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Material doubts: Hooke, artisan culture and the exchange of information in 1670s London

By Robert Iliffe


In this paper I analyse some resources for the history of manipulative skill and the acquisition of knowledge. I focus on a decade in the life of the `ingenious┬┐ Robert Hooke, whose social identity epitomized the mechanically minded individual existing on the interface between gentleman natural philosophers, instrument makers and skilled craftsmen in late seventeenth-century London. The argument here is not concerned with the notion that Hooke had a unique talent for working with material objects, and indeed my purpose is to rethink the ways in which we account for such virtuosity. In this vein, I do not adopt solely a realist or constructivist attitude to skill but seek to show how, in a purposeful way, Hooke drew from the resources of techniques and information made available to him by his social interaction with labourers, servants, craftsmen, gentlemen and noblemen. In Hooke's local culture, intelligence flowed between the sites where these individuals worked and socialized. I examine the practical, social and situational links between the worlds of the coffee house, the workshop and the rooms of the Royal Society at Arundel House (between 1667 and 1674) and Gresham College. From this perspective, there were no rigid boundaries between the domains of natural philosophy, banausic culture and construction work on which Hooke was engaged, and I argue that we should examine his world in term of a series of networks of capital exchange comprised of finance, social power and mechanical expertise

Topics: DA020
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 1995
DOI identifier: 10.1017/s0007087400033173
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