A last-minute deal reached on Tuesday ensures a manuscript charting the birth of modern science, lost for more than 200 years, will be housed at Britain’s Royal Society rather than falling into private hands.
Hailed as “science’s missing link”, the journal of Robert Hooke had been due to go on sale at auction with a price tag in excess of 1 million pounds ($1.75 million).
But just before the sale was due to take place, auctioneers Bonhams said an anonymous private bidder had agreed to buy it and give it to the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of leading scientists, which had said it could not afford to buy it.
“This is great news for science and great news for Britain,” said Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society.
“Robert Hooke was a colossal figure in the founding of modern science, and these documents represent an irreplaceable record of his contribution,” he said, adding that the payment amounted to “about 1 million pounds.”
The journal contains details of experiments Hooke conducted as curator at the Royal Society from 1662 and his correspondence as secretary from 1677. It was found by chance in a cupboard at a private house in the southern English county of Hampshire.
The notes include Hooke’s row with Isaac Newton over planetary motion and gravity, and the lost record confirming the first observation of microbes by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.
Hooke was a keen observer of nature with a fascination for things mechanical but, because of ill health as a child, he was initially left largely to educate himself.
He studied astronomy at Christ Church College, Oxford and helped found the Royal Society in the early 1660s.
In 1665 Hooke finally found fame with publication of his Micrographia containing pictures of objects he had studied through a microscope he had made himself, and a number of biological discoveries.
Diarist Samuel Pepys said of the book that it was the most ingenious he had ever read.
Hooke also discovered that Jupiter revolved on its own axis, suggested that gravity could be measured using a pendulum and invented, among other things, the reflecting telescope.
Despite Hooke’s huge contribution to science and understanding, the only innovation to bear his name is Hooke’s Law — ut tensio sic vis (extension [of a spring] is proportional to force) — the shortest law in physics.
Hooke died in London in March 1703 aged 67.