Today, conflict as science changes form. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1620, Francis Bacon made
his famous remark that nature can be commanded only
if we obey her -- that we have to understand nature
before we can deal with her. He believed that
technology should be served by science. People
listened to Bacon, and science began to interact
with technology as it never had before.
Robert Hooke, born fifteen years later, became the
great exemplar of Bacon's ideas. He was a
generalist of astonishing range. He had important
and lasting things to say about optics, mechanics,
geography, architecture, materials, clock-making,
and microbiology. His work in paleontology
anticipated Darwin. He was a virtuoso scientist
with one foot solidly set in technology.
Isaac Newton was seven years younger than Hooke but
far less wed to Bacon's ideas. The texture of
Newton's work had more in common with the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than with
his own times. Newton worked alone and with severe,
rigorous abstraction. Technology was, for him, just
a worldly distraction.
Newton tried to give science the purity of
mathematics. He valued intensity and rigor far more
than he valued Hooke's breadth of understanding.
When the poet Alexander Pope looked at the
specialized science that Newton was creating, he
One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit.
Newton turned to optics in 1675. When he did, he
had little to say about the important foundation
Hooke had laid for the field. Newton received
Hooke's fairly gentle objections with morbid fury
-- an anger that reached far beyond the issue.
Hooke had been a lifelong member of the Royal
Society. Newton accepted the society's presidency
after Hooke died in 1703. Then he set about
reshaping it. Part of that reshaping was systematic
action to bury Hooke. During Newton's 24-year
presidency, many of Hooke's papers were lost, his
apparatus was allowed to rust away, and his name
Newton's antipathy toward Hooke flowed from
absolute conviction -- not so much about scientific
results as about how science should be done.
Despite his sanctimony about seeing farther by
standing on the shoulders of giants, he clearly saw
his forebears as pygmies.
But, in Newton's defense, I must say that science
cannot always be close-coupled to technology. At
some point, Hooke's vision had to give way to
scientific absolutes that've not yet been rendered
into any kind of human engine -- and which might
not be for a very long time. It was Newton who
reclaimed that high ground
This has always been a delicate balance. Bacon's
conviction that science should serve technology
regained its ascendancy in the late twentieth
century. And that was when historians began
rediscovering Robert Hooke, as well as his
astonishing scientific scope and stature.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Margaret 'Espinasse, Robert Hooke. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1962.
I should like to offer a picture of Hooke.
Unfortunately, I cannot. None seems ever to have
been made. You see, Hooke was apparently rather
unbeautiful. His close friend John Aubrey wrote
that he was
... of middling stature, something crooked,
pale faced, and his face but little below, but his
head is large; his eie full and popping, and not
quick; a gray eie. He has a delicate head of haire
browne, and of an excellent moist curle.
When Richard Walker published his Life of Hooke in
1705, he added that Hooke was
... in person but despicable, being crooked and
low of stature, and as he grew older more and more
deformed. He was always very pale and lean, and
latterly nothing but skin and bone, with a meagre
aspect, his eyes grey and full, with a sharp
ingenious look whilst younger. He wore his own hair
of dark brown colour, very long, and hanging
neglected over his face uncut and lank, which about
three years before his death he cut off and wore a
periwig. He went stooping and very fast, having but
a light body to carry, and a great deal of spirits
and activity, especially in his youth. He was of an
active, restless, indefatigable genius, even almost
to the last, and always slept little to his death,
oftenest continuing his studies all night, and
taking a short nap in the day. His temper was
melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous, which more
increased upon him with his years.
For more on Hooke, see Episodes 839, 350,
and 1169. This is a
revised version of Episode
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.