Inventor, physicist, surveyor, astronomer, biologist, artist…Robert Hooke was all these and more. Some say he was the greatest experimental scientist of the seventeenth century. In the course of his work, he collaborated with renowned men of science like Christian Huygens, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and the great architect, Christopher Wren.
Hooke's early education began at home, under the guidance of his father, a curate (priest). He entered Westminster School at the age of thirteen, and from there went to Oxford, where he came in contact with some of the best scientists in England. Hooke impressed them with his skill at designing experiments and devising instruments. In 1662, at the age of 28, he was named Curator of Experiments of the newly formed Royal Society of London -- meaning that he was responsible for demonstrating new experiments at the Society's weekly meetings. Hooke accepted the job, even though he knew that the Society had no money to pay him!
Watching living things through the microscope was one of his favorite occupations. He devised a compound microscope for this purpose. One day while observing a cork under a microscope, he saw honeycomb-like structures. They were cells- the smallest units of life. In fact, it was Hooke who coined the term "cell" as the boxlike cells of the cork reminded him of the cells of a monastery.
Perhaps because of his varied interests, Hooke often left experiments unfinished. Others took up where he left off and then claimed sole credit. This sometimes led to quarrels with colleagues. One work that he finished was his book MICROGRAPHIA, a volume that reveals the immense potential of the microscope. It contains fascinating drawings of the things he saw under the microscope. The book also includes, among other things, ideas on gravity, light and combustion that may have helped scientists like Newton while they were developing their own theories on these phenomena.
Hooke made valuable contributions to astronomy too. A crater on the moon is named after him in appreciation of his services to this branch of science.