The Rivalry Between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton | Source


Sir Isaac Newton, as we all know, was a great mathematician and scientist. However, his claim to fame did not come easy for him. Like many men of science during his time, he often was on the defensive to protect his works from others with motives to publish their work before he did. For instance he is often credited as being the founder of calculus but some of that credit goes to Gottfried Leibniz, a German philosopher and mathematician. He and Leibniz accused each other of copying information from their works on the subject. This rivalry between the two would go on for decades as to who invented calculus. Leibniz was not the only rival Newton had to deal with in the course of his work. Robert Hooke, who also made contributions in the area of mechanics, optics, microscopy, paleontology and astronomy, was the worst of his rivals. In many instances, it was a public display of vocal fighting between the two men.

Dispute Over the Nature of Light

The rivalry between Newton and Hooke began on the subject of light, after Newton was admitted to the Royal Society. The rivalry started when Newton presented his first paper on the nature of light in February of 1672. Newton had just presented his idea that white light was a composite of all the colors of light in the spectrum and that light was composed of particles. Hooke had his own idea. He said light traveled in waves and then he proceeded to attack Newton on his methods and conclusions. Other scientists present at the presentation also attacked Newton’s ideas about light. Hooke was an instigator in these attacks. Newton, of course, responded in anger and became very defensive about his work. This would be the first display of the behavior he will use to defend criticism of his work throughout his life. Despite the altercation, Newton did submitted a paper entitled, “Theory of Light and Colours” in the Royal Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions.

Isaac Newton using a prism to separate white light into its color components.
Isaac Newton using a prism to separate white light into its color components.

In the proceeding months, the rivalry between Newton and Hooke would escalate to the point that, in March of 1673, Newton threatened to leave the Royal Society. He was persuaded by the Secretary of the Society, Henry Oldenburg, to stay. Newton’s problem with Hooke was that he had access to more resources than him to do his studies. Hooke was a much bigger man in the eyes of the scientific community simply because of the sheer quantity of his contribution he made to science and he was the Society’s Curator of Experiments.

Hooke Accused Newton of Plagiarism

Again in January of 1676, Hooke accused Newton of plagiarism. He alleged that Newton copied his theory on light from his journal, Micrographia. Of course it was not true. Hooke’s problem was that he wanted all the credit to his work, despite the fact he was constantly being approached by others claiming they were first to come up with some of these ideas before him. At the same time, Newton did the opposite action of Hooke. He eventually began isolating himself from the public to protect his ideas and work, especially the one on gravitation, until he was ready to publish them.

Credit for Explaining Gravity

During the mid-17th century the force of gravity was the hot topic. No one could not explain how the planets stay in orbit around the sun and how the moon stay in orbit around the Earth. They knew it was a force of attraction but they did not understand how it work. Hooke had some ideas of how it work. He came up with two critical components in the force of gravity that would ultimately put a bigger wedge between him and Newton. He suggested it was a universal force and that the force of gravity varies inversely squared with respect to the distant between the two bodies. These two important aspects of gravitation will appear in Newton’s published work on gravitation, Principia, released in 1686.

Hooke had a serious weakness in his studies. He could not do the mathematical analysis to prove his ideas. Newton could and it would take him two years to do the analysis to prove that the force of gravity had these two characteristics. Hooke was convinced that Newton would not have come up with the inverse square law in his analysis without his input. Newton was furious about Hooke’s assumption and bitterly disputed it.

Despite this, Newton was willing to give Hooke credit in his work on gravitation because he had written several letters to him about it around 1680. Newton insisted the letters did not contain any information to support his calculations. The letters only contain Hooke’s thoughts and ideas about gravitation. Things would get worst for Hooke because of his accusations against Newton.

The original book of Principia
The original book of Principia

Newton’s Popularity, Hooke’s Obscurity

While Hooke was slowly going into obscurity, Newton’s popularity was on the rise. His book, Principia published in 1687, would become the best-selling science book of all times. Book three of Principia was almost not published because Newton was still furious with Hooke, but instead, he decided to remove all references of Hooke’s name in the book before publishing it.

Unfortunately, Robert Hooke would go further into obscurity after his death in 1703, never restoring a friendly relationship between the two of them. He died 24 years before Newton and In the same year Newton would become President of the Royal Society. During his presidency, the only known portrait of Hooke was mysterious destroyed. However, some believed Newton simply removed it from the wall of the Royal Society and tossed it in the fire while drinking a glass of wine near the fireplace. In the end, because of his short temper, Newton would have feuds with other contemporaries, including Christiaan Huygens, John Flamsteed, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

It would be about 200 years later before anymore information about Hooke would come to light from his personal diary. The book revealed that he had a tendency to pick fights with other scientists. Despite his shortcomings, Robert Hooke did regain credit for his work, especially in Biology, with the discovery of cells.

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Comments 9 comments

melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Lions44, thanks for your comment. When I researched this article I learned a few things about Newton's rivalry myself.

lions44 profile image

lions44 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

Learned something new today. Voted up and shared.

melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Raymond, thanks for stopping by to read my hub.

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raymondphilippe 2 years ago from The Netherlands

A very interesting story about the rival relationship between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Newton was a true original. Changed the way we look at the universe.

melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

FlourishAnyway thanks for you comment. That is a good idea you suggested about writing more articles on famous rivalries in politics, science, etc. I am sure there are plenty of them out there.

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FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

Very interesting hub! Imagine what they might have achieved if they collaborated instead of fighting like two year olds. It would be great to see a series of hubs on famous rivalries throughout history in science, politics, industry, etc.

melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Sarah and Cheeluarv, thanks for your comment on my article and thanks for stopping by to read it.

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SarahLMaguire 2 years ago from UK

Fascinating insight into the character of Newton, thanks

cheeluarv profile image

cheeluarv 2 years ago from INDIA

Very interesting to know the real side of great people.thanks for sharing.

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