1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Royal Society, The
ROYAL SOCIETY, THE, the oldest scientific society in Great Britain, and one of the oldest in Europe. The Royal Society (more fully, The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge) 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. As early as the year 1645 weekly meetings were held in London of “divers worthy persons, inquisitive into natural philosophy and other parts of human learning, and particularly of what hath been called the New Philosophy 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 meetings, 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.
Some of these “Philosophers,” resident in Oxford about 1648, formed an association there under the title of the Philosophical Society of Oxford, and used to meet, most usually in the rooms of Dr Wilkins, warden of Wadham College. A close intercommunication was maintained between the Oxford and London Philosophers; but ultimately the activity of the society was concentrated in the London meetings, which were held principally 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 Robert Moray, Sir Paul Neile, Dr Wilkins, Dr Goddard, Dr Petty, Mr Ball, Mr Rooke, 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 discoursed of, something was offered about a designe of founding a Colledge for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning.” It was agreed at this meeting that the company should continue to assemble on Wednesdays at three 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 the 28th of November and by seventy-three others. On the 12th of December 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, physics 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 (or Murray) was chosen president (March 6, 1661), and continued from time to time to occupy the chair until the incorporation of the society, when Lord Brouncker was appointed the first president under the charter. In October 1661 the king offered to be entered one of the society, and next year the society was incorporated under its present title. The name “Royal Society” appears to have been first applied to the Philosophers by John Evelyn, in the dedication of his translation of a book by Gabriel Naudé, published in 1661. Evelyn received in that year the thanks of the “philosophic assembly” for the honourable mention he had made of them by the name of “The Royal Society.”
The charter of incorporation passed the Great Seal on the 15th of July 1662, to be modified, however, by a second charter in the following year, repeating the incorporating clauses of the first charter, but conferring further privileges on the society. The second charter passed the Great Seal on the 22nd of April 1663, and was followed in 1669 by a third, confirming the powers granted by the second charter, with some modifications of detail, and granting certain lands in Chelsea to the society. The council of the Royal Society met for the first time on the 13th of May 1663, when resolutions were passed that debate concerning those to be admitted should be secret, and that Fellows should pay 1s. a week to defray expenses.
At this early stage of its history the “correspondence” which was actively maintained with continental philosophers formed an important part of the society’s labours, and selections from this correspondence furnished the beginnings of the Philosophical Transactions (a publication now of world-wide celebrity). At first the publication of the Transactions was entirely “the act of the respective secretaries.” The first number, consisting of 16 quarto pages, appeared on Monday, March 6, 1664–65, under the title of Philosophical Transactions: giving some Accompt of the present undertakings, studies and labours of the Ingenious in many considerable parts of the world, with a dedication to the Royal Society signed by Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the society. It was ordered (1st of March 1664–65) “that the tract be licensed by the Council of the Society, being first reviewed by some of the members of the same.” In 1750, 496 numbers, or 46 volumes, had been published. After this date the work was issued under the superintendence of a committee, and the division into numbers disappeared. The society also from its earliest years published, or directed the publication of, separate treatises and books on matters of philosophy; most notable among these being the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica Autore Is. Newton. Imprimatur: S. Pepys, Reg. Soc. Praeses. Julii 5, 1686, 4to Londini 1687.
In 1887 the Philosophical Transactions was divided into two series, labelled A and B respectively, the former containing papers of a mathematical or physical character, and the latter papers of a biological character. More than 225 quarto volumes have been published. In 1832 appeared the first volume of Abstracts of papers printed in the Philosophical Transactions from the year 1800. This publication developed in the course of a few years into the Proceedings of the Royal Society, which has been continued up to the present time. It is published now in two series, corresponding to the two series of the Philosophical Transactions, and is issued in 8vo form at the rate of about three volumes a year.
It is, however, certain that one of the most important functions of the society from the beginning was the performance of experiments before the members. In the royal warrant of 1663 ordering the mace which the king presented to the society, it is described as “The Royal Society for the improving of Natural Knowledge by experiments”; and during its earlier years the time of the meetings was principally occupied by the performance and discussion of experiments. The society early exercised the power granted by charter to appoint two “curators of experiments,” the first holder of that office being Robert Hooke, who was afterwards elected a secretary of the society.
Another matter to which the society gave attention 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 on the 21st of February 1666, was purchased for the sum of £100. 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. A certain number, however, of instruments and models of historical interest have remained in the possession of the society, and some of them, more peculiarly associated with its earlier years, are still preserved at Burlington House. The remainder have been deposited in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.
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 important collection of scientific works, now exceeding 60,000 volumes, which the society 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 British Museum as a separate collection. The society, however, still possesses a valuable collection of scientific correspondence, official records, and other manuscripts, including the original manuscript, with Newton’s autograph corrections, from which the first edition of the Principia was printed, and many other original documents of great interest.
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 Cambridge.” Newton was elected a Fellow January 11, 1671–72, and in 1703 he was appointed president, a post which he held till his death in 1727. During his presidency 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 function 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 apartments 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 circumstances, led to the rise of a faction headed by Dr Horsley. Throughout the years 1783 and 1784 feeling ran exceedingly high, but in the end the president was supported by the majority of the society. An account of the controversy will be found in a tract entitled An Authentic Narrative of the Dissensions and Debates in the Royal Society. An important step in pursuance of the same policy was taken in the year 1847, when the number of candidates recommended for election by the council was limited to fifteen, and the election was made annual. This limitation has remained in force up to the present time. Concurrent with the gradual restriction of the Fellowship 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; and this has been followed by the formation of the large number of societies now active in the promotion of special branches of science.
In addition to the occasional services enumerated above, the Royal Society has exercised, and still exercises, a variety of important public functions of a more permanent nature. It still provides seven of the board of visitors of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. From 1877 until the reconstitution of the Meteorological Office in 1906 the society nominated the meteorological council, which had the control of that office. The society has the custody, of standard copies of the imperial standard yard and pound. The president and council have the control of the National Physical Laboratory, an institution established in 1899 in pursuance of the recommendations of a treasury committee appointed by H.M. government in response to representations from the Royal Society. The society had previously for many years had control of the Kew Observatory, now incorporated with the National Physical Laboratory, and still remains trustee of the Gassiot Fund, a fund established for the maintenance of the observatory. The society elects four of the nine members of the managing committee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust, and is officially represented on the governing bodies of a number of important scientific and educational institutions and of the principal public schools.
One of the most important duties which the Royal Society performs on behalf of the government is the administration 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 purposes was granted, and the two funds of £1000 and £4000 were administered concurrently until1881, in which year the two were combined in a single annual grant of £4000 under new regulations. Since 1896 parliament has also voted annually a grant of £1000 to be administered by the Royal Society in aid of scientific publications, not only those issued by itself, but also scientific matter published through other channels. One of the most useful of the society’s publications is the great catalogue of scientific papers—an index now in twelve 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 1883. The work was prepared under the direction of the Royal Society. A continuation carrying the catalogue up to the end of the 19th century, and a subject index to the whole catalogue, have also been compiled.
Under the existing statutes of the Royal Society every candidate for election into the society 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 the names so selected are submitted to the society for election by ballot. Princes of the blood, however, and not more than two persons selected by the council on special grounds once in two years, may be elected by a more summary procedure. Foreign members, not exceeding fifty, may be selected by the council from among men of the greatest scientific eminence abroad, and proposed to the society for election. Every Fellow of the society is liable to an admission fee of £10 and an annual payment of £4; but, by aid of a fund established in 1878 for the purpose, the admission fees and £1 of the annual contribution of all the Fellows elected since that date have been remitted. 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 on Thursdays 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 committees appointed for the purpose. The papers so selected are published either in the Philosophical Transactions (4to) or the Proceedings of the Royal 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 Record, and in the same work will be found lists of the presidents, treasurers, secretaries and assistant-secretaries from the foundation to the year 1900. The same work gives a chronological list of all the Fellows, with dates of election, and an alphabetical index. Other histories are Thomson’s History of the Royal Society (1812); Weld’s History of the Royal Society; 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. (R. W. F. H.)