Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Monumental Place in History; the Grumpy Outsider Who Helped Rebuild London after the Great Fire

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Monumental Place in History; the Grumpy Outsider Who Helped Rebuild London after the Great Fire

Article excerpt

Byline: JONATHAN REE

THE CURIOUS LIFE OF ROBERT HOOKE: The Man Who Measured London by Lisa Jardine (HarperCollins, [pounds sterling]25) THE Monument reaches more than 200 feet into the sky just north of London Bridge, a slender column topped off with a spiky golden ball big enough to accommodate an office party. It was built to commemorate the Great Fire of September 1666 and proclaim the City's confidence in its future, but it looks pretty forlorn now, hemmed in by tactless modern buildings and ignored by passers by. Its only notable social function is as a jumping point for suicides.

The Monument is often attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, but the architect was the relatively obscure scientist, artist and fixer Robert Hooke. Hooke died 300 years ago, in March 1703, at the age of 67, and the proud, neglected Monument is an apt memorial to the man.

The column encloses a tightly coiled spiral staircase, attached to the outer wall and lacking any central support. You can climb the 311 steps and get some good views of the city and the river, but when you come back inside and look over the banister an even more astonishing sight meets your eyes: the narrow circular central shaft dropping sheer to the ground. It looks as though it must have some purpose, and it has.

Hooke's memorial to the Great Fire incorporated a kind of scientific laboratory for weighing air and detecting variations in the force of gravity.

It was also meant to house a giant vertical telescope, though, in the event, it proved too wobbly. Hooke was a little unstable, too. He came from a poor family and his education at Westminster School was an extraordinary stroke of luck.

By the time he was 30 he had published a lavishly illustrated book about his investigations with a microscope and found work as a poorly paid servant of the Royal Society and Gresham College.

But it was the aftermath of the Fire of London that made him. At 31 he was appointed to the Rebuilding Commission, and began marking out thousands of plots and directing all kinds of construction work. He soon had an unrivalled knowledge of the army of plasterers, masons, carpenters, glaziers, smiths, plumbers and bricklayers who were rebuilding the city. …

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