Robert Hooke, one of the most important scientists of the 17th century, was born on the Isle of Wight, a contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys and Sir Christopher Wren, who was his lifelong friend. In the course of his career at the Royal Society and as Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, he carried out the earliest research with the microscope, described and named the cell, was a founder of the science of geology, and discovered the law of springs/elasticity, the achievement for which he is most remembered today. He was also a City Surveyor, organising the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Overshadowed by Newton and Wren, he faded into relative obscurity and now there is not even a portrait of him.
Robert Hooke was born on 18th July 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, the son of John Hooke, who was the permanent curate of the Parish church of All Saints’, Freshwater, and John’s second wife, Cecelie (nee Gyles), who came from Brading. The family lived in a modestly furnished cottage with a parlour, hall, study, kitchen and buttery downstairs, and three attic bedrooms above. The cottage, which no longer exists, was on Hooke Hill, Freshwater, situated behind what is now Heatherstone House. Robert would have shared one of the bedrooms with his brother John (baptised 9 May 1630) until the older boy became a grocer’s apprentice in 1644. He had a stepsister Anne (born in Brading in 1622) and a sister Katherine (baptised 11 May 1628 in Freshwater).
Robert was a sickly infant, who for seven years was not expected to survive, but he gradually grew stronger, becoming agile and energetic, though not robust. In his teenage years, he developed a curvature of his spine which became a permanent deformity. He was a fast learner, so his father hoped that he might make a career in the church, but Robert’s weak constitution and his father’s ill-health ended this ambition, and the boy was left to his own devices. Robert followed his own inclinations, with the result that the island’s environment formed him as a scientist.
As a boy, Robert developed an aptitude for building mechanical devices by imitating local craftsmen. In his notebook he describes how “...he made a small ship about a Yard long, fitly shaping it, adding Rigging of Ropes, Pullies, Masts, &c. with a contrivance to make it fire off small Guns, as it was sailing cross a Haven of pretty breadth”. The Haven was on the sluggish river Yar, near what is now the Causeway.
In the 1640’s John Hoskins, a famous painter of miniatures, visited the Island. Hooke’s friend, John Aubrey, recounts how, “Mr Hooke observed what he did... So he gets him chalke and ruddle (red ochre), and coale, and grinds them, and puts them on a trencher, got a pencil, and to worke he went, and made a picture: then he copied (as they hung up in the parlour) the pictures there.” The skills he acquired with pen and pencil was invaluable later on when he needed to communicate his microscopical and mechanical discoveries, and in his work as an architect and surveyor.
His notebook also describes how, as a boy, “Seeing an old Brass Clock taken to pieces”, he attempted to imitate it and made a wooden one that would go. This developed into a lifelong interest in clocks, leading to at least two of his most important inventions.
The western end of the Isle of Wight is rich in fascinating geological formations containing many fossils and the bones of dinosaurs. Hooke probably dug fossils along the nearby beaches and from the chalk cliffs that run from Compton Bay to the Needles. Watching the cliffs crumbling into the sea would lead the adult Hooke to an idea of fundamental importance, “that a great Part of the Surface of the Earth has been since the Creation transform’d, and made of another Nature: that is many Parts which have been Sea are now Land, and others that have been Land are now Sea, many of the Mountains have been Vales, and the Vales Mountains.” He described observing on the Isle of Wight a layer of sea sand extending above the water level to a height of sixty feet, in which was embedded oyster shells, limpets and periwinkles. These explorations may well have planted the seeds of his later ideas about the extinction of species, the formation of mountains and dramatic changes in sea level. These would be bold ideas in the Christian world of the seventeenth century.
In October 1648, when Hooke was thirteen, his father died of “a Cough, a Palsey, Jaundice and Dropsy”. This was a time of unusual excitement on the Island due to the imprisonment of King Charles I in Carisbrooke Castle, after his defeat in the Civil War the previous year. He was executed in London two months later on 1st December. By this time, Robert too was in London. Being by the standards of the time old enough to make his own way, he had taken his inheritance, £40 from his father and £20 from his grandmother, and set off for the mainland. He intended to take up an apprenticeship in Westminster with the great Dutch portraitist, Peter Lely, perhaps with an introduction from a well-placed friend, but the position did not suit him, and he stayed only a few months. Instead Hooke moved to Westminster School, a school that specialised in producing clergymen, living from 1649 to 1653 with its severe headmaster Dr Richard Busby.
As an adult, Hooke maintained contact from London with members of Island Society, like the Deputy Governor, Sir Edward Worsley. He returned to visit the Island on the death of his mother in 1665, and probably used this visit to look for fossils. His brother John went on to become Mayor of Newport but got into debt. Robert tried to help him out but John hanged himself in 1687. Robert may also have returned at this time.