Next week, the UK’s new prime minister will be named. We know who it’s going to be. And with Brexit on the horizon, there’s a chance his actions will change the course of our country forever. (Or he may go down in history as the man who blew it.) With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick an individual who did change the course of history – even if, these days, we underestimate their legacy.
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
So wrote Isaac Newton in a letter to his fellow scientist Robert Hooke. But what appears to be an eloquent appeal to humility is anything but. Ironies drip from its layered meanings like custard from a vanilla slice.
The context is one of rivalry. As so often, the two men were in dispute as to who had thought of an idea first. Newton was downplaying the issue by suggesting that all progress is largely owed to achievements of our forebears – so why squabble over the little that the living might add to the sum total of human knowledge?
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Some scholars interpret Newton’s reference to ‘giants’ as a sly dig at the physically unimposing Hooke. Certainly, there’s the implication that seeking recognition for the originality of one’s ideas is the petty obsession of small men. But that’s all rather convenient for Newton, whose high reputation – though hardly undeserved – has been enhanced by having other people’s achievements attributed to him.
Appropriately enough, the shoulders of giants line is not really his. In fact, it dates back to the Middle Ages (and perhaps earlier to ancient Rome) Here’s the 12th-century version (attributed to Bernard of Chartres by John of Salisbury):
“Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”
But there’s a bigger irony here. Hooke, Newton and the other ‘natural philosophers’ of their era were so much more than inheritors of an ancient tradition. In fact, they stood at the beginning of something wholly new – the great endeavour that we today call science.
Nullius in verba was the motto of the Royal Society founded in 1660. It means ‘on the word of no one’ – a rejection of argument by authority in favour of evidence obtained by experiment.
This was a profound break with the past. For the first time in the history of thought, the dwarves had permission to not only stand upon the shoulders of giants, but also – if the evidence required it – to topple them over. It was a scientific revolution – the Scientific Revolution, in fact.
It’s hard to over-estimate Hooke’s role in all of this. Indeed, he spent much of his life (and centuries thereafter) being under-estimated. As a mere curate’s son from the Isle of Wight, he was of humble birth and modest means. Nevertheless, in 1653, at the age of 18, he managed to secure a place at Oxford.
His intellectual and practical talents won him various roles in service to scholarly gentlemen, including the founders of Royal Society. In 1661, Hooke was appointed as the Society’s curator of experiments, a role in which he worked with skilled craftsmen to develop the technology on which scientific progress really does depend – telescopes, microscopes, vacuum pumps and many other scientific instruments.
While others looked on, he got his hands dirty – doing more than anyone to ensure that science in its formative years stayed honestly experimental.
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He was a great theoretician as well a great experimentalist. What we now call Boyle’s Law of gases and Newton’s First Law of Gravitation can be more fairly attributed to Hooke – as are the engineering principles that allowed Christopher Wren to build the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Some of his more speculative ideas foreshadowed the scientific knowledge of much later times – the theory of evolution, plate tectonics and the study of how memory is formed.
Hooke did get credit for naming the ‘cells’ that are the building blocks of living creatures – which he observed through the microscopes he invented. In 1665, he published Micrographia, in which his brilliant drawings gave the general public with their first view of life at the microscopic scale. It was, quite rightly, a sensation – Hooke had unveiled a hidden world and in the process invented popular science.
The following year, something else of great importance was ignited – the Great Fire of London. Raging over four days it consumed almost everything between Temple Bar in the west and the Tower of London in the east. It did, however, stop just short of Gresham college – HQ of the Royal Society and home of Robert Hooke.
The college was commandeered by the Corporation of London. The fellows of Royal Society decamped to the safety of Oxford, but Hooke was asked to stay. Faced with greatest challenge in the Corporation’s history, it was him they turned to for help.
City fires were a perennial danger in medieval and early modern Europe, but the conflagration of 1666 was on a scale that would not be exceeded until the 20th century. Witnessing the extent of the devastation, a despairing Samuel Pepys feared that London would never be rebuilt.
Over 13,000 houses were destroyed, 87 churches, the medieval St Paul’s cathedral, the Royal Exchange, three city gates and much else. Though 80,000 people were homeless, their houses weren’t quite razed to the ground, but lying in heaps of rubble that obliterated the streets. Even today, the country would struggle with such a disaster, so how did the fragile government of a deeply divided Restoration England, surrounded by enemies, cope?
The answer is that they just got on with it.
With astonishing rapidity the key decisions were made and stuck too. Schemes to reshape the city around grand radiating boulevards or a grid-like pattern of streets and avenues were swiftly drawn up and just as swiftly rejected. Rather than pre-empting the future development of Paris or New York, London chose to remain London – but a better version of London.
The established street pattern was retained, but key thoroughfares widened and the steepest gradients ameliorated. Property rights were respected, but replacement buildings had to be constructed out of brick and stone. Tenants paid for the reconstruction of their homes, but landlords accepted decades of greatly reduced rents. It was one of the great compromises of history – reconciling tradition and modernity.
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All very wise and farsighted; but while Hooke played his part in the counsels of the mighty, he was also on the ground making things happen. Indeed, before the scorched earth had even cooled, he and his helpers were out on the streets (or what used to be the streets) clearing away rubble and physically staking out the outlines of the new city that would rise from the ashes.
His tireless work helped settle disputes – securing support for the realignment of street plans and boundaries through meticulous surveying and scrupulous accounting. And if that weren’t enough, he found time to design several of the City’s new churches and other grand buildings (including the help he provided to Wren on St Paul’s ).
With Wren he also designed the Monument to the Great Fire of London – which is similar in form, but older and taller than the better known Nelson’s Column. In a typically Hookean flourish the Monument incorporated a zenith telescope, while the new cathedral was equipped with an observatory.
How much of a difference did Robert Hooke make in his life? If he’d succumbed to his frail health as a child how much of a hole would that have left in the subsequent history of science and London?
Hooke, his towering intellect allied to superlative craftsmanship and relentless effort, was throughout his career a unique and vital link between theory and practice, idea and experiment, thought and action.
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I don’t think it too fanciful to suppose that he greatly accelerated both the progress of science and the reconstruction of London. Furthermore, his twin achievements compounded one another – catalysing the emergence of England as a world power.
He deserves a more prominent place in our national story than he’s received. Indeed for most of the three centuries following his death in 1703 he was all but written out. Newton, who became President of Royal Society (also in 1703), played a part in that – and possibly the mysterious disappearance of Hooke’s portrait. It is only in much more recent decades, thanks to the work of scholars like Alan Chapman, Lisa Jardine and John and Mary Gribbin that his true greatness has been rediscovered.
It was Chapman who described him as “England’s Leonardo”. Hooke is worthy of the comparison, but it’s a shame that he needs to be compared to anyone. He should be remembered for his own sake – a giant who stands in no one’s shadow.