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The son of John Hooke, a minister, Hooke was a sickly boy; although he ultimately lived to be nearly seventy, his parents did not entertain serious hope for his very survival during the first few years of his life. His father, one of three or four brothers, all of whom found their calling in the church, intended young Robert for the ministry also; but when persistent headaches interrupted the intended program of study, his father abandoned the plan and left the boy to his own devices. What these would be was immediately manifest. When he saw a clock being dismantled, he promptly made a working replica from wood. He constructed ingenious mechanical toys, including a model of a fully rigged man-of-war which could both sail and fire a salvo. By his tenth birthday Hooke had already embraced what his biographer Richard Waller called “his first and last Mistress”—mechanics. His role in the history of science is inextricably bound to his skill in mechanics and his allied perception of nature as a great machine.

When his father died in 1648, Hooke inherited £100. Since he had displayed some artistic talent, his family packed him off to London, where his legacy was to finance an apprenticeship to Sir Peter Lely. Hooke decided to save his money; and it was his good fortune that Richard Busby, the master of Westminster School, befriended him and took him into his home. The teacher had recognized the pupil. Not only did Hooke learn Latin, the staple of the secondary curriculum, together with Greek and a smattering of Hebrew; he also discovered mathematics. By his own account he devoured the first six books of Euclid in a week, and he proceeded to apply geometry to mechanics. Nor was mathematics all. By his own account again, he learned to play twenty lessons on the organ and invented thirty ways of flying. Having exhausted the resources of Westminster, he moved on to Oxford, where he entered Christ Church as a chorister in 1653.

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