Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton; scientists and a three-century old feud

When I first came across the story, the writer was unequivocal. Sir Isaac Newton had done everything in his power to remove a rival from the history books in a campaign that persisted over years and Newton was somewhat successful.

On the recent unveiling of a Robert Hooke (Newton’s rival) portrait, the latest materials I’ve found on this topic have taken a more measured approach to Newton’s role. From the Jan. 13, 2012 news item on Science Daily,

Chroniclers of his time called him ‘despicable’, ‘mistrustful’ and ‘jealous’, and a rivalrous Isaac Newton might have had the only surviving portrait of him burnt, but, three centuries on, Robert Hooke is now regarded as one of the great Enlightenment scientists.

It was Hooke’s dispute with Isaac Newton over credit for Newton’s work on gravity that tainted more than two hundred years of historical writing about Hooke, as it is chronicled that he fought for greater credit than Newton offered for the guiding principles which were later detailed in Newton’s Principia

Hooke’s name was so thoroughly muddied his tercentenary passed unmarked. (In the UK, that’s a major affront. From what I can tell, they celebrate all historical events and important persons. Missing some of Hooke’s importance would seem unthinkable and yet, it happened.)

From the Jan. 13, 2012 news item on the European Commission CORDIS news page,

But this was only part of the story and in recent years the scientific community has woken up to the fact that Hooke was in fact one of the great Enlightenment scientists. In an effort to further correct the skewed vision of history that proliferated for so long and give Hooke credit where credit is due, the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the United Kingdom has hung a new painting of the often forgotten scientist at its London headquarters.

The painting is the work of history artist Rita Greer who started her ‘Robert Hooke project’ in 2003. Her aim was to set the record straight by chronicling the life of the scientist.

Here’s an image of the painting,

Robert Hooke painted by Rita Greer

Here are more details about Hooke from the Institute of Physics (IOP) Jan. 12, 2012 news release,

Following Hooke’s death in the early 1700s, Newton was appointed President of the Royal Society and it was during his time in this capacity that, it is thought, the only portrait of Hooke was destroyed – it is unclear whether the portrait was destroyed on Newton’s command or simply left to perish.

With no visual sources for reference, Greer has used written sources – including the chronicles of both John Aubrey and Richard Waller – to create a likeness of Hooke with details fitting to his position in the history of science.

The image set to be hung at IOP shows Hooke holding a quill and a book in his right hand and a spring in his left. The spring represents one of Hooke’s defining successes – Hooke’s law of elasticity.

Hooke’s law states that the extension of a spring is in direct proportion to the load applied to it – a law which many materials obey and which culminated in the development of a balance spring.  Balance springs subsequently enabled the development of portable timepieces – the first watches.

The history artist Rita Greer says, “Robert Hooke, brilliant, ingenious seventeenth century scientist was brushed under the carpet of history by Sir Isaac Newton and his cronies. When he had his Tercentenary there wasn’t a single memorial to him anywhere. I thought it disgraceful as Hooke did many wonderful things for science.

Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS, a former President of the IOP and former Astronomer Royal, says, “Robert Hooke was a brilliant man of many parts of which one was physics. He was also remarkable for many advances and discoveries for which he did not receive adequate credit.

“With her fine portraits of Hooke, Rita Greer is going some way towards redressing the balance and bringing Hooke’s image to a wider audience. I think that Hooke would have been pleased with her persistence, as we are at the IOP.”

Robert Hooke was a key part of the group that went on to form the Royal Society, becoming the first Curator of Experiments for the Society in 1662.

Hooke has many physics-related credits to his name, including the construction of the vacuum pumps used in Boyle’s gas law experiments, building some of the earliest Gregorian telescopes and observing the rotations of Mars and Jupiter, deducing the wave theory of light, and being the first to suggest that matter expands when heated and that air is made of small particles.

Whether or not he intended to destroy the last portrait of Hooke (I’m inclined to think that was his intention) Newton didn’t manage to remove Hooke from the history books entirely but it certainly seems that he enjoyed three very successful centuries until Rita Greer came along.

1 thought on “Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton; scientists and a three-century old feud

  1. Adam wilson

    G’Day! Frogheart,
    Thanks, on a related note, Sir Isaac Newton was not only a person of the most popular physicists ever lived but he was also a person of all those scientists that contributed a ton to mathematics. He prepared most of his mathematical contributions even while he was for starters a student then a professor at Trinity Faculty, Cambridge relating to the yrs 1661 and 1696. Our world would not be the exact in these days without the need for the significant discoveries of the son of this yeoman farmer.
    Keep up the posts!

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