The incredibly cluttered and productive life of the cantankerous wizard who vied with Newton and with history, losing both struggles until very recently.
With the near-simultaneous publication of two full-length biographies (Lisa Jardine’s The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Feb. 2004), Hooke’s reputation appears to have been restored. While researching A History of London (1999), Inwood became convinced that Hooke (1635–1703) had been unjustly treated by historians, who tended to portray him as irascible and arrogant. He may have claimed to have invented or discovered virtually every scientific device and principle in the 17th century, the biographer concedes, but his actual achievements were almost as astonishing. A gifted inventor of both grand and risible creations, an architect and builder who shared with Christopher Wren the responsibilities for rebuilding London after the Great Fire, teacher, coffee house raconteur, astronomer, microscopist, cometographer, dissector, vivisector, artist—all these hats and more Hooke wore, most with enormous distinction. Like Jardine, Inwood contends that Hooke attempted to keep so many balls in the air that he lost track and was beaned by a few. He was inadequate as secretary of the Royal Society, and his unprepossessing appearance and crusty demeanor alienated some important contemporaries who would subsequently drive the sharpest nails in the coffin of his reputation. Inwood does a remarkable job of explaining in (sometimes excessive) detail the myriad experiments and demonstrations Hooke prepared for the Royal Society and for his lectures at London’s Gresham College. He also excels in his Hooke-ian attempt to keep multiple narrative threads in the balance, endeavoring to show us the days and weeks with all their myriad activities rather than focusing in turn on, say, Hooke’s inventions, his architecture, his coffee housing, his sex life (Hooke had an ongoing sexual relationship with his niece).
Meticulous research and capacious imagination inform this absorbing tale of genius, personality, and the vagaries of reputation. (16 pp. b&w illustrations)