Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/December 1889/The Royal Society of England
|THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF ENGLAND.|
THAT "wonderful pacifick year 1660" witnessed the restoration of the house of Stuart and the organization of the Royal Society.
After twenty years of civil wars, Cromwell, and Puritanism, the English people, with the surfeit which invariably follows the prolonged discussion of one idea, turned with avidity to the gay court which Charles II brought with him into Whitehall. Peace came, commerce flowed on undisturbed, and from the strictest religion the national pendulum swung to license, skepticism, and debauchery.
Fortunately, it was but a part of England which fell into these excesses. There was an element which, likewise turned from the heated discussions of theology, but, more wisely, sought the serene companionship of Nature as the restful change.
"There arose at this time," says Dr. Whewell, "a group of philosophers, who began to knock at the door where truth was to be found, although it was left for Newton to force it open. These were the founders of the Royal Society."
But to Lord Bacon, who died but thirty-six years before the incorporation of the society, is due the first impulse in England to the proper study of nature. Indeed, some such an institution as the Royal Society, for the study of the sciences, was in his mind when he wrote his philosophical romance, the "New Atlantis." What he did not live to form, his disciples realized.
Dr. Wallis, in his diary of 1696-'97, says: "About the year 1645, while I lived in London (at a time when, by our civil wars, academical studies were much interrupted in both our universities), besides the conversation of diverse eminent divines, as to matters theological, I had the opportunity of being acquainted with diverse worthy persons, inquisitive into natural philosophy and other parts of human learning, and particularly of what had been called the New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy. ... Our business (at these meetings, held at Gresham College) was (precluding matters of theology and statecraft) to discourse and consider of Philosophical Enquiries, and such as related thereto: as Physick, Anatomy, Geometry, Astronomy, Navigation, Staticks, Magneticks, Chemicks, Mechanicks, and Natural Experiments. We then discoursed of the circulation of the blood, the valves of the veins, the venæ lactæe, the lymphatick vessels, the Copernican hypothesis, the nature of comets and new stars, the satellites of Jupiter, the oval shape of Saturn, the spots in the sun, and its turning on its own axis, the inequalities and selenography of the moon, the several phases of Venus and Mercury, the improvement of telescopes, and grinding of glasses for that purpose, the weight of air, the possibility or impossibility of vacuities, and nature's abhorrence thereof, the Torricellian experiment in quicksilver, the descent of bodies and the degree of acceleration therein, and diverse other things of like nature."
These meetings were continued at Gresham College and at Oxford, whither many went with Charles I, as frequently as the exigencies of war permitted; but, with Charles II firmly seated on the throne, the fugitives returned to London, where, in 1660, the society was formally instituted, and application was made to the king to give it a corporate being and name by a royal charter.
Sir Robert Moray, the first president, brought in word from the court that "the king had been acquainted with the design of the meeting. And he did well approve of it, and would be ready to give encouragement to it." The royal patron fulfilled his promise.
The charter of incorporation passed the great seal on the 15th of July, 1662, and was read on the 13th of August following.
Evelyn's "Diary" of this date contains this passage: "Our charter being now passed under the broad seal, constituting us a corporation, the name of Royal Society, for the improvement of natural knowledge, was this day read; and was all that was done this afternoon, being very long."
Charles affected chemistry and navigation, and, when he grew tired of his wine and his mistresses, would resort to his laboratory, and as the young rakes, who circled about him, imitated the royal exemplar's dissipations, so they frequented the scientific lectures and tried to look wise. But even Charles and his fops could not, by their attention, harm the growing sciences in the estimation of good and true men. The reason for this may be found in the recognition of the need of such a society, and the character of the men constituting it. The fame of such men as Sir Robert Moray, Boyle, Evelyn, Pepys, Wallis, Hooke, and Wren, who were among the incorporators, continues lively to this day. It may not be, as has been said, that the incorporation of the Royal Society was the only wise act of Charles II, yet it has proved itself, without a doubt, his wisest act.
It was high time that England was bestirring herself, for on every side were evidences of the pressing need of some such instigating and conserving force as the Royal Society soon became. Every intellectual center of Italy had its Academy of Science, and France already had her society for the study of literature. The origin of learned societies appears to take the same course as the order of succession of the universities. As the first university arose in Italy, so arose the first academy; then comes France, with her University of Paris and the French Academy; later, England follows close upon the heels of France, with her universities at Oxford and Cambridge, and her Royal Society. By the lapsing of the Academy del Cimento of Florence, and other Italian academies, the Royal Society of England enjoys the honor of being the oldest in consecutive history of any society in Europe which was established for the investigation and advancement of science.
There is no better illustration of the true scientific spirit of inquiry which the Royal Society at once set on foot throughout England, than its influence upon the popular superstitions of the day. The popular belief in witchcraft had, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reached the height of its frenzy.
In Germany the number of persecutions was enormous. A twentieth part of the entire population of the small district of Lindheim fell victims in four years. In the district of Como, Switzerland, one thousand were burned in one year (1524). In France the destruction of life was equally frightful. Witch-persecutions in England came on later, but were equally ferocious.
James I wrote a treatise on "Demonology," and during the Long Parliament three thousand persons were executed by legal processes alone, not counting the victims by mobs, as a result of this witch-mania.
But, according to Hutchison, chaplain to George I, who wrote upon witchcraft, "there were but two witches executed in England after the Royal Society published their 'Transactions,' and one of these was in the year after their first publication."
And Sir Walter Scott, in his letters on "Demonology and Witchcraft," expresses his belief that the Royal Society "tended greatly to destroy the belief in witchcraft and superstition generally."
What a comment upon the value of scientific studies!
Touching for king's-evil or scrofula, which was long rife in England, was another but more harmless superstition which the Royal Society was active in destroying. Imagine the feelings of the fastidious Charles, under such ordeals as the one related of him by Aubrey in his "Miscellanies": "Arise Evans had a fungous nose, and said it was revealed to him that the king's hand would cure him: and at the first coming of King Charles II in St. James's Park he kissed the king's hand and rubbed his nose with it, which disturbed the king, but cured him."
Even within the Royal Society itself there was a lack of precision in scientific investigation. Upon the same evening that Sir Robert Moray was elected president he brought in a contribution on "A Relation concerning Barnicles," in which he relates of a visit to Scotland, where he found attached to a certain variety of trees innumerable little shells, each containing a little bird. He confesses that, while he found everything for "making up a perfect sea-fowle," he never saw any of the birds alive. "Here we have the absurd notion of the Lepas anatifera breeding geese, brought before the society by their president."
We find in the same minutes that "Dr. Clark was intreated to lay before the society Mr. Pellin's relation of the production of young vipers from the powder of the liver and lungs of vipers."
The Royal Society owes to the Hon. Robert Boyle more than to any other one person for its inception. A bachelor of independent fortune, he devoted his great resources, mental and material, to experimental researches, especially in relation to chemistry and of the atmosphere. An enthusiastic follower of Bacon, he believed and practiced the cherished doctrines of the great philosopher, that experiment and experiment is the only and sure method of founding a true science. A prodigy even in childhood, having entered Eton College when but eight years of age, he further enjoyed the advantages of European travels and education. He visited Florence in 1641, and spent the winter there studying the works of Galileo. He may have caught from the words of the then blind old astronomer, as he dictated to his disciples his last work on the "Impact of Bodies," that unwavering devotion to natural science which characterized both men. Returning to England, he gathered around him a circle of congenial friends, which formed the Invisible College, of which he in his works so frequently makes mention, and which subsequently became the Royal Society.
He was a prolific contributor to the "Transactions," all based upon his own investigations. His improved air-pump and his experiments with it contributed largely to the knowledge of the properties of air and the character of sound, and his work, "Experiments and Considerations upon Colours," prepared the way for Newton's more elaborate work upon the same subject. It is said that Boyle in the latter part of his life was accustomed, when engaged upon any of his important experiments, to write above his street-door, "Mr. Boyle can not be spoken with to-day."
The mere enumeration of the contributions of Boyle would fill a page, but he gleaned in too many fields to thoroughly exhaust any one. By his contemporaries Boyle was considered one of the greatest natural philosophers, and if the succeeding generations failed to retain the same high estimate of his position it is because he was succeeded by some of the greatest minds in English thought. It is sufficient for one man's fame that he originated the Royal Society.
November 12, 1662.—Robert Hooke, an assistant to Boyle, was elected a Fellow. He was but twenty-seven years old, yet as the result of his innumerable experiments "facts multiplied, leading phenomena became prominent, laws began to emerge, and generalizations to commence."
Hooke was possessed of a mind inventive and mechanical to a high degree, which led him to the threshold of some of the grandest discoveries of his time. His experiments, however, like Boyle's, were too diffuse, and he repeatedly was mortified by seeing his nearly completed discoveries anticipated. Hooke was a genius, but through lack of concentration cut a sorry figure, from always being a little too late. From the controversy with Huygens in relation to the invention of the balance-spring of watches, it was shown that he was entitled to the original conception, but that its practical application as a coil belongs to Huygens.
He had a faint conception of the undulatory theory of light; he discovered the mechanical laws which govern the motions of the heavenly bodies; and he so nearly discovered the law of gravitation that Newton was obliged to defend his claims before the Royal Society. Even in controversies such as that with Hevelius about an improvement of the telescope, where he had the best of the argument, his unmanly conduct and irascible temper destroyed all the honor he might otherwise have attained.
With a person misshapen and repulsive, with a temper as distorted as the body, miserly in his habits, and morbidly jealous of his co-laborers, Hooke's transcendent mind recalls the fable of the jewel in the frog's brain. Sir T. Molyneux, a contemporary, says, "Hooke is the most ill-natured, conceited man in the world, hated and despised by most of the Royal Society, pretending to have all other inventions, when once discovered by their authors to the world."
An ill-requited life Hooke's must have been to call forth upon his death the declaration that "society has gained more than science has lost."
August, 1663.—Charles II displays his continued interest in the society by presenting the president with the splendid mace, which has been borne, as the insignia of his office, before every president from that date to this. It is of silver, richly carved and gilded, and weighs one hundred and ninety ounces avoirdupois. With the mace is given the privilege of having two sergeants-at-mace, whose duty shall be to wait upon the president. It is borne before the president as he enters to his chair, and is placed before him upon a table during the proceedings of the meeting. When kings, princes of the blood, or distinguished ambassadors from foreign courts desire to visit the society, the president, attended by the mace and the sergeants-at-mace, meets them at the door and escorts them to a seat beside him on the dais. No meeting is legal unless held in the presence of this ensign of authority. The chief decoration of the enchased work of the mace is the thistle, the emblem of St. Andrew, who was the patron saint of the society. The anniversary meetings and election of officers were held upon St. Andrew's day, at which time the Fellows formerly wore a St. Andrew's cross in their hats. It is in the minutes of this year we find the resolution that "the president when in the chair is to be covered, notwithstanding the Fellows of the society be uncovered."
June 28, 1665.—The meetings were discontinued on account of the plague which was at that time devastating England, carrying off, from this date to the end of the year, seventy thousand persons in London alone.
On the 7th of June, 1665, Samuel Pepys for the first time saw two or three houses marked with the red cross and the words "Lord have mercy upon us!" on the doors. On the 4th of September he writes to Lady Carteret, "I have stayed in the city till above seventy-four hundred died in one week, and of them about six thousand of the plague, and little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells."
The meetings were renewed again March 14, 1666. As was to be expected, we find that the medical Fellows had some report to make of their studies of such a direful disease. In consideration of the present agitation of the germ theory of disease, it is interesting to find recorded that "Dr. Charlton advanced his notion concerning the vermigation of the air as the cause of the plague, first started in England by Sir George Ent, and Dr. Bacon in Rome. It had been observed that there was a kind of insect in the air, which, being put upon a man's hand, would lay eggs hardly discernible without a microscope, which eggs being for an experiment given to be snuffed up by a dog, the dog fell into a distemper, accompanied with all the symptoms of the plague."
September 5, 1666.—The journal has this passage: "The society could not meet by reason of the late dreadfull Fire in London."
The calamity of the many is often the opportunity for the few. The flames which brought such loss and suffering upon London, swept away all obstacles to the making of England's greatest architect. In the ashes of St. Paul's Wren found his opportunity and fame. Up to this time architecture had been but one of many of the studies of Sir Christopher. Even when a gentleman-commoner at Oxford he was noted for his attainments and inventions in mathematical and experimental philosophy. Mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and anatomy shared with architecture in his attention, and such was his skill in them all that Evelyn styled him "that rare and early prodigy of universal science."
Wren was one of the founders of the Royal Society, and was at one time Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, where the society first met. It has been justly observed that, "but for the fire, Wren might have trifled away his genius, patching the old cathedral, and perhaps adding a new wing to Whitehall." But fortunately the fire found him still young, being but thirty-three, and in the nearly threescore years still allotted him to labor, he industriously followed his chosen science. Besides fifty-odd churches, Wren designed and built the Royal Exchange, Custom-House, Royal Observatory, College of Physicians, Greenwich Hospital, Buckingham House, Marlborough House, the towers of the west front of Westminster Abbey, and many other noble structures. But the crowning work of his life was his remodeling and rebuilding St. Paul's, which is esteemed the finest specimen of its order in the world. Wren's salary as architect of this masterpiece was less than a thousand dollars per annum, for which he was not only architect but draughtsman, overseer, contractor, and auditor as well, besides, as the Duchess of Marlborough observed, "his being dragged up in a basket three or four times a week to the top of the building at great hazard."
Wren was a prominent Freemason, "was for eighteen years a member of the old Lodge of St. Paul's, then held at the Goose and Gridiron, near the cathedral, now the Lodge of Antiquity; and the records of that lodge show that the maul and trowel used at the laying of the stone of St. Paul's, together with a pair of carved mahogany candlesticks, were presented by Wren, and are now in possession of that lodge."
Wren was neglected by the court in his latter days, but amends were partially made at his death by a funeral of great distinction, and an interment in his own cathedral. Over his tomb in the crypt of St. Paul's were inscribed the words, worthy of the man and the place, "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice!"
November 23, 1667.—At the meeting of this date there was performed an experiment such as had never before been attempted in England. The year before Dr. Wallis had reported the success of some experiments made at Oxford by Dr. Lower, "of transfusing the blood of one animal into the body of another." But now the operation was to be tested upon a human being. A poor theological student, Arthur Coga or Coyn, offered himself as the subject. The operation was performed by Dr. Lower and Dr. King without any untoward symptoms arising. Some one asked the young man afterward why the blood of a sheep, rather than that of any other animal, was used in transfusion. He replied, "Sanguis ovis symbolicam quandam facultatem habet cum sanguine christi, quia Christus est Agnus Dei."
Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood, though for some time strenuously opposed, finally became accepted, and at once gave rise to the wildest speculations. In the blood were supposed to lie all the ills and diseases which tormented human life, and for their cure the bad blood had only to be drawn off, to be replaced by the pure blood of some young, healthy animal, when the sick would be restored, the maniac would recover his reason, old age return to youth again, and man become immortal.
Transfusion became the topic of the day. The courtier, the peasant, the man of science, followed every experiment with intense interest. It was a subject which appealed to the imagination and interest of every individual. If one may not secure immortality one way, may he not in another?
It is to the credit of the medical profession that as a body it deprecated the indiscriminate practice of such a hazardous experiment. There is no telling where the delirium may have carried the practice had not among the first cases occurred two deaths in Paris, when it was prohibited in France except by the approbation of the Faculty of Paris, and later occurred two deaths in Rome, whereupon the Pope issued an edict forbidding transfusion within his domains.
December 21, 1671.—The minutes contain this sentence: "The Lord Bishop of Sarum (Dr. Seth Ward) proposed for candidate Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of the Mathematicks at Cambridge." At this same meeting was shown a reflecting telescope made by Newton to overcome the objections hitherto pertaining to the refracting telescope. Upon receiving the society's hearty congratulations upon his invention, Newton promised to send the philosophical experiments which led to its construction. This promise he fulfilled, and the result was his famous work on "Optics." Newton now was fully launched upon that career as investigator and discoverer which has covered his name with immortal renown. He was yet scarcely thirty years of age. But even as a boy he had displayed an earnest of his future work by constructing windmills, water-clocks, and sun-dials; one of the latter is said to still mark the hours upon the walls of his old manor-house at Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire; when only twenty-three he discovered his method of fluxions, by means of which the calculations of the movements of the planets were greatly facilitated, and he already was in possession of the principle of gravitation, which saw light sixteen years later, only because an erroneous estimate of the earth's diameter, which was a factor in his calculations, produced some inexplicable deviation from the result expected.
Newton, like Boyle, never married, but devoted his long life entirely to scientific and philosophical studies. Newton was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703, and successively re-elected until his death in 1727, thus making his presidency exceed that of any other, excepting Sir Joseph Banks, in the history of the society. This honor was not unfittingly bestowed, for there is no other name, in the long list of distinguished Fellows, whose life-work has reflected greater honor upon this already famous society.
In 1675 the Royal Society appealed to the king to establish an astronomical observatory for the study of astronomy and navigation. This the king consented to do, and commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to erect such a building at Greenwich. The Royal Society was given general supervision over its investigations, and evinced its solicitude by furnishing all the instruments used at the observatory during the first fifteen years.
Under Flamsteed as the first astronomical observator, or astronomer royal as the office was afterward called, and Halley as his successor, there began the long and unbroken series of important observations which have made the Observatory of Greenwich the most famous in the world. When, in 1698, Peter the Great visited England, he showed his great natural love for all that bore upon navigation by spending considerable time in the observatory and among the Fellows of the Royal Society. His quick mind evidently saw the advantages of such a society and observatory, for later in his life he established the Academy of Sciences and the National Observatory at St. Petersburg.
In 1695 Dr. Woodward, Fellow, brought forward his "Essay towards a Natural History of the Earth," which secured considerable notice from the great knowledge displayed upon geological subjects. He founded the professorship of Geology at Cambridge, and bequeathed his geological museum to the university at his death. In 1710 he managed to insult Sir Hans Sloane, then president of the society, for which the society demanded an apology. This he refused to give, and was expelled. He appealed to law for reinstatement, but failed. So ended the first quarrel in the history of the society. Woodward must have had a testy temper, for he had a quarrel with Dr. Mead over some medical topic about which they disagreed, and which resulted in a duel under the gate of Gresham College. During the duel Woodward's foot slipped and he fell. "Take your life!" exclaimed Dr. Mead. "Anything but your physic," replied Woodward.
1709 is the date of the death of Sir Godfrey Copley, Fellow, and the foundation by his will of the medal of that name, which has been so pertinently styled by Sir Humphry Davy "the ancient olive crown of the Royal Society." This medal is awarded yearly "to the living author (native or foreign) of such philosophical research, either published or communicated to the society, as may appear to the council to be deserving that honor," and many of the brightest men of science throughout the world have been recipients of this medal.
In 1752 England officially changed the calendar, the Royal Society, as would be supposed, being chiefly instrumental in the change. The bill was drawn up by president of the society Folkes, the secretary, Duval, and Astronomer Royal Bradley.
The Julian calendar, as instituted by Julius Cæsar, was so perfect that it was universally used until the sixteenth century. But as time ran on it was seen that the Julian year was eleven minutes longer than it should be, so that by 1582 there was a discrepancy of ten days. This resulted in great confusion in the Church, respecting the proper dating of Easter and all other movable feasts. Pope Gregory XIII set to work to correct this, and, by the recommendation of Lilius, a Neapolitan astronomer, proposed the Gregorian Calendar or New Style, in which he corrected the excessive ten days by declaring that the day following the 5th of October, 1582, should be called the 15th, and, to correct the annual gain of eleven minutes, that every hundredth year should not be called a leap-year, excepting every four hundredth, beginning with the year 2000. All the Catholic powers immediately adopted the Pope's brief, but the Protestant countries, in their intense hatred of all that pertained to popery, refused to accept for a long time this evidently superior calendar. It was nearly two centuries before England accepted the New Style, and was the last of the European governments to surrender, except Russia, which clings to the Old Style to this day. Late as it was, the Royal Society, for recommending the change, shared in the opprobrium which fell upon the ministry who adopted it.
Whenever the prime minister appeared in public, mobs surrounded his carriage, demanding that he restore the days by which they supposed he had shortened their lives. When Astronomer Royal Bradley took sick and died amid the popular excitement, his death was believed to be a judgment of Heaven. This popular indignation extended even to the second generation; for when the son of Lord Macclesfield was standing for Parliament in the county of Oxford, the rabble greeted his appearance with the taunting words: "Give us back, you rascal, those eleven days which your father stole from us!"
In 1753 Franklin's electrical experiments won for him the Copley medal, a rare prize for one who was not a member of the Royal Society. In 1756 he enjoyed the further distinction of being elected Fellow, without having previously requested a member to propose his name, which had been the almost invariable custom and rule. Forasmuch as the society had elected Franklin without any advance on his part, it was considered but a graceful thing for it to release him from all annual dues, which was done. Franklin, on his part, fully repaid the society for its favors by frequently contributing to its "Transactions." When medals and honorary memberships in all the learned societies had been conferred upon him, when he had become the most talked-of and courted scientist in Europe, when his attentions conferred rather than received honors, even during the period of the Revolutionary War, Franklin kept up his friendly correspondence with members of the Royal Society, and the society rendered itself worthy of grateful remembrance by every American in its brave stand against lending itself to a narrow-minded sovereign to break down Franklin's scientific reputation.
Franklin's electrical experiments had led to his discovery of lightning-rods, of the power of rods and points to carry off safely the electrical shock. The accuracy of his experiments was generally conceded, but Abbé Nollet, in France, opposed the points and declared that the rods should be blunt. A Mr. Wilson raised the same objections in England. The question, which at other times would have been decided in scientific circles, became a political one. George III, in his eagerness to weaken Franklin's prestige, decided the scientific question like a king, adopted Wilson's views, and had blunt rods erected upon his palace. The Royal Society was appealed to. It emphatically declared for pointed rods. The president of the society, Sir John Pringle, was sent for, and royally commanded to support Wilson in the meetings. Sir John remonstrated: "Sire, I can not reverse the laws and operations of nature." George III modestly suggested, "Perhaps, Sir John, you had better resign."
Franklin's ready wit seized this incident to spit the king upon the point of this epigram:
"While you, great George, for knowledge hunt,
And sharp conductors change for blunt,
The nation's out of joint;
Franklin a wiser course pursues,
And all your thunder useless views,
By keeping to the point."
When Halley predicted the transit of Venus in 1761, the Royal Society recommended the Government to send out capable men to India to make careful observations of this important astronomical event. For this purpose Mason and Dixon, two eminent astronomers and mathematicians, were dispatched, with all necessary apparatus, upon the Government vessel Sea-Horse, to Bencoolen.
An encounter with a French frigate drove the expedition into a friendly port. The astronomers proved poor soldiers, and they wrote home to have themselves released from the hazardous undertaking.
Their apparatus was better fitted for dealing with whirling bodies at a distance rather than at close range. However, the English Government commanded them to sail, which they with much trepidation proceeded to do, although the time wasted prevented them from reaching Bencoolen. They consequently landed at the Cape of Good Hope and made their observations there.
Mason and Dixon were later associated in an expedition which proved more successful. They landed in Philadelphia in 1763, and proceeded to survey, and settle for all time, the disputed boundary-line between the colonial patents of the Penns and Lord Baltimore. This line afterward became famous in American history from its division of the free and the slave States of the Union.
It is sad to relate that the society which could stand so bravely beside a non-resident member should so weakly yield to popular clamor as to break the last tie which held one of its most distinguished resident members to his country and home. It but illustrates the instability of human nature to find the Royal Society refuse to be used in the slightest manner to punish Franklin, who represented the bitterest hostility to George III and his ministry, and only a few years later demand the resignation of Dr. Joseph Priestley, who simply differed with the Established Church by demanding freedom of worship, and who differed with the Government by expressing sympathy for the American colonies and for the struggling French Republic. It counted little for Priestley that he had received the Copley medal for his electrical investigations and made it possible for chemistry to become a science by his discovery of oxygen. Priestley was a Non-conformist minister, and rendered himself intensely unpopular by continual debates with the Established clergy. His controversy with Dr. (afterward Bishop) Horsley was the most important theological controversy in the eighteenth century. In view of the invariable preferment given to Dr. Horsley and other opponents for their energy displayed in these contests, Priestley was led to make the stinging comment that he appointed the bishops of England. Hated and feared by the Established Church for his undoubted abilities and heresies, hated and feared by the Government for his dangerous political heresies, no protection was granted him when, upon the anniversary of the fall of the Bastile, a mob burned to the ground his house, with all his manuscripts and apparatus, and to escape personal violence the now old man fled for refuge to America, where he spent the remainder of his life.
In 1779 Count Rumford, adventurer, soldier, and scientist, was elected Fellow. Sir Benjamin Thompson's life reads like a romance. A poor New England lad, he at the outbreak of the Revolution sailed to England, where he spent the greater part of his life. He held many positions of honor and trust, both in England and Bavaria, and displayed marked ability as a statesman and as a general. But he is chiefly remembered for his scientific attainments. He founded the Rumford medal of the Royal Society, and enjoyed the unique distinction of being its first recipient. In 1802 the society decided that the medal be given "to Benjamin Count Rumford for his various discoveries on the subject of heat and light," Rumford founded the Royal Institute, at London, for the study of these subjects, and many of England's greatest chemists and physicists have lectured here under its auspices.
Various papers upon physical optics were read before the society by Dr. Thomas Young, during 1801-3, containing his newly discovered law of interference of light, which led to the establishment of the undulatory theory of light. This discovery placed Young in the front rank of the natural philosophers of his day, but, as it often happens, his discovery was neglected in his own country until taken up and adopted abroad. Young was elected Fellow as soon as he reached his twenty-first year, which confirms to a certain extent the stories of his remarkable youthful attainments.
Besides being an eminent physician and writer on medical subjects, he delivered a course of philosophical lectures, served on the Board of Longitude, edited the "Nautical Almanac," and, most important of all, prosecuted his profound studies upon the Egyptian hieroglyphics, which led in 1818 to the successful interpretation of these hitherto sealed histories.
1806 is the date of the Bakerian lecture before the Royal Society, "On Some Chemical Agencies in Electricity," by Sir Humphry Davy, then but twenty-eight years old, but already the best-known chemist of his day. This brilliant memoir produced a profound sensation, and his lecture-room at the Royal Institute became a fashionable resort. Its scientific import was at once recognized over all Europe.
Although England and France were at war, the Institute of France awarded Davy the handsome prize of three thousand francs, offered by Bonaparte for the experiments best calculated to promote science; and when, a few years later, Napoleon allowed him to travel through France, the Institute elected him corresponding member of the first class. Upon his return to England, in 1815, Sir Humphry began his memorable investigation upon fire-damp, which had caused such havoc to life by explosions in the coal-mines.
As the outcome of his experiments was the invention of the safety-lamp known by his name, one of the many beneficent contributions which science is constantly conferring upon humanity. Davy deliberately refused to gain the fortune which its invention would surely have brought him, but the coal-miners showed their gratitude by presenting him with a handsome service of plate, and the Government conferred a baronetcy upon him. He received all the honors of the Royal Society, the Copley, the Royal and the Rumford medals, and was president of the society for a number of years. Sir Humphry was a highly imaginative, poetical writer, and a consummate scientific lecturer, but his presidency of the society was not among his most successful acts. After he had become famous, wealthy, and courted, he became arrogant and haughty, and, forgetful of his own lowly origin, talked much of aristocracy and high connections; so that, when he died, many recalled the epigram pronounced upon poor Hooke. Davy kept up the custom of his predecessor in office, Sir Joseph Banks, by appearing in a full court-dress when presiding over the transactions of the society. Withal, his presidency was a brilliant one, for among the contributing members during his term of office were Herschel, Buckland, Young, Dalton, Babbage, Brewster, and Faraday.
King George IV, in 1825, showed his interest in the Royal Society by proposing to award two gold medals, to be known as the Royal medals. The society accepted the proposal, and in the following year the first prize was bestowed upon John Dalton, of Manchester, "for the development of the chemical theory of definite proportions, usually called the atomic theory, and for his labors and discoveries in physical and chemical science."
The laws enunciated by Dalton upon the atomic theory are the greatest generalizations in chemistry, and at once placed it among the exact sciences. Dalton had an analytical, experimental turn of mind; patient, persevering, and painstaking, supreme in the laboratory, but almost destitute of social and literary instincts. When asked why he did not marry, he replied that he never had the time. One who had not time to seek a wife would not likely have the time nor the desire to seek general culture. So we are not surprised to hear him say that his entire library could be carried upon his back, and scarcely half of these had he read.
Dalton always wore the plain, colorless garb of the Friends, and only once appeared in public otherwise. When he was in London in 1834 his friends desired to present him to the king, but he refused to invest himself in the court-dress. He went arrayed in the scarlet doctor's robe, perfectly unconscious of the brilliancy of his attire; he was a victim of his friends' innocent conspiracy, for Dalton was color-blind.
In 1864 the Royal Society, through its president, Major-General Sabine, awarded the Copley medal to Charles Darwin, the author of the "Origin of Species," The president highly eulogized the merits of his works, "stamped throughout with the impress of the closest attention to minute details and accuracy of observation, combined with large powers of generalization," In 1839, upon his return from his voyage on the Beagle, the young naturalist, for his excellent papers on volcanic phenomena, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and at the anniversary meeting of the society in November, 1853, the Royal medal was presented him for his masterly treatise on "Coral Reefs." So, when the "Origin of Species" appeared, it was not from an unknown author, but one who had already attained a world-wide reputation. But no man's reputation, however great, could have saved so revolutionary a work as the "Origin" from the most violent opposition. It called forth grave reviews, satires, wit, even personal vituperation; but Darwin, in his rural home in Kent, received it all in a philosophic spirit, and abided his time. The "Origin of Species" was the launching of the evolutionary movement, and, without discussing the validity of the doctrine, it is safe to say that it has given rise to the most forcible and puissant school of philosophy of the present day, and has affected science, in its myriad branches, more profoundly than any other scientific generalization since Newton's conception of the pervading force of gravitation.
During the early existence of the society the meetings were held in Gresham College, where many of its members were professors. In 1710 the society removed to Crane Court. In 1780 the president, Sir Joseph Banks, was instrumental in securing from the Government more comfortable accommodations in Somerset House. Their present location is at Burlington House, whither they moved in 1857. The meetings are held every Thursday at 4.30 p. m., from November to June; and of the communications read before the society, a "Committee of Papers" selects the most noteworthy for publication in the "Philosophical Transactions" or the "Proceedings of the Royal Society." Since the presidency of Sir Joseph Banks, membership in the society has been much more difficult to attain than formerly, from the great number of applicants for the limited vacancies to be filled each year. Each application for membership must be signed by six Fellows, three of whom must be personally acquainted with the applicant. From a list of such applicants, as it is often a long one, the Council of the society on the first Thursday of June each year selects fifteen by ballot, which selection is usually ratified by the society without change.
There is a corresponding class of foreign members, fifty in number, which includes the names of the foremost scientists throughout the world. No scientist is so eminent but feels honored by being elected Fellow of this ancient corporation, and to have one's labors crowned by one of its medals is a mark of the highest distinction.