architectural achievements of the Restoration era.

Hooke provides a cautionary tale for workaholics and multitaskers everywhere; his masters at the Royal Society were staggeringly intolerant of his work for the Corporation of London. Yet if one looks at what was going on in the 1660s and 70s - whether the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, or the unparalleled spirit of scientific enquiry within the Royal Society - and if one removes Hooke from the equation, it is difficult to see how any of it would have been achieved.
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A lively and beautifully written account 4 Jan 2004
Robert Hooke was very much a Renaissance man: artist, scientist, instrument-maker, and architect, he is remembered today only for Hooke's law which still forms the foundation of structural mechanics. However, he was at the time the major driving force behind the Royal Society. As its curator of experiments it was Hooke that both put forward the ideas to be tested and devised and built the equipment. He pioneered work in microscopy, made contributions in anatomy, changed the way we make clocks and watches and first put forward the idea that gravity obeyed the inverse square law. All this he did in his spare time between surveying London after the Great Fire and acting as an architect both in his own right and as Christopher Wren's chief assistant and friend.
This book vividly paints a picture of the life of this fascinating character. So lucidly is it written that one barely notices that it is brimming with fresh insights. An outstanding piece of scholarship and a brilliant piece of prose, this book is a must-have for anyone with an interest in the story of one of history's most colourful characters.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing and poorly structured biography 27 Feb 2004
By giannib
This biography falls short of Lisa Jardine's usual high standard. It needs a good edit and reorganization to provide form, remove repetition and add depth to a very haphazard account. Hooke's fascinating and varied life fails to come alive in these pages. For a man who never quite made the scientific impact he deserved, this biography shows a fitting symmetry and should also be overshadowed.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Multi-tasking Character 26 Feb 2004
By Donald B. Siano - Published on Amazon.com
Hooke was indeed a curious character. Newton's phrase was that he was a "man of strange, unsociable temper." Hooke was, like many other early workers in the nascent sciences, jealous of others and argumentative about his contributions--modesty was not one of the virtues of such men in those days.
Hooke was the sort of man who over-reached and had too many balls in the air at once. While he was a talented mechanic and experimenter, he took on such unrelated jobs as rebuilding London after the great fire. He did enough for half a dozen great men, but never achieved the first rank of a Newton or a Watt, with one or two great discoveries to his credit.
Jardine's book is extremely thoroughly researched, detailed, with plenty of references and source notes. There are lots of illustrations and portraits, and the book has a good index, and it is well organized. I enjoyed the detective story that Jardine tells in which she appears to have identified the only extant portrait of Hooke. Pretty convincing to me, and a real feather in her cap.
Sadly, however, she does not describe his scientific contributions very well or in as much detail as I would have liked. Descriptions of his astronomical instruments and innovations are quite glossed over, impossible to understand. In particular, for example, Hooke's attempt at the measurement of stellar parallax with a new zenith-pointing telescope, are entirely omitted from this work. This story is entertainingly told in Hirshfeld's recent book "Parallax" and belongs here too as it reveals so much of his method of working and his weakness in the follow-through.
One astounding revelation Jardine makes is that Hooke arrived at the inverse square law of gravitation "on the basis of experiments carried out with Henry Hunt..." but does not describe the experiments at all. How in the world could she omit any elaboration of this claim? If the experiments were done, and did support an inverse square law, then Hooke would be rightfully granted credit for the discovery of the universal law of gravitation, which almost everyone grants to Newton because he later worked out the mathematics of elliptical orbits!
The book rather concentrates on his social affairs, and is filled with minutiae that while sometimes interesting, is a bit exhausting. Just how much of the diary of the self-treatments of a hypochondriac can one stand to read?
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Introduction 25 Nov 2004
By Timothy Haugh - Published on Amazon.com
I think I would have liked this book much better if I had read it before Stephen Inwood's The Forgotten Genius which, like this book, deals with the life of Robert Hooke. The differences between the two books, however, are striking. This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other but, rather, that each has its strengths and weaknesses.

The first thing of note in Ms. Jardine's book is that she has a case to make--that a portrait previously identified as botanist John Ray is, in fact, a portrait of Hooke. This may not seem important to the casual reader but it has been one of the commonalities of Hooke research that no image of him remains. (Whether through accident or the machinations of bitter scientists like Newton, no one knows.) In fact, it is her argument over the authenticity of this portrait (which has some merit) that seems her real incentive for writing this book. In some sense, the rest of the book is an afterthought.

This is not to say that the rest of the book is not worthwhile. It most certainly is. Ms. Jardine tells her story well. Ms. Jardine's book has one major advantage over Mr. Inwood's: it is much more readable. Her style is much lighter and engaging. She is telling the story for a general audience whereas Mr. Inwood's main audience seems to be scientists and historians. She vividly recreates his youth on the Isle of Wight and his flight to London. She is excellent with outlining Hooke's tendencies towards hypochondria and the many tonics he took to keep himself going at a hectic pace. I am also very impressed with her telling of Hooke's conflict with the Huygens family which often gets short shrift in Hooke's story due to the much better known conflict with Newton.

Still, overall, Inwood's book gives a much better sense of the man. There is a real depth missing in this book. Ms. Jardine talks of Hooke's conflict with Newton near the very start of the book and then hardly mentions it again, though this is probably the defining time of Hooke's life. Her ability to discuss Hooke's scientific discoveries seems rather limited and even her discussion of his architectural work seems rather superficial. She is also rather gentle with Hooke, the man, glossing over evidence of his many affairs with housekeepers and what almost certainly became an incestuous relationship with his niece as well as taking it easy on his notoriously bad temper, though she does acknowledge it.

At least Ms. Jardine recognizes Hooke's weaknesses as a scientist and doesn't try to convince us he is a disrespected genius. She sees that he often overcommitted himself--though often with good reason--and that he didn't have the innate abilities of Newton, Huygens and Wren. He was a workman--the best of workmen and he deserved respect for that--but no genius.

A five-star book would be a collaboration between Ms. Jardine and Mr. Inwood. Combining her writing skills with his research and scientific knowledge would do Hooke the best justice. As it is, I would suggest reading this book first for a good introduction and then Mr. Inwood's book for a deeper look at this great experimentalist, Robert Hooke.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By John W. Chuckman - Published on Amazon.com
Robert Hooke's life was curious, a neglected topic that makes good reading, although a full, living sense of this man is missing from the book.

He was an ingenious, creative man, abounding with energy and interests in his younger years, whose acquaintances and friends included Boyle, Pepys, and Wren. He was widely recognized as a physics and general science experimenter of exceptional ability - a designer of both accurate instruments and experiments in which to employ them - almost certainly the greatest of his day. He might be viewed from today's perspective as something of the Ernest Lawrence of his day versus the great theorists.

Hooke's interests included astronomical measurements, microscopy, fossils, watches, the behavior of gases, and more. He was also interested in theoretical concepts although his mathematical abilities fell far short of people like Newton or Leibniz. Still, he came up with the hypothesis of the inverse-square law for gravity which he sent to Newton, asking him to prove mathematically whether it was valid. Newton never gave Hooke appropriate credit for Hooke's early insight, and it is not clear whether this was owing to Hooke's annoying carping or Newton's own very unpleasant temperament.

Hooke's early musings on the layers of fossils found on his native Isle of Wight demonstrate a remarkable analytical and creative mind at work. He got the process of their formation pretty close to right lifetimes before the meaning of fossils was widely recognized in science.

Ms. Jardine made the happy discovery of what is likely Hooke's portrait (no known one survives), a picture that had long been identified as being of John Ray. The circumstances of her discovery make a wonderful little tale early in the book.

What comes through so strongly from some of Jardine's anecdotes is how the basic philosophy of science had advanced by the second half of the 17th century, Hooke's time. This was, after all, only a few decades after Francis Bacon, yet the main points of modern science seem to be assumed by Europe's leading tinkerers and scientists.

Hooke's story is not a happy one, but I will leave that for readers to discover. Ms. Jardine is at times a slightly awkward writer, but she has an interesting story to tell and, on the whole, she tells it well. Ms. Jardine also wrote On a Grander Scale, a biography of the wonderful Christopher Wren. The book on Hooke she regards as a companion volume to the one on Wren. Do read both.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Curious Life of Robert Hooke 24 Feb 2007
By David Marsland - Published on Amazon.com
Definitely not for the casual reader or the faint-hearted but an excellent read all the same. You will need to be pretty curious about Mr. Hooke and his cantankerous personality to navigate this book. The extensive use of quotes from original texts and letters provides the story with authenticity that is admirable but sometimes, makes it a little laborious read. I suspect it is important to understand how Hooke was hooked on patent medicines and opiates, not to say the odd heavy metal, but constantly reading about his vomiting habits is not for the squeamish, particularly at the breakfast table. However this is a great read and I came out of it feeling more sympathetic about Hooke who accomplished more in each month of his life than most of us do in a lifetime. Certainly Lisa Jardine made a comprehensive effort to capture the whole man and succeeded perhaps a little too much.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Curious Life of Robert Hook 3 Nov 2006
By Robert B. Richey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is an interesting read, though it is sort of dry. My interest did not really get aroused by the book until the Great Fire and the rebuilding. Maybe I know too much about Robert Hook and the first part of the book was only a rehash of what I was already familiar with. I have always known about the Great Fire and the damage to the city, but had no idea of what went on in the effort to rebuild. Of course Sir Christopher Wren has always been "the man who built London after the fire" and this book does give a little more realistic description of how the interests of the various groups (the Royals, the Corporation of London, the Royal Society and the average citizen) were accomodated in the rebuilding.
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