Today in the Science History – March 3 – Robert Hooke

Robert Hooke
Robert Hooke. No portrait of Hooke exists today. This rendition was created by Rita Greer based on descriptions left by his colleagues Aubrey and Waller.

March 3 marks the passing of Robert Hooke. Robert Hooke was an English polymath and a central figure in 17th Century English science. He was prolific in a wide variety of sciences and was a founding member of the Royal Society.

Hooke was known for his mechanical aptitude. He was good friends with Robert Boyle and constructed the vacuum pumps Boyle used to conduct his research on gases, leading to the formulation of Boyle’s law. He served as the chief surveyor after the Great London Fire of 1666, where he performed nearly half the surveys himself. Hooke also proved to be a decent architect with his friend Christopher Wren when London was being rebuilt. A few of his buildings survive today. He served as the Society’s Curator of Experiments where he designed and performed several scientific demonstrations at each weekly meeting of the Society. Many of the devices needed to put on these demonstrations were built by Hooke himself.

Micrographia Flea
Flea illustration contained in Hooke’s Micrographia. The original image was nearly 18 inches wide and shows the extreme detail Hooke went to in creating these images.

Hooke is best known for his work with the microscope. He wrote the Royal Society’s first publication called Micrographia. It was a collection of articles dealing with what Hooke saw using his microscope and showed people things they had never seen before. The illustrations contained within the publication were extremely detailed and drawn by Hooke himself. It was in this book that Hooke also coined the term ‘cell’ to denote the groupings of like structures in his observations. He also theorized that fossils were formed from previously living organisms after noticing petrified wood was very similar in structure to regular wood under the microscope. The prevailing theory at the time, dating back to Aristotle, was that fossils were formed when the Earth was formed.

Hooke is also known for his work with springs. Hooke’s law states the force needed to compress or extend a spring by a distance is proportional to that distance. Simply put, it takes more force to pull the spring further. The novel part was that the relationship was linear. Hang a weight on a spring and it stretches a distance x. Add a second weight of the same size and it will stretch a distance equal to 2x.

Another spring oriented project he worked on was to improve the pendulum for better timekeeping. He designed a spring driven mechanism that drove a pocket watch. Hooke sidelined the project because he could not find suitable funding to exploit his new device. Later, another scientist, Christiaan Huygens would patent a similar device and Huygens would get credit for inventing it.

This led to another trait Hooke was famous for: he did not like others to get credit for work he felt he did. He worked on so many projects and would flit from one to another and never really finish any of them. When someone else finished something he had worked on before and would get credit for it, Hooke would get angry. It didn’t matter who he fought with, he would pursue his credit where he felt it was deserved.

His most famous feud was with Isaac Newton. Hooke had the idea that gravity was probably a universal force and the closer two bodies approached, the faster they moved. This was seen in the orbits of the planets and comets. The closer they got to the Sun, the faster they moved. He shared this idea in correspondence with Newton. Newton obviously shared the same idea. When Newton published his theories of gravitation where gravity was a universal force between two that increased as the two objects got closer. He showed this force was followed an inverse square relationship. Newton was immediately famous for something that Hooke felt he had suggested. Another point that irritated Hooke was there was no mention of Hooke in Newton’s publication. When Hooke brought the subject up, Newton told him he didn’t influence his thinking in any way. Hooke only told him what he already knew from other sources. Both men would be hostile to each other for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately for Hooke, he died before Newton. When Newton became president of the Royal Society a short time later. The Society was moving to a new address and Hooke’s portrait and experimental effects went missing. Some have said Newton lost them on purpose, but nothing was proven. No one today knows for sure what Hooke looked like. Some historians listed him as a short hunchbacked man with popping eyes and fine unkempt hair. His friends; descriptions painted the opposite picture of the man. It would be centuries before his contributions would be better brought to light. Much of the newer information comes from Hooke’s own diaries which surfaced in 1935 and shows his notes on a variety of subjects. They show a man who was a thinker ahead of his time and not the mean-spirited ogre history had provided us.

Notable Science History Events for March 3

1999 – Gerhard Herzberg died.

Gerhard Herzberg
Gerhard Herzberg (1904 – 1999)

Herzberg was a German physical chemist who earned the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for spectroscopic determination of the geometry and structure of free radicals. He was also a pioneer in the use of spectroscopy in astronomy. He was among the first to show molecules exist in space where it was previously believed ultraviolet radiation from the Sun would break apart any complex molecules.

1991 – William George Penny died.

William Penney
William Penney (1909 – 1991)

Penny was a British physicist who worked on America’s atomic bomb project. He provided the mathematics necessary to understand the wave dynamics of shockwaves. He carried out the calculations necessary to predict the effects of the atomic blast.

After the war, he returned to England to head up the British efforts to develop an atomic bomb. Britain detonated their bomb on October 3, 1952.

1988 – Sewall Wright died.

Wright was an American geneticist who is best known for his theories on population genetics of inbreeding and genetic drift. He was interested in the effects of inbreeding in cattle and expanded his work to entire populations, introducing the study of theoretical population genetics.

1939 – Edmund Beecher Wilson died.

Edmund Beecher Wilson
Edmund Beecher Wilson (1856 – 1939)

Wilson was an American biologist who discovered the chromosomal method to determine the sex of an embryo. He found males will have XY chromosomes and females will have XX chromosomes. He was also the first to identify the supernumerary B-chromosomes.

1918 – Arthur Kornberg was born.

Arthur Kornberg
Arthur Kornberg (1918 – 2007)
National Institutes of Health

Kornberg was an American biochemist who, with Severo Ochoa was awarded the 1959 Nobel Prize in Medicine for describing how DNA and RNA molecules replicate. He identified DNA polymerase, the enzyme that polymerizes nucleotides into DNA strands during replication.

1915 – National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was formed.


The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was formed by President Woodrow Wilson to organize aviation research in the United States. This agency had an initial budget of $5,000 and was given the task to promote advancements in American aeronautic research. NACA would be replaced in 1958 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

1879 – Elmer Verner McCollum was born.

Elmer Verner McCollum
Elmer Verner McCollum (1879 – 1967)

McCollum was an American biochemist who made several contributions to the study of vitamins. He showed how rats with a diet lacking fats from butter or eggs failed to develop properly and determined butter and eggs contained a nutrient necessary for health that was soluble in fat. Casimir Funk had discovered another nutrient he called a “vital amine” that was water soluble. McCollum’s nutrient was not an amine and shortened the name to vitamin. He also distinguished the difference between the vitamins with letters. Vitamin A was fat soluble, vitamin B was water soluble. He later discovered vitamin D while investigating cod liver oil and discovered the antirachitic factor of the vitamin.

1847 – Alexander Graham Bell was born.

Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922). Wikimedia Commons

Bell was the Scottish inventor of the first practical telephone. His primary research was into the study of speech and hearing. His work with the deaf would ultimately lead to the development of the first practical telephone.

The actual invention of the telephone came about while Bell was working on a method to transmit multiple telegraph messages on a single telegraph line for Western Union. After Bell patented his telephone device, he offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000 in 1879 (almost $2.5 million today).  They felt Bell’s telephone was just a toy and had no real value. Within two years, the president of Western Union mentioned if he could get the patent for $25 million, he would consider it a bargain.

Bell was also one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society.

1751 – Pierre Prévost was born.

Pierre Prévost
Pierre Prévost (1751 – 1839)

Prévost was a Swiss physicist who helped understand heat flow. The general theory of heat of his time involved two fluids that flowed from one object to another. Caloric was the fluid that moved from hot to cold bodies and frigoric fluid moved from cold to hot objects. Prévost believed only one fluid was involved and all bodies absorb and release caloric. Hot objects release more caloric than absorb it and cold objects absorb more than emitting. He also introduced the idea that objects will reach an equilibrium over time when caloric flow stops.

1709 – Andreas Sigismund Marggraf was born.

Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709 - 1782)
Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709 – 1782)

Marggraf was a German chemist who is best known for the discovery of sugar in beets and developing a process to remove it. He also discovered phosphoric acid and disproved the idea that alkaloids soda ash (calcium carbonate) and potash (potassium carbonate) were identical. Marggraf introduced several analytical techniques such as flame tests to identify alkali metals and the precipitation method to detect the presence of iron. He also independently isolated pure zinc metal.

1703 – Robert Hooke died.