1902 Encyclopedia > The Royal Society

Royal Society

ROYAL SOCIETY, or, more fully, The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, is an association of men interested in the advancement of mathematical and physical science. It is the oldest scien-tific society in Great Britain, and one of the oldest in Europe.

The Royal Society is usually considered to have been founded in the year 1660, but a nucleus had in fact been in existence for some years before that date. Wallis informs us that as early as the year 1645 weekly meetings were held of "divers worthy persons, inquisitive into natural philosophy, and other parts of human learning, and particularly of what hath been called the New Philo-sophy or Experimental Philosophy," and there can be little doubt that this gathering of philosophers is identical with the " Invisible College" of which Boyle speaks in sundry letters written in 1646 and 1647. These weekly meet-ings, according to Wallis, were first suggested by Theodore Haak, "a German of the Palatinate then resident in London," and they were held sometimes in Dr Goddard's lodgings in Wood Street, sometimes at the Bull-Head Tavern in Cheapside, but more often at Gresham College.

On November 28, 1660, the first journal book of the society was opened with a "memorandum," from which the following is an extract:—" Memorandum that Novemb. 28. 1660, These persons following, according to the usuall custom of most of them, mett together at Gresham Colledge to heare Mr Wren's lecture, viz., The Lord Brouncker, Mr Boyle, Mr Bruce, Sir Bobert Moray, Sir Paul Neile, Dr Wilkins, Dr Goddard, Dr Petty, Mr Ball, Mr Booke, Mr Wren, Mr Hill. And after the lecture was ended, they did, according to the usuall manner withdrawe for mutuall converse. Where amongst other matters that were dis-coursed of, something was offered about a designe of founding a Colledge for the promoting of Physico-Mathe-maticall Experimental! Learning." It was agreed at this meeting that the company should continue to assemble on Wednesdays at 3 o'clock; an admission fee of ten shillings with a subscription of one shilling a week was instituted; Dr Wilkins was appointed chairman; and a list of forty-one persons judged likely and fit to join the design was drawn up. On the following Wednesday Sir Robert Moray brought word that the king (Charles II.) approved the design of the meetings; a form of obligation was framed, and was signed by all the persons enumerated in the memorandum of November 28, and by seventy-three others. On December 12 another meeting was held at which fifty-five was fixed as the number of the society,'—persons of the degree of baron, fellows of the College of Physicians, and public professors of mathematics, physic, and natural philosophy of both universities being supernumeraries.

Gresham College was now appointed to be the regular meeting-place of the society. Sir Robert Moray was chosen president (March 6, 1661), and continued in that office until the incorporation of the society, when he was suc-ceeded by Lord Brouncker. In October 1661 the king offered to be entered one of the society, and next year the society was incorporated under the name of " The Royal Society," the charter of incorporation passing the great seal on the 15th July 1662, to be modified, however, by a second charter in the following year. The council of the Royal Society met for the first time on May 13, 1663, when resolutions were passed that debate concerning those to be admitted should be secret, and that fellows should pay Is. a week to defray expenses.

At this early stage of the society's history one main part of their labours was the "correspondence" which was actively maintained with Continental philosophers, and it was from this that the Philosophical Transactions (a publication now of world-wide celebrity) took its rise. At first the Transactions was entirely the work of the secretary, except that it was ordered (March 1, 1664-5) " that the tract be licensed by the Council of the Society, being first reviewed by some of the members of the same." The first number, consisting of sixteen quarto pages, appeared on Monday 6th March 1664-5. In 1750 four hundred and ninety-six numbers or forty-six volumes had been published by the secretaries. After this date the work was issued under the superintendence of a committee, and the division into numbers disappeared. At present (1885) one hundred and seventy-five volumes have been completed.

Another matter to which the society turned their atten-tion was the formation of a museum, the nucleus being "the collection of rarities formerly belonging to Mr Hubbard," which, by a resolution of council passed February 21, 1666, was purchased for the sum of £6100. This museum, at one time the most famous in London, was presented to the trustees of the British Museum in 1781, upon the removal of the society to Somerset House.

After the Great Fire of London in September 1666 the apartments of the Royal Society in Gresham College were required for the use of the city authorities, and the society were therefore invited by Henry Howard of Norfolk to meet in Arundel House. At the same time he presented them with the library purchased by his grandfather Thomas, earl of Arundel, and thus the foundation was laid of the magnificent collection of scientific works, pro-bably not far short of 45,000 volumes, which the society at the present time possesses. Of the Arundel MSS. the bulk was sold to the trustees of the British Museum in 1830 for the sum of £3559, the proceeds being devoted to the purchase of scientific books. These MSS. are still kept in the museum as a separate collection.

Under date December 21, 1671, the journal-book records that "the lord bishop of Sarum proposed for candidate Mr Isaac Newton, professor of the mathematicks at Cam-bridge." Newton was elected a fellow January 11, 1671-2, and in 1703 he was appointed president, a post which he held till his death in 1727. During his pre-sidency the society moved to Crane Court, their first meeting in the new quarters being held November 8, 1710. In the same year they were appointed visitors and directors of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, a func-tion which they continued to perform until the accession of "William IV., when by the new warrant then issued the president and six of the fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society were added to the list of visitors.

In 1780, under the presidency of Sir Joseph Banks, the Royal Society removed from Crane Court to the apart-ments assigned to them by the Government in the new Somerset House, where they remained until they removed to Burlington House in 1857. The policy of Sir Joseph Banks was to render the fellowship more difficult of attainment than it had been, and the measures which he took for this purpose, combined with other circum-stances, led to the rise of a faction headed by Dr Horsley. Throughout the years 1783 and 1784 feeling ran exceed-ingly high, but in the end the president was supported by the majority of the society. An account of the contro-versy will be found in a tract entitled An Authentic Narra-tive of the Dissensions and Debates in the Royal Society. In connexion with this policy of Sir Joseph Banks may be mentioned a further step in the same direction taken in the year 1847, when the number of candidates recom-mended for election by the council was limited to fifteen, and the election was made annual. Concurrently, how-ever, with this gradual narrowing of the Royal Society's boundaries was the successive establishment of other scientific bodies. The founding of the Linnean Society in 1788 under the auspices of several fellows of the Royal Society was the first instance of the establishment of a distinct scientific association under royal charter. The Geological Society followed in 1807, and the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820. The Chemical, the Royal Geographical, and the Entomological are the remaining chartered scientific societies existing in London at the present time. The Royal Society continues, however, to hold the foremost place among the scientific bodies of England, not only from the number of eminent men in-cluded in its fellowship, but also from its close official con-nexion with the Government.

The following will serve as some indication of the variety and importance of the scientific matters upon which they have been consulted by or have memorialized the Government during the last seventy years:—1816, standard measures of length ; 1817, expedition in search of North-West Passage ; 1822, use of coal-tar in vessels of war ; best manner of measuring tonnage of ships ; 1823, corrosion of copper sheathing by sea-water ; Babbage's cal-culating-machine ; lightning-conductors for vessels of war ; 1825, supervision of gas-works ; 1826, Parry's North Polar expedition ; 1832, tidal observations ; 1835, instruments and tables for testing the strength of spirits; 1839, Antarctic expedition ; magnetic observatories in the colonies ; 1845, Franklin's Arctic expedition; 1849-55, Government grant for scientific research ; 1862, the great Melbourne telescope ; 1865, pendulum observations in India ; 1866, reorganization of the meteorological department; 1868, deep sea research; 1872, "Challenger" expedition; 1874, Arctic expedi-tion ; 1875, eclipse expedition; 1876, Vivisection Bill; 1877, transit of Venus expedition ; 1879, prevention of accidents in mines; 1881, pendulum observations; 1882, transit of Venus; cruise of the " Triton " in Faroe Channel; 1883, borings in delta of Nile ; 1884, Bureau des Poids et Mesures ; prime meridian confer-ence, &c. One of the most important duties which the Royal Society performs on behalf of the Government is the administra-tion of the annual grant of £4000 for the promotion of scientific research. This grant originated in a proposal by Lord John

Russell in 1849 that at the close of the year the president and council should point out to the first lord of the treasury a limited number of persons to whom the grant of a reward or of a sum to defray the cost of experiments might be of essential service. This grant of £1000 afterwards became annual, and was continued until 1876. In that year an additional sum of £4000 for similar pur-poses was granted, and the two funds of £1000 and £4000 were administered concurrently until 1881, in which year the two were combined in a single annual grant of £4000 under new regulations. One of the most useful of the society's undertakings of late years is the great catalogue of scientific papers,—an index, in eight quarto volumes, under authors' names, of all the memoirs of importance in the chief English and foreign scientific serials from the year 1800 to the year 1873. The work was prepared under the direc-tion and at the expense of the Royal Society, and was printed by H. M. Stationery Office.

A statement of the trust funds administered by the Royal Society will be found in their published Proceedings under date November 30th of each year, and the origin and history of these funds will be found in Weld's History of the Moyal Society, and in the late William Spottiswoode's "Anniversary Address for 1874" (Proc. Eoy. Soc, xxiii. p. 49). The income of the society is derived from the annual contributions and composition fees of the fellows, from rents, and from interest on various investments. The balance-sheet and an account of the estates and property are pub-lished in the Proceedings at each anniversary. Four medals (a Copley, two Royal, and a Davy) are awarded by the society every year, and the Rumford medal in alternate years. The first of these originated in a bequest by Sir Godfrey Copley (1709), and is awarded " to the living author of such philosophical research, either pub-lished or communicated to the society, as may appear to the council to be deserving of that honour "; the author may be an Englishman or a foreigner. The Rumford medal originated in a gift from Count Rumford in 1796 of £1000 3 per cent, consols, for the most important discoveries in heat or light made during the preceding two years. The Royal medals were instituted by George IV., and are awarded annually for the two most important contributions to science published in the British dominions not more than ten years nor less than one year from the date of the award. The Davy medal was founded by the will of Dr John Davy, F.R.S., the brother of Sir Humphry Davy, and is given annually for the most important discovery in chemistry made in Europe or Anglo-America. An enumeration of the awards of each of the medals will be found at the end of the list of fellows which is published annually by the society.

Under the existing statutes of the Royal Society every candidate for election must be recommended by a certificate in writing signed by six or more fellows, of whom three at least must sign from personal knowledge. From the candidates so recommended the council annually select fifteen by ballot, and on the first Thursday in June the names so selected are submitted to the society in the form of a printed balloting-sheet with space left for erasure and substitution of names. Princes of the blood may, however, be proposed at any ordinary meeting and put to the vote on the same day, and any member of H. M. privy council may be balloted for on the third ordinary meeting from the day upon which his certificate is read. Foreign members, not exceeding fifty, may be selected by the council from among men of the greatest scientific eminence, and proposed to the society for election. Every member of the privileged class is liable to an admission fee of £10 and an annual payment of £4 ; other fellows pay £3 per annum. The composition for annual payments is £60.

The anniversary meeting for the election of the council and officers is held on St Andrew's Day. The council for the ensuing year, out of which are chosen the president, treasurer, principal secretaries, and foreign secretary, must consist of eleven members of the existing council and ten fellows who are not members of the existing council. These are nominated by the president and council previously to the anniversary meeting. The session of the society is from November to June ; the ordinary meetings are held every Thursday during the session, at 4.30 P.M. The selection for publication from the papers read before the society is made by the " Committee of Papers," which consists of the members of the council for the time being aided by referees. The papers so selected are published either in the Philosophical Transactions (4to) or the Proceedings of the Moyal Society (8vo), and one copy of each of these publications is presented gratis to every fellow of the society and to the chief scientific societies throughout the world.

The making and repealing of laws is vested in the council, and in every case the question must be put to the vote on two several days of their meeting.

The text of the charters of the Royal Society is given in the appendix to Weld's History of the Royal Society, and in the same work will be found lists of the presidents, treasurers, secretaries, and assistant-secretaries from the foundation to the year 1845. Appendix IV. to Thomson's History of the Royal Society (1812) gives a chronological list of all the fellows down to the year 1812 with dates of birth.

Other histories are Bishop Sprat's (1667), -which consists largely of a defence of the society against the attacks of a priori philosophers, and Dr Birch's (1756), which treats mainly of the society's scientific work. (H. R.*)

The above article was written by: Herbert Rix, Assistant Secretary, Royal Society, London.

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