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

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.

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