The Man Who Measured London

By Lisa Jardine. HarperCollins. 432 pp. $27.95.

Robert Hooke is usually remembered, when he is remembered at all, for having lost out in arguments with Isaac Newton over who should be credited for theories about the nature of light and the law of gravity. Hooke also had lesser-known quarrels, including one with the Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens over the design of a balance-spring watch, which was developed to solve the problem of determining longitude at sea. In fact, Hooke was engaged in so many different areas of 17th-century science and engineering -- and left so many ideas unrealized -- that he has been referred to as England's Leonardo.

Rather than resort to mirror writing, Hooke employed another secretive device. To reserve credit for his original ideas while at the same time perhaps buying time to work further on them, he engaged in the then-current conceit of announcing discoveries in (Latin) anagrams. Among the most famous is the one that concealed Hooke's law of elasticity, which states that a force exerted by a spring is proportional to its extension, a fundamental concept in structural engineering.

Born on the Isle of Wight in 1635, Hooke spent most of his adult life in London, where he became associated with the Royal Society, founded "for the promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning." In 1662, Hooke, who had served as assistant to the Oxford chemist Robert Boyle, was appointed curator of the all-important experiments for the new society, whose motto was Nullius in Verba, i.e., "Take no man's word for it." He soon also was made professor of geometry at Gresham College, an independent institution of the City of London dedicated to offering free public lectures, of which Hooke delivered many.

After the Great Fire of 1666, Hooke was appointed surveyor to represent the interests of the City of London in the reconstruction. Christopher Wren, whom Hooke knew from Oxford, represented the interests of King Charles II. Hooke and Wren worked so closely together on the monumental project that their individual contributions are difficult to separate. But it was Hooke's surveying that essentially laid out the City of London streets in their present configuration.

Lisa Jardine, who two years ago published a biography of Wren, now turns to Hooke, offering a clear sense of how harried he became at times, as he juggled his many interests, duties, obligations and anxieties. In describing his "curious life" she quotes liberally, if sometimes repetitiously, from his diaries to flesh out his personality. Among the many themes Jardine develops in this necessarily selective biography are Hooke's hypochondria and his seeming obsession with what went into and came out of his body.

Hooke was such a visceral experimentalist that he himself became an extension of the store of equipment for which he was curator. He was also an insomniac, and so he sought correlations between what he ingested before bedtime and how he slept. When he slept "pretty well and pleasantly" he reported dreaming of "riding and eating cream."

Jardine also makes clear that Hooke's using himself as an experimental vessel included taking a good many drugs and purgatives. He evidently believed that what Jardine calls his "pharmaceutical experimenting" enhanced and sharpened his mental ability, and she reads his morning-after dairy entries as showing "a consistent pattern of association of purging with mental alertness."

Hooke was not the only member of the Royal Society who saw his own body as the ultimate curiosity and mystery of nature. Evidently many Fellows made their bodies available for experimentation after death -- the "Great Experiment." In one case, the results of an autopsy on a member who died of what was thought to have been a severe kidney stone were reported to a group of members at dinner. According to Hooke's diary entry on the case, it was "believed his opiates and some other medicines killd him, there being noe visible cause of his death."

The range of visible observations had been extended in the 17th century by the microscope and telescope, both of which Hooke was very familiar with. Indeed, perhaps his most significant and enduring published work is Micrographia, a classic treatise on how to make and use the magnifying device. Jardine reproduces several illustrations from the book, including Hooke's illustration of fine "gravel" in urine and the more famous engraving of a flea, reduced from the original 18- by 12-inch plate to a still dramatic two-page spread in this well-illustrated biography.

Unfortunately, no likeness of Hooke at any reduction or magnification has been known to survive, even though a portrait hung in the Royal Society during his lifetime, perhaps displaced after his death in 1703 by one of newly elected president, Newton. However, in a jarring but engaging first-person "postscript" to her introduction, Jardine reveals her long-held belief that Hooke's portrait was "more likely to have been mislaid or overlooked than destroyed." Indeed, she reports that she has found what she believes to be the portrait -- in London's Natural History Museum, where it had been mislabeled as one of John Ray, a Royal Society naturalist five years Hooke's senior. Since the likeness does not match the many other representations of Ray, but does match written descriptions of Hooke by his contemporaries, Jardine convincingly claims it to be of her subject. Even without the image, her lucid and easy-reading prose paints a vivid portrait of a curiously overlooked historical figure. *

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic professor of civil engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of "Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design."

Portrait of Robert Hooke with a drawing of one of his inventions