Door-mats and penumbras: Hooke’s contributions to the English Language

One of the many fascinations of the online Oxford English Dictionary is the list of most frequent contributors – those whose writing has provided the compilers with the first evidence of words, first evidence of a particular meaning, and total number of quotations.* We all know that Shakespeare coined a huge number of words (1582, according to OED), and it stands to reason that the Bible, the Philosophical Transactions and the Times also appear near the top of the list. But what of our favorite Restoration natural philosopher, Robert Hooke? He appears at number 802 in the list of the top 1000 most frequently quoted sources, with most of these citations coming from Micrographia. His writings provide the first evidence for 68 words, and the first evidence of particular meanings for 240 words. So, have you used one of Hooke’s words today? The full list is below.

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Artists and craftsmen in Hooke’s London (part 2)

In my previous post on this subject I talked about Hooke’s dealings with some of London’s artists. This time I’m going to talk about craftsmen (broadly defined). To set the scene I’d like to share a conversation Hooke had at Garraway’s coffehouse on Boxing Day December 1673 with Andrew Yarranton and ‘Captain Hamden’. These two gentlemen had been to Germany to see some ‘Lattin making works’ – ie. factories producing tin plate – and they described to Hooke what they had seen. This is how Hooke recorded it:

‘many plates beat under ye Hammer at once like leaf gold or tinfoyle. the great difficulty is how to turne it under ye hammer quick enough. much discourse about ye great cast iron rowles softned turned & graven for stuffs. one of six foot long & six foot about. cast iron pillars for bridges. hardning iron into steel quite through. pressing of cloth &c’

I love this conversation because you can smell the Industrial Revolution in the air – but I’m quoting it here because of the reference to cast iron rollers engraved for printing patterns on cloth (‘stuffs’). The first English patent for printing on cloth was taken out a few years later, in 1676, by the artist William Sherwin.

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Artists and craftsmen in Hooke’s London (part 1)

Like many scientists today, the early Fellows of the Royal Society depended on images to explain their work to each other and the outside world. Illustrations accompanied reports of experiments and observations, and the Fellows commissioned drawings of the natural and man-made artefacts shown at meetings or donated to their museum collection. They  were also keenly interested in the processes behind the production of artworks, including printing and dyeing, and colour theory. Recipes for dyes and new techniques that might reduce costs or increase efficiency were regularly discussed at meetings.

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Random Hooke quote of the week (#2)

Friday 16 August 1689:

the yellow Dust of Sunflower. like amber balls with prickles

This is maybe my all-time favourite Hooke quote – the virtuoso microscopist, noting in his diary what was perhaps the first observation of sunflower pollen – and achieving a kind of poetry with his characteristically terse prose. Nehemiah Grew had already described the pollen of other flowers in his Anatomy of Plants published in 1682 (see page 169), so it wasn’t breaking news, but Hooke was intrigued enough to draw a little diagram in the middle of his diary entry.

Hooke, Newton and the ‘missing’ portrait

Portraits have a peculiar fascination for people. As Lisa Jardine has pointed out, historical figures come to life so much more vividly when a portrait is available. This is true for historians almost as much as anyone else. Therefore the thought that there might be a lost or unidentified portrait of a famous and controversial figure like Robert Hooke is extremely tantalising. It also grips the public imagination – several visitors to the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary exhibition in summer 2010 commented, ‘they say Newton destroyed a portrait of Hooke’. Indeed, ‘they’ do say this.  The final scene in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes’ showed Newton slashing a portrait, a reference that shows how familiar this story has become. Indeed it has all the elements of good drama – passion, the fierce rivalry of two misunderstood geniuses, and violence (well, vandalism at least).

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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 . . .

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