The enigma of Robert Hooke

In 1675, Robert Hooke published the “true mathematical and mechanical form” for the shape of an ideal arch.  However, Hooke wrote the theory as an anagram,


Its solution was never published in his lifetime.  What was the secret hiding in these series of letters?


An excerpt from Hooke’s manuscript “A description of helioscopes, and some other instruments”.

The arch is one of the fundamental building blocks in architecture.  Used in bridges, cathedrals, doorways, etc., arches provide an aesthetic quality to the structures they dwell within.  Their key utility comes from their ability to support weight above an empty space, by distributing the load onto the abutments at its feet.  A dome functions much like an arch, except a dome takes on a three-dimensional shape whereas an arch is two-dimensional.  Paradoxically, while being the backbone of the many edifices, arches and domes themselves are extremely delicate: a single misplaced component along its curve, or an improper shape in the design would spell doom for the entire structure.

The Romans employed the rounded arch/dome—in the shape of a semicircle/hemisphere–in their bridges and pantheons.  The Gothic architecture favored the pointed arch and the ribbed vault in their designs.  However, neither of these arch forms were adequate for the progressively grander structures and more ambitious cathedrals sought in the 17th century.  Following the great fire of London in 1666, a massive rebuilding effort was under way.  Among the new public buildings, the most prominent was to be St. Paul’s Cathedral with its signature dome.  A modern theory of arches was sorely needed: what is the perfect shape for an arch/dome?

Christopher Wren, the chief architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, consulted Hooke on the dome’s design.  To quote from the cathedral’s website [1]:

The two half-sections [of the dome] in the study employ a formula devised by Robert Hooke in about 1671 for calculating the curve of a parabolic dome and reducing its thickness.  Hooke had explored this curve the three-dimensional equivalent of the ‘hanging chain’, or catenary arch: the shape of a weighted chain which, when inverted, produces the ideal profile for a self-supporting arch.  He thought that such a curve derived from the equation y = x3.

A figure from Wren's design of St. Paul's Cathedral. (Courtesy of the British Museum)

A figure from Wren’s design of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Courtesy of the British Museum)

How did Hooke came about the shape for the dome?  It wasn’t until after Hooke’s death his executor provided the unencrypted solution to the anagram [2]

Ut pendet continuum flexile, sic stabit contiguum rigidum inversum

which translates to

As hangs a flexible cable so, inverted, stand the touching pieces of an arch.

In other words, the ideal shape of an arch is exactly that of a freely hanging rope, only upside down.  Hooke understood that the building materials could withstand only compression forces and not tensile forces, in direct contrast to a rope that could resist tension but would buckle under compression.  The mathematics describing the arch and the cable are in fact identical, save for a minus sign.  Consequently, you could perform a real-time simulation of an arch using a piece of string!

Bonus:  Robert published the anagram in his book describing helioscopes, simply to “fill up the vacancy of the ensuring page” [3].  On that very page among other claims, Hooke also wrote the anagram “ceiiinosssttuu” in regards to “the true theory of elasticity”.  Can you solve this riddle?

[2] Written in Latin, the ‘u’ and ‘v’ are the same letter.
[3] In truth, Hooke was likely trying to avoid being scooped by his contemporaries, notably Issac Newton.

This article was inspired by my visit to the Huntington Library.  I would like to thank Catherine Wehrey for the illustrations and help with the research.

2 thoughts on “The enigma of Robert Hooke

  1. Pingback: El enigma de Hooke | Scientia potentia est

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