Article - Issue 19, May/June 2004

Robert Hooke (1635–1703) – professional scientist, engineer and surveyor

Michael Cooper

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Professional scientist, engineer and surveyor

Media reports of ‘scientific breakthroughs’ often do not give much attention to the innovative engineering that has made them possible. Interaction between science and engineering has long been beneficial to both activities, particularly from the time the Royal Society was formed in 1660. The Society’s first Curator of Experiments, Robert Hooke, best known for the law of elasticity that bears his name, had a major role in transforming traditional craft-based procedures into recognisably modern engineering practice, designed to meet the needs of society and based on scientific knowledge and technical skills.

We know from Samuel Pepys’s diary that on 1 May 1665 a carriage pulled up alongside him as he was walking to the Royal Exchange. Four Fellows of the Royal Society were inside the carriage: Lord Brouncker, the Society’s first President; the courtier Sir Robert Moray; the Dean of Ripon, Dr John Wilkins; and Robert Hooke. They were on their way to Colonel Thomas Blount’s country house south of Blackheath in order to carry out some trials of his new chariot. On seeing their colleague (Pepys had been admitted to the Royal Society earlier in the year) they invited him to accompany them. Pepys eagerly accepted their invitation. The party arrived at Blount’s house in time for dinner, which was usually eaten between 2–3 pm. Pepys did not think very highly of the food, but after dinner he took part with the others in various trials and experiments. He was very favourably impressed by the chariot’s performance. The visitors left Blount’s house and travelled by carriage to Greenwich and then by boat to Deptford. There they went to Sayes Court, the home of the courtier John Evelyn, another Fellow of the Royal Society. By now it was dark. Brouncker and Moray stayed at Deptford, but Pepys invited Wilkins and Hooke to his home where they had late-night drinks and sweetmeats. After providing his two guests with a lantern to see their way home, Pepys wrote in his diary ‘noble discourse all day long did please me’, and he described Wilkins and Hooke as ‘two worthy persons as are in England, I think, or the world.’

Blount presented his design of a new chariot to the Royal Society at their weekly meeting on 26 April claiming that it was ‘very easy both to the rider and horse, and at the same time cheap’ (see reference 1). The Society nominated Hooke and others to visit Blount’s house, test his claims and report their findings at the Society’s meeting the following week. Hooke reported on the trials, adding some suggestions of his own for changing Blount’s design in order to reduce the weight borne by the horse without putting the rider in a less suitable position for seeing ahead. The matter was debated and further trials ordered.

Pepys’s account shows that engineering was part of the social and intellectual lives of the natural philosophers (or scientists) who comprised the membership of the early Royal Society. The Fellows occupied a range of positions in society, such as courtier, politician, cleric, physician, gentleman, merchant and scholar. Debates and conjectures on science, proposals for experiments and the practical use of the new learning were part of their conversations around private dinner tables or in the inns and coffee houses of London. Hooke made new instruments and apparatus for experiments and demonstrations at the weekly meetings of the Society, but most of the other Fellows exercised no practical skills. They often used craftsmen as hired hands to make instruments for their personal use, but artisans were not elected to membership nor did they take part in the Society’s debates. Divisions existed, both between the grandees in the Society and artisans outside, and between the few Fellows who made and used instruments, and the majority who chose not to. Hooke’s singular education enabled him to bridge both divides. He engaged in intellectual speculations upon the material causes of things with other educated gentlemen and worked with artisans at their lathes. His creative imagination led to a plethora of ideas for useful optical and mechanical devices for experiments, and his practical skills enabled him to make them.


Hooke was arguably the first to receive an education suitable for a modern professional engineer. Two men were largely responsible. Orphaned at the age of thirteen when his father died, Hooke left his family home in the Isle of Wight for London. He intended to spend his inheritance of £50 on an apprenticeship to the portrait painter Sir Peter Lely. Before Hooke could establish himself in Lely’s studio, the Head Master at Westminster School, Dr Richard Busby, took him into his school house. The young Hooke made good progress in the conventional classical syllabus and he excelled at Euclidean geometry and playing the organ. He displayed an exceptional talent for the non-curricular activity of mechanical invention. Busby was an exceptional teacher, renowned for the physical and intellectual rigour of his long regime at Westminster. But he was also a liberal educationalist. He allowed his pupil Hooke to absent himself from lessons in order to spend time in the workshops of London’s artisans, learning how to make the many mechanical contrivances, especially for flying, that came out of the schoolboy’s fertile imagination.

Busby’s nurturing of his pupil’s mechanical talent was probably unique in English schools at that time. Hooke was encouraged to develop knowledge and skills that were generally considered inimical to morality and to have no intellectual content. Study of mechanics was not part of the education of an English gentleman. But John Wilkins, then Warden of Wadham College at Oxford, shared Busby’s contrary view of the value of mechanics. Wilkins was the leading figure in the group of natural philosophers who were at that time holding informal meetings in Oxford or in London and who, in 1660, would later form the Royal Society. In 1648, the year Hooke arrived in London with his legacy, Wilkins published a book with the title Mathematicall Magick Or The Wonders That May Be Performed By Mechanicall Geometry. The word ‘Magick’ in the title indicates that the contents were founded in arcane knowledge, rather than in mathematics, but Wilkins had a particular reason for using it. In a note to the reader, he wrote:

This whole Discourse I call Mathematicall Magick, because the art of such Mechanicall inventions, as are here chiefly insisted upon, hath been formerly so styled, and in allusion to vulgar opinion, which doth commonly attribute all such strange operations unto the power of Magick.

This is an early example of choosing a book’s title as a marketing ploy. Wilkins was a man who moved confidently and easily through turbulent times, receiving prestigious and influential appointments under parliamentary and royalist regimes. He died in 1672, four years after his appointment as Bishop of Chester.

The first part of Mathematicall Magick (‘Archimedes, Or, Mechanicall Powers’) describes the working of simple devices, such as balances, levers, wedges, pulleys and screws from classical Greece and Rome. The second part (‘Daedalus, Or, Mechanicall Motions’) shows how the simple devices can be assembled into useful automata, such as clocks, wind pumps and mills, chariots and flying machines. The book is not a treatise on theoretical and practical mechanics; it would be very difficult for anyone using the book alone to make a workable version of any of the devices described. It was, however, an enthusiastic attempt to convince 17th-century readers in England of the intellectual and moral benefits of mechanics. Wilkins began by pointing out that when Heraclitus in the fifth century BC noticed that his students were too ashamed to follow him into a workshop, he told them:

that the gods were as well conversant in such places as in others; Intimating that a divine power and wisdome might be discerned even in those common arts, which are so much despis’d; And though the manuall exercise and practise of them be esteemed ignoble, yet the study of their generall causes and principles, cannot bee prejudiciall to any other (though the most sacred) profession.

When Wilkins heard of Hooke’s precocious talent he presented him with a copy of Mathematicall Magick. Hooke could then see that the abstractions of Euclidean geometry, at which he excelled, were useful when designing and making machines, for which he had a passion. Mathematicall Magick and its author had a great influence on Hooke’s intellectual development. A copy of the book, probably the one presented to him by Wilkins, was in Hooke’s library at the time of his death.

From school days until Wilkins’ death Hooke sought and received Wilkins’ advice and encouragement in his endeavours to make practical use of his talents and build a career. In the Preface to Micrographia, Hooke’s great book of popular science published in 1665, he wrote: If these my first labours shall be in any wayes useful to inquiring men, I must attribute the incouragement and promotion of them to a very Reverend and Learned Person, of whom this ought in justice to be said, That there is scarce any one Invention, which this Nation has produc’d in our Age, but it has in some way or other been set forward by his assistance. My reader, I believe, will quickly ghess, that it is Dr. Wilkins that I mean ... for wherever he had lived, there had been the chief Seat of generous Knowledge and True Philosophy.

Building a career

Hooke was admitted to Christ Church Oxford where, mainly through Wilkins’s patronage, but also by means of his anglican and royalist family connections, his genius for mechanics came to the notice of the chemists Thomas Willis and Robert Boyle. Hooke had by then spent his inheritance, but Willis and Boyle employed him in their laboratories and he spent time with Wilkins and his group at Wadham. Having served a sort of engineering apprenticeship at Westminster, he now served a similar scientific apprenticeship at Oxford.

The fertility of Hooke’s inquiring mind and his ingenious ideas for designing and making experimental apparatus, coupled with a capacity for hard work, brought him several prestigious appointments which provided him with a good income and accommodation. By 1666 he was the Royal Society’s Curator of Experiments, Cutlerian Lecturer on the History of Trades and Gresham Professor of Geometry. He was also well known to the educated public through his first book Micrographia.

Sir John Cutler established his lectureship on the history of trades with the Baconian intention of making a record, or history, of all trade practices and processes that could be analysed and classified to gain greater understanding of nature and better ways of using that knowledge. Although Hooke accepted Cutler’s offer of appointment as Cutlerian Lecturer, he soon realised that mere collection and ordering of trade practices were not enough to make progress in natural philosophy. He used his Cutlerian lectures instead to promote his experimental investigations and, in particular, to show the importance of designing and making instruments for observation and measurement. He spent many hours in his workshop at Gresham College, often alone at night, sometimes with experienced craftsmen, finding ways of making the new mechanical and optical devices he needed for his work. Always striving to make instruments that were more accurate and easier to use, he was generally thwarted in realising fully his intentions by the relatively poor quality of materials and manufacturing processes available at that time. Many of his designs for highly accurate optomechanical devices were not successfully put into practice until the twentieth century.

It has recently been shown how the ideas of ingenuity and ingenuousness (in the sense of transparency, or clarity) were part of Hooke’s thinking in the design of his scientific instruments (see reference 2). He was wary of losing to others what he saw as his prior discoveries and inventions, but when he thought his prior claims would not be jeopardised he published his designs in great detail and described his observations and measurements so that others could make similar instruments and see for themselves whether or not they agreed with his conclusions. The beginnings of professional science and professional engineering can be seen in Hooke’s work as a salaried practitioner in experimental science and in the design, construction and use of instruments. He brought together natural knowledge and practical skills to create useful artifacts for specific purposes of general benefit. This aspect of Hooke’s work would become even more important after the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed about 80 per cent of the city.

Rebuilding a city

In the immediate aftermath of the fire the King appointed Christopher Wren as one of his three Commissioners for rebuilding the ruined city. The City’s Court of Aldermen responded by appointing Hooke as one of their three Surveyors to work alongside the King’s Commissioners. The rulers of London knew that Hooke and Wren were distantly related, had similar intellectual and practical interests and were friends and colleagues in the Royal Society. They were two ambitious young men, looking more to the future than to the past, much younger than the other Commissioners and Surveyors. They were faced with a demand for materials and workmen that was unprecedented in its scope and urgency. The rebuilding was financed by a tax on coal, but new ways of managing the construction work had to be found. In effect, Wren and Hooke ran the rebuilding programme between them – Hooke taking the major role for the City, Wren for the King. The city was almost completely rebuilt only eight years after the flames had subsided. The Court and the City had made wise choices. Wren and Hooke in partnership transformed building construction from an activity centred around a master craftsman to one involving architect, building contractor and hundreds of workmen and labourers (see reference 3).

Hooke’s surveying duties were particularly onerous. He provided essential services to thousands of individual citizens at a time when they were desperate to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. He worked on drafting the rebuilding regulations for acts of parliament. He staked out new and widened streets, measured (and certified for compensation payments) hundreds of areas of ground taken away from citizens for new streets, markets and quays. He staked out and certified more than 3000 foundations of private houses and settled hundreds of disputes arising between neighbours and through infringements of the rebuilding regulations. On behalf of the City he negotiated with contractors for public works, including the canalisation of Fleet Ditch, the new Thames Quay, the Monument, gateways and markets. Workmens’ wages, bills of quantity, quality of materials and standards of workmanship were all subject to Hooke’s approval on behalf of the City. On his daily visits to the places where London’s churches were being rebuilt he was trusted by Wren to oversee the construction and settle problems on site.

A cartographic memorial

When the City wanted a detailed and accurate map at a large scale for administration of the new city and for planning public works, the cartographer John Ogilby raised money for the project. Hooke took charge of the surveying and cartography. He had already organised groups of men having disparate skills to perform cooperative experiments for the Royal Society. He now brought together a group of proudly independent land surveyors and organised them into an efficient team for measuring the city. An individual surveyor could no longer claim that his authority justified his measurements: all measurements had to fit the overall geometrical framework. Hooke introduced new techniques and procedures in surveying, cartography and engraving.

Previous maps of London had been in the form of a ‘bird’s-eye’ view and of uncertain scale, but the 20 sheets comprising the new map showed London in the form of an orthogonal projection at a known scale (1 inch to 100 feet, or 1/1200). Different symbols were used to distinguish between ward and parish boundaries and to identify different kinds of building. The map sheets carried a reference system so that the locations of all streets and other places could be found from an alphabetical list. It was the first version of a London A to Z. The printed map covers an area of about 2.5 m × 1.5 m. It depicts a city that was built largely under Hooke’s daily supervision. The map and the city it shows are tributes to his partnership with Wren and to their success in harnessing their expertise in architecture, engineering, technology and surveying for the public good.

Further reading

Bennett, J., Cooper, M, Hunter, M. and Jardine, L. (2003). London’s Leonardo, the Life and Work of Robert Hooke. London: Oxford University Press

Cooper, M (2003). A More Beautiful City, Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London After the Great Fire. Thrupp: Sutton Publishing

Inwood, S. (2002). Robert Hooke, the Man Who Knew Too Much. London: Macmillan


  1. Birch, Thomas (1776). The History of the Royal Society of London, volume 2, p. 45. London
  2. Bennett, Jim (2003). Instruments and ingenuity. In Papers Presented at a Conference to Mark the Tercentenary of the Death of Robert Hooke (1635–1703), pp. 59–68. London: The Royal Academy of Engineering.
  3. Heyman, Jacques (2003). Hooke and Bedlam. In Papers Presented at a Conference to Mark the Tercentenary of the Death of Robert Hooke (1635–1703), pp. 165–174. London: The Royal Academy of Engineering

‘Engineering was part of the social and intellectual lives of the philosophers who comprised the membership of the early Royal Society’

‘…a divine power and wisdome might be discerned even in those common arts which are so much despis’d’

Michael Cooper

Emeritus Professor of Engineering Surveying, City University, London

Prior to his retirement in 2000, M. A. R. Cooper was Director of the Engineering Surveying Research Centre at City University, specialising in digital close range photogrammetry for engineering. He has recently completed a programme of research into Robert Hooke which has led to the publication of two books and a conference at the Royal Society in 2003 (the tercentenary of Hooke’s death) which was sponsored by the Royal Society and Gresham College with the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

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