A week in the life of Robert Hooke: Sunday 23 March to Saturday 29 March 1673

Hooke’s feverish illness continued this week – if you’ve been following his tweets on @hookeslondon you’re probably finding his complaints a bit tedious but don’t worry I’m sure he’ll perk up again soon. And haven’t we all had the same experience of getting our hair cut, failing to put on a warmer cap, and getting a cold head? Sadly in this case ‘upon keeping my head warmer my head recouered [but] my losse of smell was rather worse & my ill tast [ie. in his mouth] continued.’ You always know things are bad with Hooke when he starts writing in Latin: and he followed this with ‘alia tentanda est via. Deus prosperat’. My Latin is a bit rusty but this seems to translate as ‘another way must be tried. God prospers’ – which suggests that this time Hooke was looking on the bright side and reminding himself that God helps those who help themselves.

Despite his various maladies Hooke soldiered on and pursued his experiment on ‘penetration’ – this was the mixing of spirit or oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid) and water that the Royal Society had requested last week. Hooke performed this experiment a couple of times at home before demonstrating it at the Royal Society’s meeting and reading a lecture about it. The Society’s minutes of this meeting record:

The Curator [ie. Hooke] made an Experiment of mingling Oyle of Vitriol and Common water together, thereby shewing, that these two Liquors were so incorporated, by entring into the pores of one another, that they took up lesse room when mingled together, than they did both being a-part.

This seems a little bit unlikely to me – but my chemistry is even worse than my Latin. Perhaps any chemists reading this might like to comment . . ?

At the same Royal Society meeting, the Italian/French astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini’s discovery of two of Saturn’s moons was announced and his book presented to the Society for their library. Hooke’s note that ‘Old[enburg] kept ye book’ could be read (more generously) as a reminder to himself, because he was the Society’s librarian and was meant to keep track of these things, or (less generously) as a note to check up on whether Oldenburg was keeping books actually meant as gifts for the Society. Hooke himself ‘deliverd Rhedis and Marchetti Books’ back to the Society – these were works by the Italian philosophers Francesco Redi and Alessandro Marchetti. Just for the record, all three volumes are still in the Society’s collection, so we shouldn’t accuse either Hooke or Oldenburg of neglecting their duty to the Library.

Hooke was also busy as usual with City business. He attended the Commissioners of Sewers at the Guildhall on Monday 24th, and on Thursday he took a ‘view at fleet Ditch’ and ‘set out Oliver & Avis’. The river Fleet, which rises on Hampstead Heath and flows (now underground) to the Thames, had by this time become clogged with silt and rubbish and Hooke’s post-fire project was intended to return it to a navigable state up to Holburn Bridge. The vision was grand – installation of new quays and warehouses along a newly-dug canal. Hooke, Wren and others spent a long time on this expensive and complex endeavour, and Thursday’s ‘view’ may have been something to do with the construction work, as John Oliver was another surveyor and Avis was a master builder. The Fleet Canal was finally completed in autumn 1674, but the problems of silting and illegal dumping of rubbish and (apparently) dead dogs did not go away, and it was eventually covered over in the 18th century.

That’s all for now, but tune in next week for all the news about a snowy start to April 1673, and an eventful chemical demonstration at the Royal Society!

And if you want to find out more, I suggest the following:

The article in the Philosophical Transactions announcing Cassini’s discovery of ‘two New Planets about Saturn’ (Philosophical Transactions vol. 8 (1673), pp. 5178-5185)

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