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.
For a long time now I’ve been interested in the ways in which the worlds of Restoration experimental philosophy and Restoration trade and other economic activities came into contact. The early Fellows of the Royal Society were adamant that their research programme would be useful (no matter what any of their contemporary detractors thought!) – and I would argue that many of the Fellows wanted science to be useful more specifically in terms of enriching themselves and their country financially. I haven’t yet got around to arguing this in any detail but if I ever finish with Hooke, that’s what I’m going to do. In the meantime, let me introduce you to one of my favorite Fellows, the merchant, linguist, and secret writer of unorthodox religious treatises, Francis Lodwick. Lodwick and Hooke got to know each other in the 1670s and became close friends, meeting (with others) at Jonathan’s coffee-house in Exchange Alley on an almost daily basis throughout the 1690s. Lodwick was Hooke’s companion on one of the last outings recorded in his diary, when they visited some Chinese for tea and attempted to learn a few of the Chinese characters. Hooke wrote ‘I could learn little: 8 or 10 characters pronouncd all alike but of Differing signification’.
I expect all historians can think of one or two moments in history they would really like to have seen for themselves (often, it must be said, from a safe distance). As a great fan of the early Royal Society, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to attend one of the Society’s weekly meetings in the 17th century. Judging from the minutes of the meetings, the conversation could range over almost any topic imaginable, and there was always the possibility of a monster of some kind being brought in to liven up the proceedings. This is all by way of introduction to a passage in the minutes recording a conversation that took place on 28 November 1678 about how to render a coal-mine safe to enter (and like so many aspects of Restoration life, I don’t advise trying this at home).