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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A week in the life of Robert Hooke: Sunday 30 March to Saturday 5 April 1673

The weather this week in 1673 was about the same as the weather in 2013 – terrible. Hooke reported cold, rain, frost, and snow during the week. The worst day was 3 April:

a continual snow from 6 in ye morn till late at night when ye wind rose stormy in ye north. Th[ermometer] all day 2. The like day not knowne for cold & snow.

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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)

A week in the life of Robert Hooke: Sunday 16th to Saturday 22nd March 1673

Hooke’s London was experiencing typical spring weather in mid-March 1673: that is to say, a mixture of sun, rain, wind, and clear skies (but no snow, unlike mid-March 2013). Hooke’s weather record for 18 March gives a good feel for this: ‘cleer for ye most part all day but some flying great clouds sometimes intercepted ye Sun’. Despite the generally good weather, Hooke wasn’t feeling entirely well, suffering from feverish symptoms. He felt ‘Guiddy’ on the 18th, for which he took Elixir proprietatis (a well-known medicine made of aloes, myrrh and saffron that was apparently still in use in the 20th century!). On the 19th he ‘went shivering and hazy like an ague to bed burnd about 2 [am?] & sweat much after’. From his diary entry it sounds as though this had resulted from taking Dulwich water (ie. mineral-water from Dulwich), and a ‘spoonful of Andrews’ (possibly spirit of angelica) – but he may have taken these because he was already feeling ill. It’s difficult to say whether cutting his hair ‘short wth scizzers’ was a response to feeling feverish, or just routine maintenance – possibly the latter, given that he’d sent his periwig ‘to be curled’ the previous day. If you look at the portraits of some of Hooke’s Royal Society colleagues (Robert Boyle, for example) you’ll see how luxuriously curly their periwigs were.

The changeable weather and a slight indisposition didn’t slow Hooke down, and he recorded a busy week of work (with, of course, some visits to Garraway’s coffee house). In terms of official work for the City, he visited the Guildhall ‘commissioners’ on the 17th (possibly the Commissioners for Sewers?); produced a certificate for ‘Mr Calmedy’ (the results of his survey of a ground plot); and took a ‘view’ (that is, made a survey) in Queenstreet. The entry for 22nd March is intriguing: ‘at Guildhall wth townclark Gresham Writings Burnt’. Were these ‘Writings’ the records of Sir Thomas Gresham’s legacy? I’m not quite sure why Hooke would have been interested in this, except that about this time planning had begun for the Royal Society’s return to Gresham College, its original meeting-place. Since the Great Fire in 1666 the Society had been meeting at Arundel House on the Strand, so that Gresham College could be used as a temporary Royal Exchange. Could there have been some question as to whether the Royal Society should be allowed back? The only other evidence from Hooke’s diary comes a month later, in an entry for 23 April:
at Guildhall searcht ye Hustings book for Sr Th Greshams house. found he purchasd 2 houses in Broad Street. An[no] 10 Elizabethæ. & one in Bishopsgate Street. An[no] 3o Elizab[ethae] Quere
It’s not clear why Hooke looking into the affairs of Thomas Gresham, but another possibility is that it was linked with some work going on at or near Gresham College at this time. The entry for 18 March says that an unnamed ‘cornchandler broke downe part of Gresham Coll wall. promised inclosing house of office, and yard. made a chimny out of ye Room equall to my Repository’. This is a bit mysterious but perhaps had something to do with a neighbouring property. The ‘house of office’ was a common euphemism for the privy. I guess the room ‘equal to’ the Repository meant the room opposite or next to the Royal Society’s Repository (collection of museum artefacts).

Hooke’s scientific work this week involved a couple of experiments, a meeting of the Royal Society at Arundel House on Wednesday, and some manual work constructing scientific apparatus. The ‘experiment of burning’ had been ongoing since mid-February. The minutes of the Royal Society meeting on 19 February recorded a failed experiment ‘to find, whether the Air increases or decreases by burning’, and according to the minutes Hooke’s apparatus apparently let him down again on 5 March. Hooke himself was convinced that the air decreased with burning and read a lecture to the Society presenting these results on 19 March. Having successfully settled that question, he moved on to an experiment about ‘the penetration of spirit of Vitrioll & water’. Again, the Fellows were curious about whether the mixture of ‘Oyle of Vitriol’ (ie. sulphuric acid) and water would result in a larger or smaller volume than that of the separate liquids. (You’ll have to wait until next week for the results!) The Royal Society also received Dutch microscopist and biologist Jan Swammerdam’s ‘cutts of a frogs Lungs’ – that is, drawings of dissected lungs. They are still in the Society’s archive (along with Swammerdam’s drawing of a cute little rhinoceros beetle).

Drawing of frogs' lungs by Jan Swammerdam, 1673. Copyright The Royal Society.

Drawing of frogs’ lungs by Jan Swammerdam, 1673. Copyright The Royal Society.

Hooke seemingly also spent some time this week working on his ‘arithmetick engine’ or calculating machine. Gottfried Leibnitz FRS had shown such a device to the Royal Society earlier in the year, and Sir Samuel Morland FRS had also produced a working model (Hooke’s judgement? ‘very silly’). Hooke’s engine, of course, was intended to be more elegant and yet more powerful than either of these previous examples. It seems likely that the lathe he bought this week, and the ‘Engin for cutting wheels’ he borrowed from a Mr Bell, were connected with this project. On the 20th Hooke recorded that ‘Mr Stanton shewd me his module of Arithmetick engine’. This was presumably the model of Hooke’s design that he had requested from Stanton earlier in the month.

It was also a good week for books. Hooke borrowed the ‘Description of Ceylon’ from Mr Chamberlaine, which was possibly a Dutch work by Philippus Baldaeus. He also noted that he had seen a German book ‘of mineralls’ that belonged to Henry Oldenburg, the Royal Society’s secretary. He did make one purchase, a fascinating and very beautiful book called An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China (London, 1673), which he bought for twelve shillings. This was a translation by John Ogilby of a Dutch volume. I haven’t seen the Dutch edition, but the English translation was illustrated with lovely engravings showing details of Chinese life. You can see a digital version of the book here.

That’s all for this week – if you have any questions let me know and I’ll do my best to clarify.

And if you want to find out more, you might be interested in the following:
For more on 17th century medicines see this very interesting article about a medicine chest presented to a young Scottish nobleman by the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

For the minutes of the Royal Society meetings at this period see Thomas Birch’s The History of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (London, 1756) – free online via Google Books.

To find out more about Hooke’s surveying activities, I recommend Michael Cooper’s ‘A More Beautiful City’: Robert Hooke and the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (2003).