Robert Hooke FRS (; 28 July [O.S. 18 July] 1635 – 3 March 1703) was an English natural philosopher, architect and polymath. As a young adult, he was a financially impoverished scientific inquirer, but came into wealth and good reputation following his actions as Surveyor to the City of London after the great fire of 1666 (in which he appears to have performed more than half of all the surveys after the fire). At that time, he was also the curator of experiments of the Royal Society, and a member of its council, Gresham Professor of Geometry. He was also an important architect of his time—though few of his buildings now survive and some of those are generally misattributed—and was instrumental in devising a set of planning controls for London, the influence of which remains today. Allan Chapman has characterised him as “England’s Leonardo“.
Hooke studied at Wadham College, Oxford, during the Protectorate where he became one of a tightly knit group of ardent Royalists led by John Wilkins. Here he was employed as an assistant to Thomas Willis and to Robert Boyle, for whom he built the vacuum pumps used in Boyle’s gas law experiments, and conducted the experiments themselves. He built some of the earliest Gregorian telescopes and observed the rotations of Mars and Jupiter. In 1665 he inspired the use of microscopes for scientific exploration with his book, Micrographia. Based on his microscopic observations of fossils, Hooke was an early proponent of biological evolution. He investigated the phenomenon of refraction, deducing the wave theory of light, and was the first to suggest that matter expands when heated and that air is made of small particles separated by relatively large distances. He proposed that heat was the manifestation of faster movement of the particles of matter.
He performed pioneering work in the field of surveying and map-making and was involved in the work that led to the first modern plan-form map, though his plan for London on a grid system was rejected in favour of rebuilding along the existing routes. He also came near to an experimental proof that gravity follows an inverse square law, and first hypothesised that such a relation governs the motions of the planets, an idea which was developed by Isaac Newton, and formed part of a dispute between the two which caused Newton to try to erase Hooke’s legacy. He originated the terraqueous globe theory of geology, disputed the literal Biblical account of the age of the Earth, hypothesised the idea of extinction, and wrote numerous times of the likelihood that fossils on hill and mountain tops had been raised there by “earthquakes”, a general term of the time for geological processes. Much of Hooke’s scientific work was conducted in his capacity as curator of experiments of the Royal Society, a post he held from 1662, or as part of the household of Robert Boyle.
In later life, Hooke became party to jealous intellectual disputes, which may have contributed to his relative historical obscurity outside of his association with Newton in particular.