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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Restoration Reading #2: Nehemiah Grew’s Musaeum Regalis Societatis (1681)

The main aim of the early Fellows of the Royal Society was to enquire after ‘matters of fact’. They used a variety of methods to pursue facts, one of which was collecting man-made and natural artefacts. The first historian of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat, wrote in 1667 that the Royal Society intended to make ‘a General Collection of all the Effects of Arts, and the Common, or Monstrous Works of Nature’. Indeed, he claimed, they had already made a good start on this project:

‘they have already drawn together into one Room, the greatest part of all the several kinds of things, that are scatter’d throughout the Universe’.

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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)

Restoration Reading #1: ‘Micrographia’ by Robert Hooke (London, 1665)

Unless you’re lucky enough to be an academic or a rare books librarian you probably don’t get much opportunity to read copies of the books Hooke had in his library. Hooke was an avid reader and buyer (and browser, borrower, exchanger, discusser) of books, and given they formed such an important part of his intellectual and social life I thought it would be fun to delve a little deeper and find out what was on the shelves in Hooke’s library . . . so I’m starting a series of ‘Restoration Reads’, which will be book descriptions rather than book reviews as such. (If it was good enough for Hooke it’s good enough for me.)

I’m starting with Micrographia because it’s one of my favourite Restoration books and of course it was written by one of my favourite Restoration gentlemen. It’s also extremely important, because it was the first fully illustrated book of microscopy. The illustrations are one of the main attractions of the book – fantastically detailed and beautifully executed, they still have the same power to impress today as they must have done almost three hundred and fifty years ago. Imagine folding out the super-sized plate with the image of the flea, and seeing for the first time those powerful legs, armour-plated body and hooked claws. Samuel Pepys famously sat up until 2am reading Micrographia, and described it in his diary as ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’. It was probably the pictures that prompted Pepys to buy the book in the first place: he saw a copy at his bookseller’s and found it ‘so pretty that I presently bespoke it’.

I suspect we have Charles II to thank in some measure for the high-quality engravings. It was he who requested an illustrated book of microscopy, initially from Christopher Wren, who had begun making such drawings at Oxford. He had presented some to Charles, who liked them so much he asked the Royal Society for more. Wren was busy with other projects and the job fell to Hooke to complete. I particularly like the point he makes with his first plate of observations.

Magnified needle-tip, printed full-stop and razor's edge from Hooke's Micrographia (London, 1665).

Needle tip, printed full-stop and razor’s edge, in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (London, 1665). Copyright The Royal Society (used with permission).

Here Hooke starts at the very beginning, with the two basic geometric units, the point and the line. But because he’s doing microscopy rather than geometry, the point is illustrated by the tip of a needle (top image above) and a printed full-stop (central image), and the line is the edge of a razor (bottom image). Hooke’s purpose in this plate is to demonstrate to his readers the microscopic irregularities in things the human eye perceives as regular, sharp, and smooth. So the tip of the needle is rounded and blunt, the razor’s edge pitted and scarred, and the full-stop is a chaotic blot ‘like a great splatch of London dirt’. According to Hooke, it’s tedious to look at man-made things through the microscope, because they all turn out to be the same – gross, clumsy and irregular. In his own words: ‘the Productions of art are such rude mis-shapen things, that when view’d with a Microscope, there is little else observable, but their deformity’.

So he turns to the natural world, and everywhere he looks he sees things that are perfectly formed and perfectly suited to their purpose. ‘In natural forms, there are some so small, and so curious, and their design’d business so far remov’d beyond the reach of our sight, that the more we magnify the object, the more excellencies and mysteries do appear’. One of the reasons Micrographia was so influential was that Hooke wasn’t content just to look at the forms of natural objects and draw them; he wanted to understand their ‘design’d business’ – that is, why they were formed in that way, and what effect it had. One of Micrographia‘s claims to fame is that Hooke used the word ‘cell’ here for the first time to describe the tiny pores he observed in a slice of cork and in the pith of other plants. He compared them with the cells in honeycomb. As soon as he saw them, said Hooke, he realised they explained ‘all the phenomena of Cork’: that is, its exceeding lightness, its ‘springiness and swelling nature’, and its imperviousness to air and water.

He went on to describe and explain the microscopic forms of dozens of other everyday plant and insect specimens, including mould, stinging nettles, spiders, ants, mites, flies, poppy-seeds, fish scales, feathers, hair, petrified wood, and ‘the Eels in Vinegar’ (nematode worms). His observations and descriptions are really interesting (but much too long to reproduce here) so I encourage you to read some of them yourselves, in one of the online editions of the book. Hooke’s text is extremely lively and readable, and you get a good impression of the man behind the microscope.

Partly, this is because Hooke takes the time to explain some of the difficulties he encountered while doing his observations. The ant, he says, was ‘a creature, more troublesom to be drawn, then any of the rest’ because it would not lie still: ‘whilst it was alive, if its feet were fetter’d in Wax or Glew, it would so twist and wind its body, that I could not any wayes get a good view of it; and if I killed it, its body was so little, that I did often spoile the shape of it’. Hooke’s solution was to drop it in alcohol, which stunned it for about an hour; until ‘upon a sudden, as if it had been awaken out of a drunken sleep, it suddenly reviv’d and ran away’.

Hooke also commented on the difficulty in correctly interpreting what he could see – the same object looked very different in different lights. ‘For it is exceeding difficult in some Objects, to distinguish between a prominency and a depression, between a shadow and a black stain, or a reflection and a whiteness in the colour. . . . The Eyes of a Fly in one kind of light appear almost like a Lattice, drilld through with abundance of small holes . . . In the sunshine they look like a Surface cover’d with golden Nails; in another posture, like a Surface cover’d with Pyramids; in another with Cones’.

I love the way Hooke uses a rich vocabulary of descriptive language to complement his illustrations. I think he really wanted his readers to experience for themselves the beauty  and complexity in the microscopic details of ordinary things. As he says in his preface, the microscope (and the telescope) allow us to discover completely new worlds, previously unimagined – and Micrographia does a great job of conveying Hooke’s excitement and wonder as he voyaged into the unknown.

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).