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An experimental ‘Life’ for an experimental life: Richard Waller's biography of Robert Hooke (1705)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2016

University of St Andrews, School of History, St Katharine's Lodge, The Scores, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9BA, Scotland. Email:


Richard Waller's ‘Life of Dr Robert Hooke’, prefixed to his edition of Hooke's Posthumous Works (1705), is an important source for the life of one of the most eminent members of the early Royal Society. It also has the distinction of being one of the earliest biographies of a man of science to be published in English. I argue that it is in fact the first biography to embrace the subject's natural-philosophical work as the centre of his life, and I investigate Waller's reasons for adopting this strategy and his struggle with the problem of how to represent an early experimental philosopher in print. I suggest that Waller eschews the ‘Christian philosopher’ tradition of contemporary biography – partly because of the unusually diverse and fragmentary nature of Hooke's intellectual output – and draws instead upon the structure of the Royal Society's archive as a means of organizing and understanding Hooke's life. The most quoted phrase from Waller's biography is that Hooke became ‘to a crime close and reserved’ in later life; this essay argues that Waller's biographical sketch was fashioned in order to undo the effects of that reserve. In modelling his approach very closely on the structure of the society's records he was principally concerned with making Hooke's work and biography accessible, intelligible and useful to the fellowship in a context familiar to them, a context which had provided the institutional framework for most of Hooke's adult life. I argue that Waller's ‘Life’ was also intended to make the largest claims for Hooke's intellectual standing that the author dared in the context of the enmity between Hooke and Isaac Newton once the latter became president of the Royal Society. However, I also adduce fresh manuscript evidence that Waller actually compiled, but did not publish, a defence of Hooke's claim to have discovered the inverse square law of gravity, allowing us to glimpse a much more assertive biography of Hooke than the published version.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2016 

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1 On early modern biography see Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; Allan Pritchard, English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: A Critical Survey, Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2005; Kevin Sharpe and Steven Zwicker (eds.), Writing Lives: Biography and Textuality, Identity and Representation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. OED's first recorded use of ‘biography’ is in Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poesy (1683), though ‘biographia’ is acknowledged as a precursor. The conceptual anachronism of ‘science’ as a category of early modern life and thought has long since been accepted as a commonplace by historians, although some continue to use the term for convenience; see, for example, Michael Hunter, Establishing the New Science, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1989.

2 Even in the eighteenth century the scarcity of scientific biographies is remarkable; see A. Rupert Hall, Isaac Newton: Eighteenth-Century Perspectives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 10–11, for a short overview.

3 Pritchard, op. cit. (1), pp. 10–12.

4 Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 341.

5 William Rawley, ‘The Life of the Honourable Author’, in Resuscitatio, or brining into publick light severall pieces, of the works civil, historical, philosophical & theological … of the Right Honourable Francis Bacon, London: Sara Griffin for William Lee, 1657, sig. b2r–B3r; William Lloyd, A sermon preached at the funeral of the Right Reverend Father in God, John Late Lord Bishop of Chester, London: Andrew Clarke or Henry Brome, 1672, repr. five times to 1704; Abraham Hill, ‘Some account of the life of Dr Isaac Barrow’, in The works of the learned Isaac Barrow … published by the Reverend Dr Tillotson, 4 vols. (1683–1687), vol. 1, pp. iv–ix; Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, 2 vols., London, 1691–1692, esp. pp. 370–372 (John Wilkins), 610–611 (William Petty), 627–629 (Seth Ward), and 642–643 (Theodore Haak); Gilbert Burnet, A Sermon preached at the funeral of the Honourable Robert Boyle, London, 1692, repr. 1692, 1704; and Walter Pope, The Life of the right Reverend Father in God Seth, Lord Bishop of Salisbury, London, 1697.

6 Yeo, ‘Alphabetical lives: scientific biography in historical dictionaries and encyclopaedias’, in Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo (eds.), Telling Lives in Science: Essays on Scientific Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 139–169, 148–149.

7 Pritchard, op. cit. (1), pp. 118 and 120.

8 Melchior Adam, Vitae Medicorum Germanorum, Heidelberg, 1620. Hooke apparently owned a copy of this work, since it was sold in the auction of his library. See Poole, William, ‘Antoine-François Payen, the 1666 Selenelion, and a rediscovered letter to Robert Hooke’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2007) 61, pp. 251263CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 257.

9 The best-known of the apologia are Joseph Glanvill, Plus Ultra, London, 1668; and Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society, London, 1667; of the attacks, Henry Stubbe wrote several, including Legends no histories; a specimen of some animadversions upon the History of the Royal Society, London, 1670; and Thomas Shadwell's play of 1676, The Virtuoso, mocked the fellows of the society in the person of Sir Nicholas Gimcrack.

10 See Sprat, op. cit. (9), passim; the society membership lists began to be published as early as 1663 (a surviving example exists in RS Tracts 1/2), while Oldenburg's Philosophical Transactions reviewed, previewed and promoted Boyle's work in particular to an astonishing extent; almost 25 per cent of the first volume of the journal is by Boyle or about him, amounting to over ninety quarto pages out of four hundred.

11 To take just four examples among the prominent early fellows, Birch added short biographical notes of John Beale, Robert Moray, John Collins and John Wilkins, all of whose deaths went unremarked in the records of the society. Thomas Birch, A History of the Royal Society, 4 vols., London, 1756–1757, vol. 3, pp. 67–68. (Wilkins), vol. 3, pp. 113–114 (Moray), vol. 4, pp. 232–234 (Collins) and vol. 4, p. 235 (Beale).

12 Osborn, James Marshall, ‘Thomas Birch and the General Dictionary’, Modern Philology (1938) 36, pp. 2546CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 37, 39.

13 For accounts of the éloges see Gaukroger, Stephen, ‘The Académie des Sciences and the Republic of Letters: Fontenelle's role in the shaping of a new natural-philosophical persona, 1699–1734’, Intellectual History Review (2008) 18, pp. 385402CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and the book-length treatment given by Charles B. Paul, Science and Immortality: The Eloges of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1699–1791), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

14 The Character, lately published beyond the seas, of an Eminent Person, not long since dead at Tholouse’, Philosophical Transactions (1665) 1, pp. 1516CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Philosophical Transactions (1677–1678) 12(136) was the last issue printed by Oldenburg.

16 Richard Waller, ‘The Life of Dr Robert Hooke’, in Waller (ed.), The Posthumous Works of Dr Robert Hooke, London: Samuel Smith and Benjamin Walford, 1705. Hereafter ‘Life’ and Posthumous Works respectively.

17 See Frank Manuel, A Portrait of Isaac Newton, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968, p. 136; and Margaret ’Espinasse, Robert Hooke, London, 1955, p. 8; Lisa Jardine, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, London: Harper Perennial, 2003 pp. 4–15, 320.

18 Good accounts of this are given in Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 521–534; and Iliffe, Rob, ‘“In the warehouse”: privacy, property & priority in the early Royal Society’, History of Science (1992) 30, pp. 2968CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Jardine, op. cit. (17), p. 315.

20 Henderson, Felicity, ‘Unpublished material from the memorandum book of Robert Hooke, Guildhall Library MS 1758’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2007) 61, pp. 129175CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Waller, ‘The Publisher to the Reader’, in Hooke, Posthumous Works, sig. A2v; and William Derham, Philosophical Observations and Experiments of … Dr Robert Hooke, London, 1726, especially the ‘Preface’.

22 This judgement is such a commonplace as to be embedded in the title of one of Hooke's most recent biographies, Stephen Inwood's The Man Who Knew Too Much: The Strange and Inventive Life of Robert Hooke, London: Pan Macmillan, 2002. See also the editors’ introductions to two collections of anniversary essays on Hooke, in Michael Cooper and Michael Hunter (eds.), Robert Hooke: Tercentennial Studies, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006, esp. pp. xiii–xviii; and Michael Hunter and Simon Schaffer (eds.), Robert Hooke: New Studies, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1989, esp. pp. 1–2, which point to versions of this view across three centuries in the Biographia Britannica, in an 1880 article in the Edinburgh Review, and in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

23 Waller, ‘Life’, p. i.

24 Royal Society JBO X, p. 26, 29 April 1697. For a more detailed account, and for the context that elicited Hooke's testimonial, see Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, p. 96.

25 Royal Society JBO XI, pp. 14, 16. The society was eventually granted a stay of its expulsion but moved out to new premises in Crane Court in 1710. See Bennett, Jim, ‘Wren's last building?’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (1972–1973) 27, pp. 107118CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 See, for example, among the book-length studies Shapin and Schaffer, op. cit. (4); Shapin, A Social History of Truth, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004; and Stephen Gaukroger, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

27 On the tradition of exemplary lives see Pritchard, op. cit. (1), pp. 31–48.

28 John Dryden, Mac Flecknoe; or, a satyr upon the trew-blue protestant poet, T.S, London, 1682, p. 12. Mac Flecknoe was written in 1676, the same year as Shadwell's play was performed; the lines ‘Where did his wit on learning fix a brand / Or rail at arts he did not understand?’ are usually taken to refer to Shadwell's satire on the Royal Society, of which Dryden was an early, if wholly inactive, member.

29 For Hooke's social life see Jardine, op. cit. (17), The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, pp. 110–111, 272–280; Mordechai Feingold, ‘Robert Hooke: gentleman of science’, in Cooper and Hunter, op. cit. (22), p. 206; and The Diary of Robert Hooke 1672–1680, ed. H. Robinson and W. Adams, London, 1935, passim. For public experimentation see Markman Ellis, The Coffee House: A Cultural History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004, pp. 86–87, 156–160.

30 Michael Hunter, ‘Robert Boyle and the dilemma of biography’ in Shortland and Yeo, op. cit. (6), pp. 126–128, 117. Gassendi's work was translated into English by William Rand in 1657.

31 See “Robert Hooke”, in Biographia Britannica, III, p. 2652, Note E.

32 That this practice began with the Biographia is easily proved by reference to two earlier biographies, both of which appeared some years after Newton's death and made extensive, often verbatim, use of Waller's ‘Life’. The General Dictionary (1734) and John Ward's Lives of the Gresham Professors (1740) both produced accounts of Hooke whose narrative was identical with the Biographia's in every important respect but which made no effort to blacken Hooke's character or belittle his achievements.

33 Waller, ‘Life’, p. i.

34 Robert Hooke, Micrographia; or, Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Beings, London: John Martyn and James Allestree, 1665, sig. g2r–v.

35 Based on Andrew Kippis's attribution in the preface to the second edition, Flamsteed's entry – signed ‘E’ – was by Dr John Campbell, one of Biographia's principal compilers – noted by subsequent critics for a tendency to gloss over his subjects’ defects. J. Aikin et al., General biography, or, Lives, critical and historical of the most eminent persons, 10 vols., 1799–1815, vol. 2, pp. 448–450.

36 The Historia Coelestis Britannica, London, 1729. Eventually published by Flamsteed's widow and assistants in 1729, this was a capital work, and it continued in use into the nineteenth century. See Johns, op. cit. (18), pp. 617–621, 543–621 for a full account of the Flamsteed–Newton dispute.

37 Waller, ‘Life’, p. vii, in the context of Waller's account of Hooke's dispute with Huygens over the invention of balance-spring watches and the improvement of timekeepers generally.

38 See note 29 above.

39 Sharp to Flamsteed, 30 March 1703, in The Correspondence of John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, ed. Eric Forbes, Leslie Murdin and Frances Willmoth, 3 vols., London: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1995–2001, vol. 2, pp. 1008–1009.

40 Among well-known editions in the history of science, this is the range Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 155, allows for the first edition of Newton's Principia, while Kusukawa, Sachiko, ‘The Historia Piscium (1686)’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2000) 54(2), pp. 179197CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 191, points to Francis Willughby and John Ray's Historia Piscium (1686), which had a print run of five hundred.

41 See Wallis's letters to Newton and Waller, both 30 April 1695: The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, ed. H.W. Turnbull et al., 7 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959–1975, vol. 4, pp. 116–117, and RS EL/W2/49 and 50.

42 Augustin Mann to Joseph Banks, 31 December 1779, in The Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Banks, ed. Neil Chambers, 6 vols., London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006, vol. 1, pp. 221–222.

43 When Grew was encouraged to print his lecture John Wallis observed that ‘it was proper to print all that kind in quarto, that they might be bound together’. Birch, op. cit. (11), vol. 3, pp. 359–360. Wallis probably refers here to Grew's previous sponsored lectures; for an account of these and the society's sponsorship of them see Hunter, Michael, ‘Early problems in professionalizing scientific research: Nehemiah Grew (1641–1712)’, Notes and Records of the Royal society of London (1982) 36, pp. 189209CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 See Iliffe, op. cit. (18); and Johns, op. cit. (18).

45 For Hooke's continuing campaign against the Transactions see Johns, Adrian, ‘Miscellaneous methods: authors, societies and journals in early modern England’, BJHS (2000) 33, pp. 159186, 172–174CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Hooke occasionally pledged the delivery of fair copies of the experiments and lectures he had delivered to the society, and a partial account was delivered in 1684. Birch, op. cit. (11), vol. 4, pp. 319–320. Hooke's contributions are transcribed in Royal Society Register Book (Original) 6/10 and RBO/6/19. Hooke's manuscripts of these accounts are in the Macclesfield Collection at Cambridge University Library, MS Add. 9597/13/5/130–156.

47 For a detailed discussion of this, and the complex relationship between institutional publishing and Hooke in particular, see Moxham, Noah, ‘Fit for print: developing an institutional model of scientific publishing in England, 1665–ca.1714’, Notes and Records (2015) 69, pp. 241260CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 See Waller, ‘Life’, p. xxvi: ‘he had a design to repeat the most part of his Experiments, and finish the Accounts, Observations and Deductions from them, and had an Order for the Societies bearing the Charge thereof, in June 1696’.

49 Waller, ‘Life’, p. ix.

50 See, for example, ‘Life’, p. xxiii, in which Waller quotes a lengthy Journal Book entry, slightly adapted, on the internal motion of bodies. The passage is marked as quotation but does not refer to the Journals. See Birch, op. cit. (11), vol. 3, p. 46.

51 Royal Society Journal Book VIII, p. 295. See also Waller's letter to Hooke, BL Sloane MSS 4067 f.97, undated, but probably late 1686, prior to the licensing of Pitfeild's translation in the Royal Society's Council in November – see Birch, op. cit. (11), vol. 4, p. 501.

52 Waller, ‘Life’, p. xxvii.

53 Waller, ‘Life’, p. ix.

54 For an apt summary see Jenni Thomas, ‘A “philosophical storehouse”: the life and afterlife of the Royal Society's Repository’, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London, Queen Mary College, 2009, pp. 25–26.

55 Royal Society Journal Book XI, pp. 14, 16. On the recovery of the Hooke Folio in 2006 see Adams, Robyn and Jardine, Lisa, ‘The return of the Hooke Folio’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2006) 60, pp. 235239CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Hesse, Mary B., ‘Hooke's philosophical algebra’, Isis (1966) 57, pp. 6783, 68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Patri Pugliese, ‘The scientific achievement of Robert Hooke: method and mechanics’, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1982, pp. 9–11.

57 Robert Hooke, Posthumous Works, sig. B1v.

58 Richard Waller, ‘The Publisher to the Reader’, in Hooke, Posthumous Works, Sig. A2r.

59 For notable instances of these arguments see Shapin, op. cit. (26); and Pumfrey, Stephen, ‘Ideas above his station: a social study of Robert Hooke's curatorship of experiments’, History of Science (1991) 29, pp. 144CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Feingold, op. cit. (29), passim; Rhodri Lewis, ‘Robert Hooke at 371’, Perspectives on Science (2006) 14, pp. 558–573, esp. 561–562.

61 Diary of Robert Hooke, op. cit. (29), p. v.

62 Trinity College Library, Manuscripts R.4.48 No. 4.

63 See Royal Society, Cl.P/20/41 and RBO/3/35. For scholarly acceptance of the attribution of the paper to Hooke see Koyré, Alexandre, ‘An unpublished letter of Robert Hooke to Isaac Newton’, Isis (1952) 43, pp. 312337CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, 312; and Michael Nauenberg, ‘Robert Hooke's seminal contribution to orbital dynamics’, in Cooper and Hunter, op. cit. (22), pp. 3–33, 28–29.

64 ‘Hookes Hypotheses here hinted at’, ‘his aversion to Philosoph. Studys &c’, ‘here pretends he knew not Hs Hypothesis’, converted into a note in the ‘True state’ that reads, ‘In answer to this Newton pretends he knew not Hookes Hypoth. as by his answer to ye former [Hooke's letter of 24 November] Dated Nov. 28 1679 and in ye same letter says his affection to Philos. Studys quite worn out.’ For Newton's letter in autograph with annotations see Trinity College Library Manuscripts Ms.R.4.48.1; for the version in the published correspondence see The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, op. cit. (41), pp. 297–303. It is perhaps also worth mentioning at this point that Geoffrey Keynes does not include the ‘True state’ in A Bibliography of Robert Hooke, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966, though he does include the surrounding material from the Trinity manuscripts (p. 84).

65 Waller, ‘Life’, p. xv, in the context of the exchanges between Hooke and Newton over the theory of light and colours, ‘which being now so generally known, I shall not farther insist on’.

66 Royal Society EL/W3 f.70, Waller to Sloane, 5 October 1707.

67 This tradition in Newton biography held unchallenged sway until the nineteenth century; for a discussion of this, and the changing historiography of early modern science at that time, see Rebekah Higgitt, Recreating Newton: Biographies of Newton and the Making of Nineteenth-Century History of Science, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007.

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