The rediscovered notebooks of Robert Hooke were made public today by the Royal Society. One of the researchers who transcribed the manuscripts for the web describes her experiences.
I first heard about the Hooke folio in early 2006 while volunteering in Tanzania. Following the UK news online, I read about the discovery of a bound volume in the handwriting of the seventeenth-century microscopist, engineer and surveyor Robert Hooke, found in the cupboard of a country house. The volume turned out to be the minutes of the Royal Society, mostly from the time Hooke was Secretary (1677–1682). The rediscovered collection chronicled the beginnings of the Society through Hooke’s eyes.
I remembered the folio a few months later when I saw an advert for a PhD studentship based in the Society’s archives. Reading more, I found that the early meetings contained lively discussions of everything from making a cart with legs, to firing canons in the air to determine the curvature of the earth. With my background in scientific communication and international history, the constant stream of letters and objects from all over the world that the Society received—everything from East African medicines to Chinese lacquered cabinets—was fascinating. I applied for, and got, the studentship to transcribe the folio for the web.
The folio offline and online
Back in the UK, I finally saw the folio itself in the Society’s library. Torn, speckled with stains and inkblots, some pages bound upside-down between the battered cover—it recalled my original, Indiana Jones-inspired, urge to study history. Actually, the transcription took a very modern form. Fellow PhD student Jenni Thomas and I created the online version from high-resolution photographs, using an xml markup program. This means that the online version of the folio is searchable and can be read with explanations and translations for use in school science classes, while its original features—right down to the inkblots—are replicated for historians of science. In keeping with this blend of old and new, we started a blog —the Society’s first—to record our findings.
Exceedingly small creatures
Several scientists contacted us about the folio, including a microbiologist working on the correspondence of Hooke and the Dutch microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek. After receiving Leeuwenhoek’s accounts of observing protozoa, Hooke spent November 1677 making small glass tubes and improving his own microscope. The Society’s Journal Books break off on 15 November, and do not resume until December 1677. Thanks to the folio, we now know that during this period Hooke filled pipes the size of ‘a pig’s bristle’ with water to which pepper had been added. Set in wax and examined under a microscope in the ‘glancing’ light of a candle they revealed ‘great numbers of exceeding small animals swimming to and fro’. Debate followed over whether these ‘animals’ were generated from seed or resulted from interaction between pepper and water. All this was missing from the official records. Hooke’s excitement at finally seeing these tiny creatures was matched by the Professor’s when we showed him these lost passages.
Tryalls and tribulations
At times, transcribing the Hooke folio was exhausting, taking hours to decipher a single scrawled word, and I felt that my frustration mirrored Hooke’s own. He increasingly records unreasonable obstructions to his theories including the principle, later expressed in Newton’s first law, that ‘a body once put into motion would move perpetually if it met with no resistance’, the decrease in motion being proportional to the amount of resistance. However, the Society were unconvinced, as Hooke complained, ‘instead of hearing grounds and reason, experiments were always called for and all loaded with objections little to purpose’. Eventually, to demonstrate that resistance decreases motion, Hooke showed the Society something that I gradually realised was a ‘Newton’s cradle’.
The history of my own life
My feeling that the folio was composed as a vindication was supported by the Council Minutes of 1683. These grant Hooke access to the records to support his demand for payment for the lectures on trade and applied science that John Cutler sponsored him to give at Gresham College. Cutler’s payments stopped in 1670, leading Hooke to court by 1682–4. Hooke seems to have initiated the folio to prove that these lectures were given. After his legal case stalled, Hooke stopped copying, but restarted amid renewed wrangling with Cutler’s heir, finishing in 1694. The exercise seems to have prompted Hooke to reflect on the times he had been denied credit for experiments or theories. He probably collated these notes with his own rough minutes—appropriated from the library—in around 1697, when he began to write ‘the history of my own life…collect[ed] out of such memorials that I have kept in writing or are in the registers of the Royal Society’.
The transcription finally finished, the folio is now available on the Royal Society’s website. I’m now working on the early international relations of the Royal Society, my own view of the anatomy of early science having been refocused through the lens of Hooke’s lively interest in the world and its workings.
_ Image shows an extract from the Folio on the Royal Society’s website. The full manuscript can be read here. _