FIG Working Week 2000, 21-26 May, Prague

Robert Hooke (1635-1703): The Hidden Surveyor Revealed

by Michael Cooper

Key words: history of science, Great Fire of London, surveying, Robert Hooke.


1. Introduction

The main events of Hooke's life and work are briefly discussed in relation to their social and scientific contexts. It is shown that he can be seen as the first professional scientist, employed by the Royal Society of London to undertake many experimental investigations in what would now be called the physical, chemical and biological sciences. In this capacity he was a servant of the Royal Society, but received irregular and late payments for his services. He is best known for the "Law of Elasticity" which bears his name, but he also displayed great ingenuity in his microscopical investigations and in designing opto-mechanical devices for scientific instruments. He made many unsuccessful attempts to measure the variation of gravity with distance from the earth's surface, believing that it followed an inverse square law. He engaged in disputes with Newton (about colours and gravity) with Huyghens (about the first use of a watch spring) and with Hevelius (about the importance of using telescopic sights for accurate astronomical measurements). The dispute with Newton damaged Hooke's reputation for more than 200 years after his death.

2. The Great Fire of London

In five days and nights in September 1666 most of London was devastated by fire. The King, and the merchants who governed the City, had to act quickly to deal with the thousands of citizens who had lost not only their houses, but their livelihoods and fortunes. Hooke, by then just over 30 years old, but dependent on irregular and very late payments of salary from the Royal Society, saw an opportunity to gain some financial independence by serving the City in its need to rebuild urgently. Only two weeks after the end of the Fire he presented to the City a plan for rebuilding London which the rulers of the City preferred to one that their own Surveyor had prepared. Reasons for this surprising approval by the City are proposed. Christopher Wren presented his plan to the King. At least seven plans were put forward, but not one was adopted. Reasons are given for the decision to rebuild London largely on the old foundations, but according to new building regulations. Hooke was appointed one of three City Surveyors, responsible for rebuilding London after the Fire.

3. Hooke - City Surveyor and Re-builder of London

Historians of science and historians of London have given little attention to Hooke as City Surveyor. Reasons for this neglect are discussed. Recent research by the author in the archives of the City of London are described. Hundreds of manuscripts written by Hooke concerning the day-to-day rebuilding of London have been brought to light. They are classified and summarised. A few are described in detail and illustrated. Arguments are put forward to justify a claim that his contribution to the rebuilding of London was of great importance, not only by his daily acts of surveying, measuring, staking out foundations and settling building disputes, but legally and politically also. As his science has been hidden in Newton=s shadow for so long, so his contribution to the rebuilding of London has been hidden in the shadow of Wren. But despite Hooke's expertise in designing opto-mechanical scientific instruments he made no direct contribution to the development of land surveying instruments in his role as City Surveyor. An explanation of this lack of innovation is proposed.

4. Hooke's Scientific Surveying

Hooke held four life-time appointments: Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society (from 1662) and Cutlerian Lecturer (from 1664); Professor of Geometry at Gresham College (from 1665); and City Surveyor (from 1667). In all appointments but the last he demonstrated mechanical and optical ingenuity of the highest order, including the design of instruments and devices for many kinds of practical surveying that were not to be realised until very much later. A few of these innovations relating to hydrography, gravimetry, astronomy, stereoscopic mapping and automated route mapping are described and illustrated.

5. Conclusions - Hooke Revealed

Interest in Hooke's science and philosophy was reawakened at the tercentenary of his birth. As we get closer to the tercentenary of his death he is being seen as an important but difficult and idiosyncratic figure in renaissance science. This paper has dealt mainly with his work as City Surveyor. He is revealed as extraordinarily well organised, fair-minded, efficient and unbelievably energetic in dealing with the daily clamour and disputes of London's citizens when they were desperate to rebuild their lives and their businesses after the fire. Hooke practised with a strong sense of civic virtue and fair-dealing in all areas of surveying covered today by the Commissions of FIG. He can be seen not only as the first professional scientist, but as the first professional surveyor in all its modern forms, from geodesy to property valuation and management.

Professor M.A.R. Cooper
Department of Civil Engineering
City University
Northampton Square
London EC1V 0HB

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