Robert Hooke
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"Saturday April the 10th 1697…I began this day to write the history of my own life…"

At the fag end of life, an old man, sitting over the desk opens a diary. Under the dull light, he begins writing the gist of his entire life: Robert Hooke

"…Wherein I will comprise as many remarkable passages, as I can remember or collect out of such memorials as I have kept in writing, or are in the Registers of the Royal Society; together with all my Inventions, Experiments, Discoveries, Discourses, which I have made, the time when the manner how, and means by which, with the success and effect of them, together with the State of my Health, my Employments and Studies, my good or bad Fortune, my Friends and Enemies,…all which shall be the truth of the Matter of Fact, so far as I can be informed by my Memorials or my own Memory, which Rule I resolve not to transgress."

That old man was the great, world-renowned scientist the world now knows as Robert Hooke.

The Son of a Clergyman

Robert Hooke was born on July 18, 1635, at 12:00 pm, in a small town of Freshwater, Isle of Wight in England. He was baptized the following day. Robert’s father, John Hooke had been a curate of the local Church of All Saints since 1626. John had fulfilled different curacies on the Island since 1610. This historical church still stands at the end of a road, named ‘Hooke Road’ after Robert Hooke. There is a small museum here, dedicated to him.

John Hooke came from a place named Hooke in Hampshire. His family had deep roots in the place, as their ancestors had lived there for over a few centuries, i.e., more than 300 years. Perhaps, Robert’s ancestors had adopted the surname ‘Hooke’ after the village of their ancestors. One of the two uncles of Robert were also clergymen in the same Church. The baptismal register in the church still exists.

A Brilliant Brain in A Fragile Frame

Robert was a weak child from his birth. During his infancy, he survived smallpox, but the disease left him scarred – physically and emotionally for the rest of life. The first seven years of his life were troublesome. Even his parents doubted if he would ever survive because the child suffered from headaches, dizziness, colds, insomnia, and indigestion. The only food he could digest was milk.

Writes his first biographer, Waller : "…all this time his chief food was milk, or things made thereof, and fruits; no flesh in the least agreeing with his weak constitution."

In his early years, Robert was too weak to receive regular schooling. But his curiosity, instinctive interest, and power of observation did not deprive him from gaining knowledge from his surroundings. He was all eyes and ears to his surroundings and hence developed by his quality of learning about things himself.

A Mechanic’s Mind – An Artist’s Heart

In his boyhood, Robert was, "very sprightly and active in running and leaping, though very weak as to any robust exercise". The young boy began to show remarkable interest and skill in mechanical toys. The island called Isle of Wight was full of a variety of habitats and rich fossil contents. Robert grew up in an environment that provided him an opportunity to develop his insight and intellect. The family budget was a very stringent one and there was no private income for the family. Thus, the responsibility of Robert's education was taken up by John Hooke. Robert’s father wanted him to follow the family tradition and proceeded to prepare him for the Church. But recurrent headaches and the ill condition of the boy hindered his learning. His father took great pains over his education, but as it seemed impossible, John Hooke lay aside all the thoughts of raising him up as a scholar. As a result, Robert’s further education was totally neglected and he was left on his own likings and resources.

Though being physically sick, his mental abilities were far beyond his father’s imagination. He inventive ability began to manifest itself when he started making mechanical toys. He constructed a model warship with rigging and guns that could be fired. This apparatus was about three feet long. Once, he saw an old brass clock broken to pieces. After studying the pieces closely, he decided to build his own clock. The little boy astonished everyone by making a working clock out of wood and a sundial. He also made a small ship, which was a yard long. He would sail it on the broad stretch of the river water just over the hill from his father’s church.

Robert was not only an inventor but a creator too. He had an artist’s heart. At an early age, he had revealed an aptitude for drawing. There was a painter named John Hoskins at Freshwater. Robert would often pay a visit to Hoskins and would observe the painter closely. A question that obsessed his mind was : ‘Why can’t I do so, too ?’ So he began to collect the required material including chalk, coal and pencil. Then he tried to copy Hoskins’ pictures, which were hung up in his parlor. Robert succeeded in making exact copies of several paintings of John Hoskins.