Field of Science

The Last Virtuoso: Robert Hooke and his contributions in geology

"So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller that on him prey;
And the
se have smaller still to bite 'em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

Thus every po
et, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind."
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

June 2, 1676 the Duke’s Company performed the spectacle “The Virtuoso” in the Dorset Garden Theatre in London. “The Virtuoso” was a comedy of great success, a tale about a strange philosopher – busy to explore, as he believed, the greatest secrets of nature: He measured the weight of nothing, used glowing mushrooms on putrefying flesh to read in the dark, tried to transfer blood between a sheep and a man to improve hair growth, taught spiders to dance and dissected a living dog.

The "silly science" and apparent nonsensical experiments caused great laughter in the public – only one man was not amused – Robert Hooke, Fellow of the Royal Society, architect, physicist, engineer, astronomer, but most important natural philosopher and the model for the buffoon on the stage. Hooke had in fact studied the weight of air, observed the decay and putrefaction of flesh and even how lungs work (in a living dog, an experiment he later will regret to have done).

Hooke was an acknowledged expert for the construction of scientific instruments, curator for experiments at the Royal Society and the first scholar to earn a living by research and applied science – or so he believed.

Born July 18, 1635, already in early years he became fascinated by the natural world. Hooke loved to search for fossils on the limestone cliffs of the Isle of Wigth (his birthplace) and already then the explanation of the time – fossils as products of a divine intervention- didn’t satisfy his curiosity.

In 1648 he went to London to study art, music and mathematics. He became a gifted engineer and constructed a sophisticated microscope and other tools to improve his senses – following the advice of philosopher of science Francis Bacon, Hooke believed that a man of science should trust only his senses to understand the natural world. It is this philosophy that pushes Hooke also to perpetuate experiments on topics the general public considers absurd.

In 1665 he published “Micrographia: or some Physilogical Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon“. In this work he not only depicts animals and plants observed under a microscope, but he discusses also questions regarding astronomy, physics, geology, volcanoes and fossils.

Ammonites as drawn by Robert Hooke himself and described in his “Discourses of Earthquakes and Subterraneous Eruptions”, published after his death in 1705. Hooke was a gifted illustrator and many fossils of his collection were drawn by himself to be included in his publications.

He was one of the first naturalists to see fossil forams. Having examined the calcareous shells with his microscope he compare this unknown animal with

the shell of a small water-snail with a flat spiral shell: it had twelve wreathings […] all in proportion growing one less than another toward the middle or centre of the shell, where there was a very small round white spot.

He observed also other striking similarities between petrifactions and living organisms. The similarities in the structure of charcoal and fossil wood (as we today know) convinced Hooke that fossils were the remains of once living organisms, however impregnated by “petrifying” fluids.

Fig.3. Comparison between plant cells, term adopted by Hooke himself, as seen in a piece of cork (above) and in a section of petrified wood (below), from Micrographia (1665).

The discovery of fossils on mountains, the remains of animals living once on the bottom of the sea (as demonstrated by the discovery of modern foraminifera in sediments dragged from the sea) proved an important fact - the distribution of land and sea, even the position of countries, was in a remote past very different to what we see today.

"There is no coin that can give such sure information to an archaeologist about the fact that there was a distinct kingdom ruled by a distinct prince, as these fossils give certainty to an natural archaeologist that these countries were once submerged, that there were these kinds of animals and that previously there were such changes and alterations in the surface of the earth [...] and these documents are written in more readable letters than the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians, and on more durable material than the magnificent Egyptian pyramids and obelisks."

The changes of land and sea, the petrifaction of animals, even may their extinction (as many large ammonites, which he considered to belong or be similar to the genus Nautilus, were never found alive - "There have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find none at present; and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning.") were the results of natural forces. Hooke speculates in his
"Discourses of Earthquakes and Subterraneous Eruptions", a collection of speeches delivered between 1667 and 1700 at the Royal Society and published in 1705, that earthquakes (however including in this term all kinds of movement of earth, even erosion and deposition) caused these changes.

"Most of those Inland Places […] are, or have been heretofore under the Water […] the Waters have been forced away from the Parts formerly covered, and many of those surfaces are now raised above the level of the Water's Surface many scores of Fathoms. It seems not improbable, that the tops of the highest and most considerable Mountains in the World have been under Water and that they themselves most probably seem to have been the Effects of some very great Earthquake."

Hooke doesn't publish much of his studies, always switching between topics he misses often to establish his priority. His publications are general and unspecific, he has many ideas, but follows few of them. Despite his genius, Hooke also had a hard-headed personality, especially in the last years of his live. He is envy of the success of others and likes to claim his priority in many fields, even when lacking publications or proofs of his research. It is this behaviour that will be especially mocked in "The Virtuoso".

Unfortunately Hooke dies in 1703, forgotten by society and the scientific community. His geological observations will be ignored for a century and later be overshadowed by Niels Stensen´s work.
Natural philosophy is changing, first specialists, focussing on one topic per time, like the physicist Newton, are the emerging new heroes in the modern field of natural sciences.

"The preceding pages are far from giving an exhaustive account of the work of Hooke in geology. Quite like his contemporary Steno, he is one of these intellectual geniuses of the XIIth century who could be both rigid and visionary. Not at all mere "precursors", naive prophets, but authentic founders of our science. They deserve more than being glorified: we must read them. Only this honour is really worthy of them."


DRAKE, E.T. (2007): The geological observations of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) on the Isle of Wigth. In WYSE JACKSON, P. N. (ed.) Four Centuries of Geological Travel: The Search for Knowledge on Foot, Bicycle, Sledge and Camel. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 287: 19-30
ELLENBERGER, F. (1999): History of Geology: The great awakening and its first fruits, 1660-1810. Vol.2. Balkema Publishers, Brookfield: 409MESENHÖLLER, M. (2010): Das gescheiterte Genie. GEO 08/August: 77-88

Online Resources:

UCMP site - Evolution: Robert Hooke (1635-1703). (Accessed 21.02.2011).


  1. Thanks for this geological perspective on Hooke. However, there is an important sense in which Hooke should not be identified with the Virtuoso of Shadwell's play: Sir Nicholas Gimcrack. He is, as the title suggests, a man of leisure who chooses to play at learning with his absurd experiments and crazy inventions. Hooke, by contrast, needed to make a living. He was, by his position as an employee of the Royal Society, in a different social class to many of the Fellows that he dealt with. This perspective perhaps also allows for a bit more understanding of Hooke's anxieties about priority and acknowledgement.

  2. Becky, your comment is very correct but it also demonstrates that when a historian analyses satire that character description are not necessarily transfered one to one from their models in real life. Gimcrack is a mosaic of various contemporaneous viturosi but there is little doubt that Hooke was one of the main models.

  3. These are important considerations - I didn't intend to mock about Hooke again by choosing such title (I intended the positive significance of the term) or such introduction, but how he and natural philosophy was seen at the time.
    I added some text hopefully to clarify that I consider Hooke was strongly misrepresented by the spectacle and underestimated today in his geological work.
    However Hooke himself ranted/recognized in his diary that the figure of Gimcrack was strongly influenced by, or mocked his work.

    Also his later "demise" is strongly influenced by private problems, ill health and the hostility with Newton and the discussion of the nature of light.

    Hooke contributions are even more complex than this short introduction - it is possible that Hutton at least know of many of the considerations of Hooke and became strongly influenced in his later work of geology.

    There is a much more complete biography on the matter (I didn't read):

    DRAKE, E. T. 1996. Restless Genius: Robert Hooke and His Earthly Thoughts. Oxford University Press, New York.

  4. Dave, you write that Hooke's work in geology is either forgotten or overshadowed from Steno's work but I thought that Hooke knew of and extended Steno's work, am I wrong?

  5. In theory Hooke with his notion on petrified wood in Micrographia (1665) establish priority in the organic formation of fossils, there are suggestions that Steno in his De canis Caput (1667) was influenced by this idea or heard about it by others, but in fact there is no evidence for direct communication or reference between the two.

    YAMADA argues that both Hooke and Steno were influenced by the writings of Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and the friendship to Danish Ole Bloch (1626-1690), who know both men and possibly shared ideas about fossils and rocks.

    However there are important differences in the geological argumentation and how sea and land change and how fossils form in Steno´s and Hooke´s works - it seems reasonable to me to say that both men based their work on preexisting concepts and data, but finally developed their geotheories indipendentently each from the other.

    YAMADA 2009: Hooke–Steno relations reconsidered: Reassessing the roles of Ole Borch and Robert Boyle. in Rosenberg, G.D., ed., The Revolution in Geology
    from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Geological Society of America Memoir 203, p. 107–126,


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