An experimental society

Three hundred and fifty years after the Royal Society’s birth, Patricia Fara reveals how its founder members’ conviction that experiments should take priority over theories transformed the study of science for good

An illustration of the compound microscope used by British inventor and microbiologist Robert Hooke

This article was first published in January 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine

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How long does it take for an organisation to acquire a past? The Royal Society’s first history was published in 1667, only five years after it received its Royal Charter. Since there had not been much time for progress, Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society was more of a manifesto for the future than an account of earlier achievements. Its frontispiece (shown left) optimistically shows King Charles II being crowned with a laurel wreath by the Goddess of Fame while his name is emphasised by the Society’s first president, William Brouncker. However, these diplomatic hints for further financial support went unheeded, and the Society’s most influential figurehead sits on the right – Francis Bacon (1561–1626), here portrayed in his official robes as King James’s lord chancellor.

Trained as a lawyer rather than a natural philosopher, Bacon posthumously set the agenda of the Royal Society by insisting that progress comes not from studying ancient texts, but from experiments. When Isaac Newton claimed that “I feign no Hypotheses,” he was reiterating Bacon’s prescription that data should take priority over theory, a principle that underpins modern science. At the time, university scholarship was dominated by Aristotelian logic, which reached conclusions by arguing systematically from unchallengeable premises. In contrast, Sprat boasted that the Fellows “never affirm’d any thing, concerning the cause, till the trial was past… for whoever has fix’d on his Cause, before he has experimented; can hardly avoid fitting his Experiment, and his Observations, to his own Cause, which
he had before imagin’d”.

As shown in the coat of arms above Charles’s head, the Society’s official motto was Nullius in Verba (take nothing on authority), although its policy was closer to Bacon’s pithy edict that “knowledge is power”. In his extraordinary novel, The New Atlantis (published in 1627, after his death), Bacon had envisaged an ideal research community divided into independent project teams that aimed not only to increase knowledge of God’s physical world, but also to improve society. Similarly, the Fellows hoped that through measurement and observation, they would learn how to control nature – and that through their commercially viable inventions, they would strengthen the state’s rule.

Instruments festoon the elegant arches of this imaginary scientific temple in Sprat’s frontispiece. Mostly they are recent adaptations of traditional devices that measure and record the world, but featured prominently to Charles’s right is one of the Society’s most treasured innovations – the globe of an air (vacuum) pump (shown in greater detail on page 35). Symbolically as well as practically, the air pump was hugely important. Followers of Aristotle believed that a vacuum is impossible, whereas Baconians declared that this artificially created state would reveal the hidden truths of normality. As the glass sphere was evacuated, ringing bells inside could no longer be heard, flames were extinguished, and small animals died, thus demonstrating the necessity of air for transmitting sound, supporting combustion and maintaining life.

An exchange of ideas

Like the Society itself, the air pump originated in Oxford. From the 1640s, small groups of scholars met informally, often in their college studies, to exchange ideas and improve their techniques. Oxford’s guru of the new experimental approach was William Harvey, the king’s physician who had challenged centuries of anatomy by demonstrating that blood circulates around the body. Inspired by Harvey’s work, one researcher tried injecting beer into dogs’ veins. This forerunner of transfusion was none other than Christopher Wren. The future architect belonged to an extraordinary community of men, many of them young and unknown, who played a crucial role in the development of British science.

Several members of this Oxford group, including Wren, were involved in the foundation of London’s Royal Society. Looking back, the two most significant were the chemist Robert Boyle and the inventor Robert Hooke, who worked together on the air pump and later devoted their lives to scientific research. However, the collective enthusiasm at Oxford was more important than any one individual’s contribution, and together these experimenters embarked on an ambitious and wide-ranging set of projects – building beehives with glass observation walls, designing accurate micrometer scales for optical instruments, testing new farming methods, explaining the phases of Saturn, developing new drugs, producing artificial rainbows, inventing automata. Not all of their trials were successful, and not all of them were what would nowadays be called scientific, but they were the products of a collaborative research community.

Although Sprat set himself up as the Royal Society’s historian, his account of its beginnings glosses over a second important centre of activity – Gresham College, just across the Thames from the naval dockyard at Deptford. Since its opening in 1597, the university-educated mathematicians who taught there had worked closely with local artisans on practical problems such as ship design and terrestrial magnetism, vital for improving navigational compasses. Gradually, the ethos of the school changed as experimental philosophers were appointed to the staff and the latest scientific discoveries were discussed at informal sessions.

Historians have failed to reconcile various versions of exactly what did happen during the late 1650s, but the outcome is clear: Gresham College became the Royal Society’s first home. The first meeting took place there on 28 November 1660, soon after Charles II had been restored
to the throne, when a group of 12 gentlemen – including several Royalists – clubbed together after a lecture given by Wren, the school’s professor of astronomy. This was no impromptu gathering, but a pre-planned event at which some important rules and regulations were laid down before impressing on the king what benefits he might reap from a “Society for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimental Learning”. Over the next couple of years, the founders recruited additional members and further formalised the structure before consolidating their status
as ‘The Royal Society of London’.

Rather than being a scholarly assembly of dedicated scientists, the Royal Society resembled a club for leisured gentlemen. According to Sprat, it was a democratic institution that welcomed contributions “not onely by the hands of Learned and profess’d Philosophers; but from the Shops of Mechanicks; from the Voyages of Merchants; from the Ploughs of Husbandmen”. However, the high subscription charge and metropolitan location effectively restricted the active membership to wealthy Londoners. This supposedly open institution faced another challenge when Margaret Cavendish, a wealthy aristocrat and prolific author (shown above), decided to visit the Society in 1667. Boyle reluctantly agreed to perform some experiments for her, but she was the last woman allowed to enter the meeting rooms before the 20th century.

To satisfy the Fellows’ demand for entertainment as well as education, Robert Hooke was appointed curator of experiments, the first salaried scientific post in Britain. His research was geared towards devising novel demonstrations that would reinforce the Baconian ethic of gaining knowledge through systematic investigation and observation. Hooke advertised this experimental approach in Micrographia, whose drawings of fleas and lice (see page 38) – those constant invisible companions of lords and labourers alike – so enthralled the diarist Samuel Pepys that he stayed awake all night marvelling at this unfamiliar microscopic world. Hooke was also responsible for looking after the Society’s repository, a mixed collection of curiosities that fascinated the public but defied orderly classification.

Membership was restricted, but the Society was effectively international. Reports flowed in from all over the world, while the latest London-based discussions were transmitted outwards by the Society’s journal, The Philosophical Transactions. The first secretary was Henry Oldenburg, a German diplomat accused of trading government secrets, but who made the Royal Society the hub of an extended intellectual community linked together by letters.

Through publishing diagrams, instructions and results, the Baconian Fellows enabled their experiments to be replicated, so that knowledge could (in principle, anyway) be based not on what people claimed, but on what they did and on what they observed. Reflecting the diversity of the members’ interests, the early articles covered an impressive range of topics, including ancient coins, oceanic tides, unusual births, geometrical theorems, spectacular loadstones (magnets), mining technology and freak weather events.

Despite their initial enthusiasm, many Fellows were not punctilious about paying their fees. Starved of financial patronage, the Society could afford neither to fund research projects nor to obtain permanent premises, and although symbolically it remained the flagship of European science, its membership declined sharply during the 17th century. The situation was different in France, where the king took a close interest in Paris’s Académie Royale, founded in 1666. His pet society had a restricted number of members, but they were appointed by the state and paid to carry out research of national benefit.

Louis XIV was an expert in self-promotion, and he used his investment in science to advertise his magnificence. In the splendid propaganda picture Louis commissioned (shown left), the large mirror reflects his glory as the Sun King and the Royal Observatory seen through the window proclaims his generosity. This visit was imaginary, but the differences between the Societies in London and Paris were real. Throughout the 18th century, French research tended to be speculative, mathematical and directed towards state interest, whereas English natural philosophers focussed on experiments and commercially viable inventions. Nevertheless, the unfurled map at Louis’s feet illustrates how, on both sides of the Channel, Bacon’s dictum ruled: “Knowledge is power”.

Books

Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara (Oxford University Press, 2009)

New Atlantis and the Great Instauration by Francis Bacon (Harlan Davidson, 1989)

The Man Who Knew Too Much: the Strange and Inventive Life of Robert Hooke 1635–1703 by Stephen Inwood (Macmillan, 2002)

On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren by Lisa Jardine (HarperCollins, 2002)

Website

The Royal Society has organised a programme of activities around the UK to mark its 350th anniversary. For more information, go to www.royalsociety.org

The Royal Society has also launched an interactive ‘Trailblazing’ timeline of iconic moments in science history. Go to www.trailblazing.royalsociety.org

TV & Radio

Melvyn Bragg will be tracing the history of the Royal Society on Radio 4 this month.

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Michael Mosley is to present the Science Story on BBC Two later in 2010.