Hooke was born on the Isle of Wight in 1635. Due to his persistent ill health he spent much of his childhood indoors, where he would amuse himself by making mechanical toys. He attended Oxford in 1653, and though he never completed his bachelor’s degree, it was here that he met some of Britain’s greatest scientists.
Among these was the physicist Robert Boyle, under whose tutelage Hooke constructed the precursor to the modern air pump, the first in a long line of ingenious scientific tools he would invent. Using this new air pump, Boyle performed research that would ultimately lead him to the finding known today as Boyle’s law.
Around the same time many European inventors were vying to develop the first accurate device to determine longitude on a ship. In 1660 Hooke introduced a chronometer design based on a spring rather than a pendulum. Although his design was sound, he was unable to find investors to back him, and it was not until 1674 that Christian Huygens patented his own spring-driven chronometer.
Hooke immediately claimed that Huygens’ invention was based on his own, beginning a dispute that was never resolved. He also had a very public feud with one Isaac Newton, whom Hooke accused several times of plagiarizing his earlier works.
The verbal battles between these two were very bitter, several times driving Newton to a nervous breakdown. His true contribution to theoretical science remains unclear, but Hooke was unquestionably one of History’s most productive inventors of scientific equipment.
Among his list of accomplishments are the universal joint, the reflecting telescope, the compound microscope, the wheel barometer, the anemometer, the spring-driven wristwatch, the “cross-hairs” sight for telescopes, and new standards for microscopy.
Most of his inventions were constructed during his term as Curator of Experiments for the British Royal Society, where he was commissioned to explore new avenues and create new devices. Hooke turned to architecture after the great fire of London in 1666, to help with the reconstruction of the city and to aid his colleague, the architect Christopher Wren. Hooke designed several prominent buildings, most of which still stand. He died in 1703 and has been described as the English Leonardo Da Vinci.