How much do we really know about Robert Hooke? Is our understanding of him skewed due to his fall out with Isaac Newton? Join host Hazel Baker as she gets to know Robert Hooke better with the help of author Robert J Lloyd.
Robert Hooke’s Diary and the secret codes he used
The surveys he conducted after the Great Fire of London
I’m Rob Lloyd, writing as Robert J. Lloyd, and my novel The Bloodless Boy is about to be published. I started the book 20 years ago. I self-published it in 2014, but last year I was lucky enough to have it championed by Christopher Fowler, author of the Bryant & May mysteries, and word reached Melville House Publishing, based in New York. All very fortuitous!
After some stints abroad (my parents were in the Foreign Office) I grew up in the London suburbs, south of the river, and then in Sheffield.
At school I wanted to be an artist, thinking I was going to be the next great English painter. I did a BA degree in Fine Art, in Coventry, but moved more into art theory, ideas, and writing.
My MA thesis was on Robert Hooke and the ‘New Philosophy’, detailing his work as Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, and as architect of the new London after the Fire. The ideas and characters I came across when researching him stayed with me; years of tinkering resulted in The Bloodless Boy and its sequel The Poison Machine.
I’m married, with three splendid children and a very lovely wife. Since 2010 I’ve lived in the Brecon Beacons. I was a secondary school teacher for twenty years or so, but left that a couple of years ago.
Joining me in the studio today is Robert J. Lloyd, author of the Bloodless Boy.
Robert Lloyd: Hello
Hazel Baker: You’ve had a long affair with Robert Hooke. Haven’t you? How did that start?
Robert Lloyd: I did an MA in The History of Ideas back in 1995 in Newcastle and I’d stumbled across Robert Hooke’s diary. I was actually researching John Aubrey at the time. I’d just stumbled into the 17th century. I knew I was interested in the 17th century, but I hadn’t chosen a thesis. And finding Robert Hooke’s diary was a big game changer. It probably kept me up all night reading it. The way that it’s written, the insight into his personal life, as well as his scientific endeavours was fascinating.
I then wrote the thesis on how he was really the engine of the Royal Society in the mid to late 1670s. Subscriptions were way down. It was at a time when it was going to fail. It had no money coming in. No one was coming to see the experiments that he curated and put forward. There’s one entry in his diary that said two people turned up and both of those grumbled. And so it really was at a low ebb and Hooke kept the Royal Society going at that time there. So, my thesis was about how he did that. He had various other clubs. So, looking at the diary and purchase history and the philosophical transactions. I did my thesis on the Hooke as the saviour of the Royal Society. I had all this research on a fascinating character. So in, in early drafts, he was very much the protagonist, the investigator. But that developed and I extended that to be more his assistant Harry Hunt who was his friend throughout his life was and was in fact one of the people who sorted his body out when he died. They were lifelong friends. We know ever such a lot about Robert Hooke. We know very little about Henry Hunt or Harry Hunt. So it is, it is a great character to make up essentially for their relationship to be very close.
We know how Harry Hunt was an Observator of the Royal Society. He had been Hooke’s assistant, my book has seen at the stage where he kind of sets out and becomes his own man. He is a little bit resentful of just being seen as Hooke’s assistant. So he kind of takes over the investigation and gets into all sorts of trouble for doing so
Hazel Baker: You managed to add in some of Hooke’s major works as well. Considering the air pump, what was Hooke trying to achieve with the air pump?
Robert Lloyd: Well, he worked for Robert Boyle as Robert Boyle’s assistant, before he was made the curator of the Royal Society. Robert Boyle very gracefully gave him up to the Royal Society to be their curator.
So he had the ingenuity and expertise to actually be able to design and build an air pump which had a receptacle where they could actually create vacuum inside. They experimented with different materials. Hooke himself was put into a tin box and the air was evacuated until he got a terrible headache and his eardrums were bursting so he banged on the inside of the box and Robert Boyle let him out. But this was a glass receiver. I’ve made it slightly grander in the book and big enough to fit a small child into, but through the use of vacuum inside a glass receiver, they were able to conduct various experiments on combustion and respiration, which Boyle raised up. But Hooke really was the person behind, not only creating the apparatus, but essentially the experiments as well. Through that Hooke was able to discover that there was a component in the air. He didn’t name oxygen, but he discovered it and they did various experiments with it.
You think of the Wright of Derby painting of the bird inside the receiver, they did various experiments on respiration, which involved birds and cats and dogs and so on. Also important for the plot of the novel was preservation. The preserved dead dogs and vegetables and saw how long these things lasted inside of that; free of corruption and decay.
Hazel Baker: How much do you think of Hooke do we really know of as a person? Because he did have a bit of a reputation of being difficult in his later years. But if he’s the saviour of the Royal Society and he’s really frustrated that no one’s really buying into what he’s doing, that must’ve been really difficult for him.
Robert Lloyd: We know ever such a lot about Hooke his diary shows and through not only his Royal Society activity, but through all of the surveys that he did. Supposedly after the Great Fire of London conducted half of the survey. If you think of something like 13,000 houses were destroyed after the fire. Robert Hooke is responsible for writing the certificates, if not physically surveying the various plots to allow people to build back on their land as he oversaw the post-fire regulations so that the widths of the streets and the size of the house fronts and the number of stories and the building materials from which they were made. Hooke oversaw this activity; he met maybe 20 or 30 people in a single day as he raced around London, conducting his business activity. Robert Hooke was City Surveyor. He worked closely with for example, with Christopher Wren, they were lifelong friends, and worked closely on things like the Monument to the fire of London.
Also the dome of St Paul’s cathedral. So the historians of architecture have great fun when they try to disentangle who did what. Hooke is thought to be primarily responsible for the design and the maths. So putting the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral together, which is no mean achievement and the two together, they design the Monument to the fire of London as a science instrument as well as being a monument to a disaster. They carefully ensured that the steps were exactly six inches high so that they could do experiments at different precisely measured altitudes within the column. I like to imagine them running up and down the spiral staircase dropping heavy balls from within. The monument was also a zenith telescope.
One thing I’ve never done, which I’d love to do, is actually visit the basement of the monument, where they set up the base lens of the telescope and up through the flaming urn at the top. They had the top lens and and they use that to feel the parallax as the earth orbited the sun to a star called Gamma Draconis and they try to establish the distance to Gamma Draconis using using the monuments as an enormous 200 foot telescope, which is, which is a rather wonderful. The traffic, which always had horses and carts going up and down Fish Street Hill; It was never really the right place to have a telescope. It made the measurements impossible to do at the state of accuracy that would have been required.
Robert Hooke had lifelong friendships. You see the number of people who came to his rooms at Gresham College. He had Theodore Haak who played chess with. The sort of later Biographers of Sir Isaac Newton and so on who once sort of put a baddie next to Newton’s goodie. I think they, they caricatured someone that has been ratified in, in later years. And I think, I think in the last few years of his life, when he was very ill and very solitary, and I think his reputation had been a little bit forgotten by the members of the Royal Society.
I think he probably did become lonely and cantankerous. I’m in my mid fifties now. I’m going the same way. So I have a lot of sympathy and hope there. And in his earlier life, he was nothing but socially generous. You see that for the number of coffee houses, he went to the number of discussions that he records in his diary, all the things that were going on.
Sadly, he had this fallout with Newton, which he had the temerity to criticise. Newton’s ideas on optics when he first presented himself to the Society. And although they had a kind of stiffly polite correspondence I think that the relationship was damaged from then.
Hazel Baker: It’s so good that you have the diary because otherwise we’re learning about him from other people who have different reasons to, to write about him and not always accurately or positively. So I think the diary is worth its weight in gold.
Robert Lloyd: The posthumous works were put together. He had various schemes. He wrote his own autobiography or at least started one. And then Richard Waller uses that and puts that together. So we have bits of information. We do have his voice. And if you read micrographia, which is 1665 masterwork, Hooke’s voice comes across really straightforwardly and seems so to my eyes. It seems so modern when you read him. If you modernize the spelling, the intonation, the chatty and informative way, his voice is lovely. And I think you kind of get the spirit of the man simply from reading micrographia. If my new book leads people to micrographia I’d see that as a success.
Hazel Baker: If anybody’s wanting to know about micrographia, it’s a publication, which shows stunning images of micro bodies which people had never seen before. And the plates in micrographia, they must’ve cost an absolute fortune who was paying.
Robert Lloyd: The Royal Society put money up and they thought that it would be a money spinner for them. Hooke himself prepared the plates. As well as being a scientist, as so many of these figures are, he was an artist as well. He was originally apprenticed to Sir Peter Lely when, when his father died and he first moved from the isle of Wight. He had his apprentice. So Peter Lee, but realized he could already do all of this stuff. So, he thought he might as well keep the money that his father had given him and spend it elsewhere.
So he went off to, or a Westminster school instead of the, under the Dr. Busby straight, he mastered the elements of Euclid and learned the organ in six days. He was an extraordinary, extraordinary character. It was a new world. You Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s Microscopes, but it was Hooke that really took people into things like something I love from micrographia is the difference between the artificial and the natural world. This is one of the themes of the book.
Hazel Baker: I think it’s so fascinating. It’s such an exciting time. Isn’t it? Because this is before “Science”, this is connected to everything. Nowadays, careers advice is like “So what do you want to be a scientist or an artist?”
Whereas at the time everything was interconnecting and one would justify the other, sometimes like when I’m doing research and especially like learning about Hooke or the Hunters my brain is just going with what I already know and something’s fusing and making connections that I. So before, and and that was at that time when you’re at the forefront of it all, it must’ve been so exciting.
Robert Lloyd:I am writing book three at the moment, which is much more about Sir Christopher Wren. So, Wren is sort of a star in the book, and as well as being a mathematician, as well as being an architect, Wren prepared all the plates to illustrate Thomas Willis’ studies of the brain. So Wren was an amazing artist as well. You kind of forget you, you forget this. So, interestingly Hooke had worked with Thomas Willis as well. So that’s sort of the anatomy side and things that that comes along in, in the book. Extraordinarily gifted in so many different fields, so that now it would be utterly specialized and they seem to dance from one to another, in the course of a coffee shop evening, they can discuss all of these things all at the forefront of, science as it was then, probably quite extraordinary individuals. And seem to think nothing of it, they’ll go from designing a pocket watch to designing a monument, but they don’t break into a sweat doing it, which is, which is quite quite phenomenal.
Hazel Baker: And with the Royal Society thinking that the micrographia would be a money spinner. Where are they right?
Robert Lloyd: It did make money. It carried on. New additions were constantly commissioned. There’s a very intriguing thing about Hooke and also Harry Hunt. Hooke made an absolute fortune from his surveying. Although he was always chasing money from the Royal Society because I never seem to pay him properly. And his diary is full of moaning about trying to actually be paid the money he was promised. His salary as Gresham professor and as Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society were absolutely dwarfed by the amounts of money he was making as a City Surveyor. So when he died, he left something like 8,000 pounds in cash, sealed in a big iron trunk in his bedroom.
And then he had loads of gold and silver plates and all sorts and it’s worth well over a million pounds today. It’s difficult to do a direct translation with money, but it was just sitting in his trunk. No, no hint of impropriety, , corruption just earned all of this money but didn’t spend it. He preferred not to.
Hazel Baker: He was probably too busy to spend his money wasn’t he?
Robert Lloyd: I think he probably was. He had his rooms at Gresham College which he moved into when he was made Curator or Gresham professors who came with the two jobs he had. And he was there for 40 years and felt no need to leave, although he was fed up with the Royal Society on various occasions and resolved to leave, he never did.
And he stayed in that Southeast corner of Gresham college, Thomas Gresham’s mansion house that used to be on Bishopsgate Street. He didn’t find the same things important that most people do.
Hazel Baker: You mentioned impropriety because living with his niece raised a few eyebrows. What do we know about Grace Hooke?
Robert Lloyd: Grace Hooke was his brother John’s daughter. She came from the Isle of White and stayed with him. They seem to have had a physical relationship. So under the laws of incess, that was actually a capital crime. She moved to Hooke’s quarters in Gresham from the age of about 14 or 15 years of age. From 16 Hooke records in his diary that he was having some kind of physical relationship. What quite went on it doesn’t detail. Obviously this was kept secret. It only appears in Hooke’s diary. It wasn’t suspected by anyone else. As far as I know. He had tried to broker marriages to various men including the Lord Mayor of London at the time of the Great fire of London Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Grace Hooke was going to be married off to him, but proceeded to turn him down and got out of the marriage.
It’s a strange relationship. It was a very loving relationship. Hooke had physical relationships with most of the women that worked for him including Nell Young. If you look at the diary of Hook, Mary Robinson is an exception to that. Mary Robinson becomes a main character in my book. Hook has a shorthand for describing his orgasms in his diary, which was quite amusing when they, when they turn up. He just used the sign of Pisces, but how he achieved Pisces is open for the imagination. For one thing he had a very hunched back, so it must have been problematic. Quite how Pisces was achieved we will never know.
Hazel Baker: So Rob’s book the Bloodless Boy is now available for purchase. This is a really interesting book, especially the time in which it’s set. This is a time when we’re suffering from the effects of the civil war, you’ve got scientific advancements as well, you have the Great Fire of London and also they had suffered from the Great plague. Somehow life must continue. Well, thanks very much, Rob.
Robert Lloyd: Thank you. How he’s been an absolute pleasure and thank you for inviting me onto your podcast.
Hazel Baker: You can also join us for a Great Fire of London walk, where you can hear stories of some of the people affected by this devastating event and how others took advantage of the situation. All bookable online, our website
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