Monday, November 20, 2006

Hooke: what came next?

I went to a nice talk by Lisa Jardine at the (peripatetic) Royal Institution last week, on the newly discovered notes of Robert Hooke. Lisa and her students have been studying this portfolio of notes taken by Hooke in his capacity as secretary of the Royal Society since they were rescued from auction and returned to the Royal Society earlier this year (see my earlier blog entry in May). She says that they have completely transformed her view of Hooke since writing his biography (The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, HarperCollins) in 2003. One of the hazards of being a historian, she pointed out, is that you can never be sure what may come to light and revise all your opinions, which have previously been presented to the world with such blithe authority. Well, that happens in science too, of course.

Lisa is now convinced that Hooke himself, not Newton, was his worst enemy: he was a terrible record keeper, and never finished anything. For all his protestations of priority over Huygens in regard to the invention of the spring-balance pocket watch, it seems that he may have sunk his claim himself. The new notes include a page taken from the private notes of Henry Oldenburg, written in 1670, in which Oldenburg relates how Hooke presented such a watch (Huygens’ version was patented in 1674), and then leaves a space for a description of the mechanism, apparently for Hooke himself to fill in the details. Hooke seems to have done this sketchily in pencil, but his words got worn away and he never amended them more permanently. So Oldenburg got no further in trying to transcribe them than a few lines before apparently giving up and crossing the whole lot out. But worst of all, Hooke seems to have filched the page from Oldenburg’s papers after the latter’s death, in the course of preparing his priority claim in obsessive detail – and then promptly left it buried in his own notes until it has surfaced now. So when Oldenburg’s papers were later checked to assess Hooke’s claim, there was no sign of this page!

I’m also interested to hear that the Hooke pages are shortly to be ‘conserved’ – which means that the book will be taken apart and each page placed inside plastic (Lisa says the pages are already literally falling apart beneath their fingers). So I’ll be one of the few ever to have touched the originals, and to have seen the book in its pristine form. Phew.

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