A week in the life of Robert Hooke: Sunday 6 to Saturday 12 April 1673

Spring was taking a while to get going in April 1673 but this week was a little warmer for Hooke and his companions in Restoration London. Hooke suffered on and off from his usual insomnia, this time accompanied by ‘sweat’ and perhaps fever. It may have been this that prompted Hooke to branch out into the pharmacopaeia and try a few more herbal remedies: wormwood ale; ‘white helebor sneez & tobacco’; Annis[eed] cordiall; and ‘andrews’ (a proprietary preparation of unknown composition). Some of these medicines were more benign than others . . .

Wormwood is a primary ingredient in absinthe, but was also used in beer and would merely have tasted bitter. White hellebore, on the other hand, is pretty nasty stuff if ingested or sniffed, as Hooke seems to have done. Also known as ‘sneezewort’, white hellebore used to be an ingredient in joke-shop sneezing powder – until it was discovered to be poisonous.

Hooke’s libido seems to have woken up a bit this week too, and his diary entries ‘N [ejaculation]’ probably indicate that he was having sex with his housekeeper Nell Young. Hooke had a succession of female servants during the time he kept his diaries (and he seems to have slept with several of them) but he got on best with Nell and they continued to be friends long after she had married and left his house.

Hooke continued his chemistry experiments, this time combining aquafortis (nitric acid) and copper, which he refers to in the diary using its alchemical symbol (below)Alchemical symbol for copper. The Royal Society secretary recorded the experiment in the minutes:

‘Mr Hook made an Experiment with Aquafortis and a litle peice of Brasse-wire, put into that liquor, marking where the liquor stood before the putting in of the Brasse, and where after it was put in; as also, how far the same was raised upon its working upon the brasse, and how low it descended afterwards’

Hooke recorded in his diary that the ‘AF contracted to lesse room then before [copper] was put in’ and followed this with ‘Q: quare’ meaning ‘query why’.

Hooke’s note ‘Barnard and Leipnitz chosen’ meant that Edward Bernard and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz were elected Fellows of the Royal Society at this same meeting on 9 April. Bernard was Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford (and also an expert Arabist), and Leibniz was of course the famous German mathematician who fell out so spectacularly with Newton over the invention of calculus.

Interestingly, Hooke seems to have been researching art or art history this week. He borrowed three art books from the Arundel library: Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors and Architects’; Cesare Ripa’s ‘Iconologia’; and (probably) Peter Paul Rubens’s ‘Life of St Ignatius Loyola’. It’s not quite clear why he wanted these volumes, but his ongoing architectural work meant that he was often in charge of commissioning paintings or sculptures for buildings and it’s possible that he was doing some research for this reason.

And for book historians, Hooke’s mention this week of ‘Ogylbys lotery’ is interesting. John Ogilby was one of those fascinating Restoration entrepreneurs – in this case a publisher of lavishly-illustrated folio volumes, including a series of atlases with which Hooke was involved. He was busy in 1673 with his Britannia, an early road-atlas of Britain showing principal routes in strip-map form – and this lottery was a venture to fund the Britannia project. The idea was that people would buy tickets to win prizes of Ogilby’s stock of publications. He had done this successfully on previous occasions, and in 1666 Samuel Pepy’s had won two prizes.

That’s all for this week – and there’s going to be a short break in the ‘week in the life’ series due to other commitments, but I’ll be continuing in mid-May so please check back then.

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