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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Embracing paperwork

By Lisa Jardine

Too busy to keep your records up to date? You're in good company... but look to your lasting reputation, something Robert Hooke was too busy to do.

Some people actually enjoy filing and paperwork. I confess I am not one of them. Given the chance, I will always plunge with enthusiasm into a fresh activity, rather than pause to complete the records for the last one.

This bothers me, because, in my professional life as a historian, I know that my research relies upon the documents and records of past events, carefully preserved and systematically organised by others.

Click here to see the records

They are the building blocks of history. Meticulous minute-taking, monthly accounts and regular filing are an important part of the lasting fame of an individual, and the enduring life of any organisation.

I suspect that is one of the reasons why I am so attached to the 17th Century scientist Robert Hooke. We are, in this respect, all too alike. He too preferred dashing around making things happen, and baulked at providing the painstaking documentation afterwards.

Put in charge of essential paperwork for the Royal Society - Europe's leading scientific establishment at that time - he let the project slip badly. In fact, this week, the society is celebrating the retrieval of more than 500 long-lost pages from their early records, which Hooke failed to file in 1682.

Renaissance man

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 and died in 1703. He was an outstanding hands-on experimentalist, observational astronomer, engineer, architect and instrument-maker.

He was the first curator of the newly-established Royal Society in London, an accomplished observer with telescopes and microscopes he built himself, a strong contender for discovering the inverse square law of gravitational attraction, and the indefatigable surveyor responsible for measuring and pegging out the street-plan of the City of London after the Great Fire.

He was Wren's close friend and Newton's great enemy (Hooke had dared to criticise some of Newton's early work, and was never forgiven for it).

The diarist Samuel Pepys - a great admirer of Hooke's scientific talents - described him as the man who "is the most [impressive]" but "promises the least, of any man in the world that ever I saw".

By that he meant that Hooke's appearance was a disappointment. He was nondescript-looking, his slight build diminished further by a curvature of the spine. But his energy and ingenuity more than made up for his lack of personal presence.

Faced with a fresh intellectual or practical challenge - a novel experiment, something new to calculate, or to observe through his telescope - there was nothing Hooke would not undertake. He found it impossible to say no.

Trying - and failing - to get Hooke to concentrate on a particular project in hand, the first president of the society, Sir Robert Moray, complained: "I easily believe Hooke has not been idle, but I could wish he had finished the tasks laid upon him."

For five years, beginning in January 1678, Hooke was the secretary of the Royal Society, responsible for all its paper records. It was a job he was keen to take on. He had become convinced that the previous secretary, Henry Oldenburg, had been systematically downplaying the contribution he was making to the society's activities, damaging his international reputation and depriving him of due scientific credit.

Oldenburg had put in place a stringent set of procedures to ensure that the activities of the Royal Society were properly recorded for posterity. Following his unexpected death in 1677, his arrangements were adopted as standard practice by the society.

These were the demanding clerking activities Hooke now took on. He had to attend all meetings of the society and its governing council and take detailed minutes. Then he had to mark them up and pass them to the official scribes, for them to make fair copies for the record. All papers read at the meetings had to be entered in full; all correspondence received had to be answered and filed.

Rebuilding London

For five years Hooke failed miserably at all of these tasks. Given what else he was doing at the time, Hooke's less-than-adequate secretarial efforts are hardly surprising. The years 1678 to 82 coincided with the high-point of his involvement in the rebuilding of London.

St Paul's
Wren's great landmark, St Paul's
As city surveyor he continued to adjudicate in all property disputes arising from alterations in street plans and building positions, including attending all court cases. As site architect for Sir Christopher Wren's office, he was responsible for several city churches and for structural work at St Paul's.

Even at the Royal Society, the secretaryship came on top of more pressing, practical duties. Hooke's principal job as curator of experiments obliged him to produce a weekly experiment to be demonstrated in front of the Fellows - a small bird to be suffocated in the vacuum-creating air-pump; a specimen of rain water to be examined under the microscope for wriggling protozoa invisible to the naked eye.

Under all these competing pressures, his record-keeping duties were inevitably the first to suffer. Senior Royal Society officials became exasperated, and in November 1682 he was removed from the post of secretary.

The bundle of draft minutes, letters from notable scientists overseas, and scientific papers submitted by Fellows which he should have lodged, languished in his rooms at Gresham College, joining accumulating piles of his own unfinished papers. After his death in 1703, loyal friends attempted to sort out Hooke's personal effects. They eventually gave up.

Missing link

Without those crucial documents, the files of the Royal Society were incomplete. A five-year hole yawned in their impeccably ordered records of their action-packed early years. Sequences of experiments and vital supporting documents were lost. The history of the Scientific Revolution was interrupted.

Page from the long-lost notes
Sketch of an idea by Wren to bring water upwards
Then, out of the blue, in January of this year, the missing Hooke papers resurfaced. Removed from his lodgings by one of Hooke's executors, they had found their way to a country house in Hampshire, and languished there without anyone, apparently, realising their importance. Unearthed in the course of a routine valuation, Bonhams auctioneers offered the papers for sale, with a suggested price of 1.5m.

The President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, led a spirited public campaign to return the Hooke folio to its rightful place in the basement strong-room of the society.

In a nail-biting finale, the manuscript was secured for somewhat less than the asking price by the society's negotiators, while the sale was actually in progress. The purchase was announced in the auction-room, where representatives of three overseas collectors were waiting with bids of - allegedly - up to 4m.

On Wednesday the papers were carried with great ceremony into a reception in the society's grand premises in Carlton House Terrace, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace. In the room were all those who had contributed to the fund - ordinary members of the public who had sent 5 or 10 cheques, individual Fellows who had contributed larger sums, and representatives of the Wellcome Trust which had saved the day with half a million. The atmosphere was one of jubilation.

The Hooke folio will provide missing links in chains of discussion, experimentation and discovery which historians of science like myself can trace by diligently following the paper trails. I will be able to handle and study it on a daily basis.

Eventually a team of researchers will digitise and transcribe the fragile manuscript, making it available for all to view online. We must remember to archive the e-mails we send in the course of that project - in future those electronic exchanges will be the historian's raw materials.

The excitement surrounding the reappearance of the papers may finally have restored Hooke to his rightful place as a major figure in England's Scientific Revolution. Its recovery also teaches people like myself a valuable lesson. Those of us who are not temperamentally inclined to keep on top of the paperwork had better look to our lasting reputations.

As an archivist I would disagree with the historian's assertion that you ought to keep on top of your paperwork to ensure your place in history. It is actually those figures who don't keep on top of their paperwork who leave the more interesting archives, as there are so many clues about their real every day lives in amongst them - receipts, cinema tickets, notes of telephone calls - that can tell you much more than some official documents might.
Jemima, London

All very interesting, but there is a fine line between dedicating too much time to clerical work and ignoring it altogether...The question is, would Hooke have preferred to be remembered as the man who helped rebuild modern London or the man who kept his files in order?
Heather, Wolverhampton

The best advice I've had on filing and paperwork is that if you receive some paperwork you should either a)action it, b)file it or c)bin it! Resist the temptation to put it to one side - Fatal!
tom amos, london

As a records manager in government, I feel very lucky to have heard this programme. It provides a valuable case study, which I will use in my work, and invaluable leads and ideas that will help me to promote good records management to colleagues. It is also a very interesting story about the way our understanding of history can be restricted then opened up by chance events. Thank you, Lisa Jardine
Stephen Wells, London

This just goes to show that academic work needs to be backed up with good admin procedures. In light of the current pay dispute between academics and their universities, perhaps it should be remembered that there are hard-working administrative staff who compile the results of the marking and prepare these for the exam board meetings which finally confirm the degrees to be awarded. Academics may appear to be holding the keys to graduation, but if the secretary who types and photocopies the results sheets went on strike, the effect would soon be felt.
Fiona Newell, Birmingham, UK

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Hooke manuscript is returned home
17 May 06 |  Science/Nature

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