Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/August 1892/The Royal Society: Or, Scientific Visionaries of the Seventeenth Century
|THE ROYAL SOCIETY; OR, SCIENTIFIC VISIONARIES OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.|
DURING the English Commonwealth period two little companies of natural philosophers were in the habit of meeting for study and experiments—one in London, and the other at the lodgings of Dr. Wilkins, warden of Wadhani College, Oxford. At a later day these small clubs of virtuosi, as the scientists of that age were called, were united, and the society held all its sessions in London, at a tavern or private house; and when finally it attained such dimensions that a large room was necessary, it established itself in the parlor of Gresham College. It was originally called the Philosophic Assembly; but when, soon after the restoration of Charles II, Evelyn, in his dedicatory epistle, prefixed to Naudé's Treatise on Libraries, spoke of the Philosophic Assembly as the Royal Society, the name was immediately adopted by the members, with a vote of thanks to him for suggesting it. Charles was gratified, and declared himself their founder, giving them, as Evelyn records, August 21, 1662, "the armes of England, to be borne in a canton in our armes; and sent us a mace of silver gilt of the same fashion and bigness as those carried before his Majesty, to be borne before our president on meeting days" Evelyn, besides writing several books, at the request of the society, procured for it from the Howard family the noble Arundelian Library, adding, on one of his birthdays, his table of the lungs, liver, veins, and arteries; the first chart of the kind that was ever made. A rare print, designed by Evelyn, probably as a frontispiece to Spratt's History of the Royal Society, and beautifully engraved by Hollar, represents Lord Bacon as the founder of the society; for, as Disraeli says, he "planned the ideal institution in his philosophical romance of the New Atlantis." The picture contains fine portraits of Charles II, patron of the society; Lord Brouncker, its first president, and Lord Bacon, its founder, inscribed Artium instaurator. The library, statutes, journals, and mace of the Royal Society, and numerous philosophical instruments are represented in the engraving.
One peculiarity of the association was that men of all nations, religions, and professions were admitted to membership; for, as their historian, Bishop Spratt, said, they did not wish "to lay the foundations of an English, Scotch, Irish, Popish, or Protestant philosophy, but a philosophy of mankind." When the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge desired to hold its meetings in the Royal Society's rooms, Sir Isaac Newton made the following protest against their admission: "It is a fundamental rule of the society not to meddle with religion; and the reason is that we may give no occasion to religious bodies to meddle with us"; nor did the Fellows wish to "dissatisfy those of other religious bodies" who did not share the views of the Christian Knowledge Association. In the early days of the Philosophic Club, when only a few intimate friends belonged to it, Robert Boyle, on account of its smallness and lack of influence, often sportively called it the Invisible College—a name which, when this learned junto had become large and important, was recalled with terror by the enemies of the association, whether Aristotelians or religious bigots, who alike considered "the new experimental philosophy subversive of the Christian faith." The newly invented telescope and microscope were regarded by others besides ignorant fanatics with hatred and dread, as "atheistical inventions which perverted our sight, and made everything appear in a new and false light."
The opponents of the Royal Society asserted that the principal object that its supporters had in view was the extinction of universities, which were the strongholds of scholasticism and theology. Yet this association was one of the chief interests in the lives of many of the most devout and scholarly men of the seventeenth century. "Our holy religion" held the first place in their hearts, though they considered the "new philosophy" second in importance to Christianity. The imaginations and plans of the society were magnificent, but they were never carried out. The Fellows were fond of talking of their "universal correspondence," which, in the near future, would keep their ten secretaries—who, however, were never elected, though the constitution provided for them—hard at work; and they loved to throw an air of secrecy over their deliberations. These harmless vaunts and concealments added to the panic which the virtuosi excited in people who were ever dreading the establishment, openly or by the treachery of the Jesuits, of popery and arbitrary power, and led to the most unfounded suspicions and accusations.
One of the most injurious things said against the society was that its members were of the school of the Italian Campanella, who, it was claimed, wished to identify church and state throughout the world, and bring all nations under the power of a single tyrannical ruler, and to that end would divert men from theology and politics by occupying them with experimental philosophy. Campanella's universal king, as soon as by trickery or by some unaccountable and unexplained means he had firmly seated himself on his throne, would, it was asserted, carry out the dearest object of the philosopher, and substitute everywhere the ancient pagan philosophic for the modern Christian sects. Probably Campanella and the more intelligent F. R. S. would alike, instead of advocating despotism in any shape, have asserted that if men were allowed to experiment, analyze, dissect, and philosophize "with the utmost freedom, the despotism of religion and politics would dissolve away in the weakness of its quiescent state." The truth is, the scholastics who opposed the experimental philosophy considered novelty of speculation, without regard to character or tendency, as heresy and treason. Perhaps Evelyn inadvertently raised this specter of Campanellaism. Maudé—whose book on libraries he translated for the Royal Society—was not only a skeptic and an advocate of absolute monarchy, but he was a warm friend and defender of Campanella, whose religious and political views are not very clearly defined.
Spratt, in his History of the Royal Society, eulogized Charles II for his interest in science; but Stubbes, his opponent, perhaps not wholly unmindful of the ignorant popular prejudice against Campanella, retorted that the natural philosophers were likely to demoralize the king (was anybody capable of that!), for "never prince acquired the name of great and good by any knickknacks, but by actions of political wisdom, courage, and justice."
It seems strange, when reading the literary and scientific history of the seventeenth century, to find Sir William Temple among the scoffers at the virtuosi. Personal dislike of some of the founders of the Royal Society was, no doubt, the reason in part of his opposition to experimentalists. He fancied the Fellows a "set of Sir Nicholas Gimcracks," and, with the wise men of Gotham probably in his thoughts, "contemptuously called them, from the place of their first meeting, 'men of Gresham.'"
In a letter to Cowley, urging the poet to write his poem in praise of the society an ode described by Macaulay as "weighty in thought and resplendent in wit" Evelyn indignantly exclaims: "There be those who aske, What have the Royal Society done? Where their colledge? I neede not instruct you how to answer or confound these persons, who are able to make even these informe Blocks and Stones daunce into order, and charme them into better sense. Or if their insolence presse, you are capable to shew how they [the F. R. S.] have layd solid foundations to perfect all noble Arts, and reforme all imperfect sciences. It requires an History to recite onely the Arts, the Inventions, and Phaenomena already absolved, improved or opened. In a word, our Registers have outdone Pliny, Porta, and Alexis, and all the Experimentalists, nay, the great Verulam himself e, and have made a nobler and more faithfull Collection of real seacrets, usefull and instructive than has hitherto been shewn. Sir, we have a Library, a Repository, and an assembly of as worthy and greate Persons as the World has any; and yet we are sometimes the subject of Satyr and the songs of Drunkards. We have a king to our founder and yet want a Macaenas; and above all a Spirit like yours to raise up Benefactors and to compell them to thinke the Designe of the Royall Society as worthy of their reguards and as capable to embalme their names, as the most heroic enterprise, or anything Antiquity has celebrated; and I am even amaz'd at the wretchednesse of this Age that acknowledges it no more. But the Devil, who was ever an enemy to Truth and to such as discover his praestigious effects, will never suffer the promotion of a designe so destructive to his dominion, which is to fill the world with imposture and keep it in Ignorance, without the utmost of his malice and contradiction. But you have numbers and charms that can binde even these spirits of darkenesse, and render their instruments obsequious; and we know you have a divine Hyme for us; the luster of the Royall Society calls for an Ode from the best of Poets upon the noblest Argument. To conclude, you have a field to celebrate the Greate and the Good, who either do or should favour the most august and worthy designe that ever was set on foot in the world; and those who are our real Patrons and Friends you can eternize, those who are not you can conciliate and inspire to do gallant things."
Evelyn's indignant defense of his beloved association is not surprising when we read the abuse the F. R. S. received from some of the most talented writers of the seventeenth century. The witty Dr. South said that the members of the Royal Society "could admire nothing but fleas, lice, and themselves." Hobbes, the philosopher of Malmesbury, considered them so many laborers, apothecaries, gardeners, and mechanics, who "might now all put in for and get the prize." Cross, Vicar of Chew, wrote ribald pamphlets and ballads, which he got sung about the streets, against the new philosophy. Stubbes, a man of perverted genius, accused the F. R. S. of atheism and treason, and they greatly feared his formidable series of attacks. Dr. King burlesqued their published volumes of Transactions, and ridiculed alike their grammar, style, and the inventions and discoveries they described. Wotton, who was a less sensitive F. R. S. than Evelyn, treats King, in his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, with "great good humor." He says: "A man is got but a very little way [in philosophy] that is concerned as often as such a merry gentleman as Dr. King shall think fit to make himself sport." Sir John Hill published a quarto volume of satire in the form in which the Transactions of the society were issued, and other books against the Fellows. But he did them good, for his parodies and ridicule taught them to be more cautious in the selection of papers for their printed reports.
In his preface to his Sylva the usually amiable Evelyn scolds at a rate we should have thought impossible to him, at "the ignorant and comical buffoons who, with an insolence suitable to their understanding, are still [as he repeats] crying out, 'What have the society done?'" And he prophesies that the society "will survive the triumphs of the proudest conquerors; since when all their pomp and noise is ended, they [the F. R. S.] are those little things in black, whom now in scorn they term philosophers and fops, to whom they must be obliged for making their names outlast the pyramids, whose founders are as unknown as the heads of the Nile."
Unfortunately, though Evelyn's claim for the society was substantially correct, the virtuosi laid themselves open to ridicule by their many trifling, useless, and ludicrous questions, researches, and experiments, and much of their labor was wasted, and its results are now forgotten. The great Mr. Boyle is represented as mortified by the absurd investigations of trivial subjects in which some of his colleagues engaged, and as on one occasion tendering to a friend, with blushing and confusion at the simplicity of the society, their paper "giving instructions for inquiries." That "pleasant rascal," the witty Charles II, whom Evelyn could hardly have numbered among the scorners whom he described as "magnificent fops, whose talents reach but to the adjusting of their perukes," set the example of making fun of the Fellows on the very day that he constituted them a society. He dined with them on this occasion, as he did afterward; when he was not present they feasted on venison sent them by his Majesty. Toward the close of this first meeting, after expressing his satisfaction at being the only King of England who had founded a scientific society, he added, with that "peculiar gravity of countenance" which he assumed when preparing to mystify or hoax his companions with some witty but apparently grave and sincere remark or question, that he had no doubt the learned men before him could solve a problem that had long puzzled him. This was the question: Suppose two pails of water of the same weight were placed in two different but equally balanced scales, and that two live bream were put in either of the pails, why would not the pail to which the fish were added weigh more than the one to which no addition had been made? The Fellows were eager to satisfy the king's curiosity; but everybody gave a different answer. "One at length offered so ridiculous a solution that another of the members could not refrain from a loud laugh; when the king, turning to him, insisted that he should give his sentiments as well as the rest. This he did without hesitation, and told his Majesty, in plain terms, that he denied the fact! On which the king in high mirth exclaimed: 'Odds fish, brother, you are in the right.' The jest was not ill designed. The story was often useful to cool the enthusiasm of the scientific visionary, who is apt often to account for what never has existed."
The king could, however, discuss soberly the topics beloved by the F. R. S., who had many a long scientific talk with him. He tried experiments himself, and Pepys speaks of going down at Whitehall "into the king's little elaboratory under his closet; a pretty place; and there saw a great many chymical glasses and things but understood none of them." Pepys was accompanied by his fellow-members, Lord Brouncker and Sir R. Murray. Under date of May 3, 1661, Evelyn writes: "This evening I was with my Lord Brouncker, Sir Robert Murray, Sir Pa. Neill, Monsieur Zulichem, and Mr. Bull (all of them of our society and excellent mathematicians) to show his Majesty, who was present, Saturn's annulus very neere eclipsed by the moon; also Jupiter and satelites, thro' his Majesty's great telescope, drawing 35 foote; on which were divers discourses." Another day Evelyn accompanied Charles "to Mons. Febure, his chymist (and who had formerly been my master in Paris), to see his accurate preparation for the composing Sir Walter Raleigh's rare cordial; he made a learned discourse before his Majesty in French on each ingredient." Another scientist of high rank was Prince Rupert, who with his own hands (which the jeering courtiers said too often bore the stains of the laboratory) taught Evelyn to engrave mezzotinto, and whom Evelyn introduced to the Royal Society, where, in spite of smoke-begrimed linen and fingers stained with acids, the soldier chemist was warmly welcomed as an agreeable companion and scientific brother. The well-known "Prince Rupert's drops" may be numbered among the scientific toys invented in this age.
Pepys gives an amusing account of an encounter between Charles II and the celebrated scholar, wit, and inventor, Sir William Petty. "Thence to Whitehall," he says, "where in the duke's chamber the king come and stay'd an hour or two, laughing at Sir William Petty, who was there about his boat (one of his inventions); and at Gresham College in general; at which poor Petty was, I perceived, at some loss; but did argue discretely, and bear the unreasonable follies of the king's objections and other bystanders with great discretion, and offered to take odds against the king's best boats; but the king would not lay, but cried him down with words only. Gresham College he mightly laughed at for spending time only in weighing ayre and doing nothing else since they sat."
Some time before this Evelyn wrote: "I went with that excellent person and philosopher, Sir Robert Murray, to visit Mr. Boyle. At Chelsy I saw divers effects of the Eolipile for weighing aire!" Boyle was the discoverer of "the law of the air's elasticity."
Pepys, no doubt, while the king teased and jeered at Sir William Petty, was indignantly recalling the society's many fine experiments with colors, fire, loadstones, microscopes, the airpump, thermometer, liquors, musical sounds, vibrations of the air, blood injected into a dog to prove Harvey's theory of circulation, and "one that did turn a piece of roasted mutton into pure blood, which was very rare"; and another, when the blood of a sheep was transfused into a man.
He would have liked to remind his Majesty of the plans for planting the royal forests with oaks and other trees; abating London smoke, and making artificial fuel, which had emanated from the society; of how they had promoted new physiological, surgical, medical, botanical, chemical, physical, astronomical, agricultural, horticultural, and sanitary methods and discoveries; patronized art. literature, architecture, and mechanical inventions, and were doing all in their power to "disperse," as Macaulay said of them, "the phantoms which had haunted the world for ages, and destroy the belief in witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy."
Yet, alas! Charles might have retorted that many of their leaders were either seeking the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life, endeavoring to fly in the air, to collect the feathers of the wing of a phoenix, or catch "the disjointed syllables of an old doting astrologer." The contents of their museums were often no more valuable than the toys in the baby-house, and amusing rather than useful or really curious. Yet with these playthings they expected to work wonders in science.
The distinguished Sir Samuel Morland, who was reputed to have invented the steam-engine, the speaking-trumpet, drum capstans for weighing heavy anchors, arithmetical wheels, quenchfires, a new kind of harp, valuable bridges, a machine for throwing water to a great height, and other useful things, prided himself on his coach, which contained a kitchen with a fireplace, pots, frying-pans, and a machine for roasting meat by clockwork.
Evelyn visited Sir Samuel when the inventor was very old and blind, and was shown his "invention of writing, which was very ingenious; also his wooden Kalender, which instructed him all by feeling, and other pretty and useful inventions of mills, pumps, etc. He has newly buried £200 worth of music-books six feet under ground, being, as he said, love-songs, and vanity. He plays himself psalms and religious hymns on the theorbo." Sir Samuel believed in spells and witchcraft, and hesitated to prosecute a lawsuit because he was firmly convinced that the defendant had used, or was capable of using, charms to gain the victory over him. One of the fantastic wonders of the age was the home of Winstanley, who built the first Eddystone lighthouse. If you kicked aside an old shoe, flung purposely in your way, "up started a ghost before you. If you sat down in a certain chair, a couple of gigantic arms would immediately clasp you in." The house was a perfect knickknackatory, as the people of that day would have said. The instant you seated yourself in an arbor built in the garden near a canal you "were sent out afloat into the middle of the canal, whence you could not escape till this man of art and science wound you up to the arbor."
Evelyn gives an interesting account of the singular inventions of "that most obliging and universally curious" Bishop Wilkins, whose lodgings at Oxford he visited when the bishop was warden of Wadham College. Dr. Wilkins had contrived a talking statue, which was hollow, and connected with a tube through which a man a long distance off spoke the words which seemed to be uttered by the figure. With the assistance of that "prodigious young scholar, Mr. Christopher Wren," he had filled a gallery above his lodgings with a variety of shadows, dials, perspectives, and many other artificial, mathematical, and magical curiosities; a way-wiser, a thermometer, a monstrous magnet, conic and other sections, a balance on a demi-circle, marble curiously colored by Wren, and other scientific toys and instruments.
A favorite experiment in the seventeenth century was producing the apparition of a rose or other flower, and was called the process of the Palingenesis. "Having burnt a flower, by calcination, disengaged the salts from its ashes, deposited them in a glass vial, a chemical mixture acted on it, till, in the fermentation, they assumed a bluish and a spectral hue. The dust, thus excited by heat, shoots upwards into its primitive forms; by sympathy the parts unite, and while each is returning to its destined place, we see distinctly the stalks, the leaves, and the flower arise; it is the pale spectre of a flower coming slowly forth from its ashes. . . . This vegetable phœnix lies thus concealed in its cold ashes till the presence of heat produces this resurrection." When the ashes again cool it returns to death. "A corpse may give out its shadowy re-animation when not too deeply buried in the earth. Bodies corrupted in their graves have risen, particularly the murdered; for murderers are apt to bury their victims in a slight and hasty manner." Another scientific theory, as well as popular superstition, proved beyond peradventure by experiment!
Some members of the society were "impatient for romantic discoveries; miracles were required, some were hinted at, while others were promised." Of these wonders, Glanville, a man of acute and original intellect, who, though a firm believer in and defender of witchcraft, was yet somewhat skeptical in scientific matters, wrote in his work on the progress of knowledge since the days of Aristotle: "Should these heroes [the F. R. S.] go on as they have happily "begun," he said, "they will fill the world with wonders; and posterity will find many things that are now rumors verified into practical realities. It may be, some ages hence, a voyage to the southern unknown tracts, yea, possibly, the moon, will not be more strange than one to America. To them that come after us, it may be as ordinary to "buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest regions, as now a pair of boots to ride a journey; and to confer at the distance of the Indies, by sympathetic conveyances, may be as usual to future times, as to us in a literary correspondence. The restoration of grey hairs to juvenilty, and renewing the exhausted marrow, may at length be effected without a miracle; and the turning the now comparative desert world into a paradise, may not improbably be expected from late agriculture. Those that judge from the narrowness of former principles and successes will smile at these paradoxical expectations. Antiquity could not have believed the almost incredible force of our cannons, and would have as coldly entertained the wonders of the telescope." Disraeli smiles at these dreams at the dawn of philosophy. "What would he have thought had Glanville prophesied of steamships, railroads, telegraphs, sewing-machines, telephones, and other inventions of the nineteenth century, which were unknown in Disraeli's lifetime?
Gold-making was a favorite pursuit in the seventeenth century with our scientists. Sir Kenelm Digby's devotion to alchemy, which he regarded as science, led him to lavish money on impostors, and seek knowledge from very unlikely sources. He once went in disguise to consult the philosopher Descartes, and, hoping to obtain from him the secret of making aurum potabile, complained that life was too short for the accomplishment of the designs of a scientist. Descartes, though he did not give Digby the recipe for the golden elixir, replied that he had considered that matter; "to render a man immortal was what he could not promise, but that he was very sure it was possible to lengthen out his life to the period of the patriarchs." Sir Kenelm's wellknown weapon, salve, or powder of sympathy, was recommended by him as a valuable remedy, though it was, of course, the most ridiculous quackery. "The wound was never to be brought into contact with the powder, which was merely powdered vitriol. A bandage was to be taken from the wound, immersed in the powder, and kept there till the wound healed." He was a firm believer in astrology, and attributed his happy marriage to the beautiful and talented Yenetia Stanley, after a somewhat protracted courtship, to astrological influences. Digby gave Evelyn, at Paris, in 1651, some water which he "intended for a disolvent of calx of gold," and which, though it smelled like aqua fortis, and tasted like vitriol, he insisted was "only raine water of the autumnal equinox exceedingly rectified, very volatile"; an assertion which led Evelyn to the conclusion that "Sir Kenelm was an arrant mountebank." Some time afterward, mentioning Digby's account of Lady Selenger's antipathy for roses, which he said she had to that degree that "laying but a rose upon her cheek when she was asleepe, it raised a blister," Evelyn remarks, "But Sir Kenelm was a teller of strange things."
Yet Digby had in Evelyn a not incredulous listener. In the winter of 1652 there lived in Paris, in extraordinary splendor and seeming wealth—the source of which was not apparent—an impostor, who nearly succeeded in selling Evelyn and his scientific friends a pretended secret for multiplying gold; but they discovered before the bargain was completed that the man was an egregious cheat. Not long afterward Evelyn visited Mark Antonio, a celebrated artist in enameling, from whom he heard strange tales concerning a Genoese jeweler, who, according to Antonio, "had the greate Arcanum, and had made projection before him severall times. He mett him at Cyprus travelling into Egypt, on return from whence he died at sea, and the secret with him, that else he had promised to leave it to him"—a legacy which the enameler believed would have enabled him to manufacture gold. Mark Antonio also told a marvelous story about a dwarfish person whom he saw come into a goldsmith's shop in Amsterdam, and ask the master to melt him a pound of lead, which, being done, the visitor threw into the crucible of molten metal a pinch of powder that he carried in the hollow pommel of his sword, and, after a few moments, pouring out a gold ingot from the crucible, he carried it off, saying, as he left the shop, "Sir, you will be paid for your lead in the crucible," where, sure enough, the goldsmith found four ounces of good gold; but he could never hear of the little transmuter of metals again, though he sought him throughout the city. "This," says Evelyn, who had seen so many wonderful new inventions during his travels in France and Italy, that he was in a continually expectant frame of mind, and almost ready to believe that projection powder was a scientific discovery "this Antonio asserted with great obtestation, nor know I what to think of it, there are so many impostors and people who love to tell strange stories as this artist did, who had been a greate rover and spoke ten different languages." In May, 1653, Evelyn mentions in his diary the death from apoplexy of his "servant Hoare," meaning his private secretary, who "wrote those exquite severall hands," his illness being, it was supposed, caused by "tampering with mercury about an experiment in gold." The same year he records the receipt from Monsieur Roupel of "a small phial of Aurum potabile, with a letter showing the way of administering it and the stupendous cures it had done at Paris." But the bottle was empty when Evelyn received it, the potable gold having by some accident all run out. A drop of liquid gold was regarded as a sovereign remedy for every disease in France in the seventeenth century, as we may learn from Moliere's Physician in Spite of Himself, and was called the universal heal-all.
In June, 1705, Evelyn speaks of going to see Dr. Dickinson, the famous chemist, and having a conversation with him about the philosopher's elixir, which the doctor believed attainable, having seen projection himself by "one Mundanus, who sometimes came among the adepts, but was unknown as to his country and abode."
Ashmole, of museum fame, though rather a theoretical than practical alchemist, also had faith in potable gold as well as in other superstitions. He writes in his diary, April 11, 1668: "I took early in the morning a good dose of the elixir, and hung three spiders about my neck, and they drove my ague away."
He says that the alchemist, if he would succeed, must carry on his labors in secret, and not let any one know of his undertakings but his good angel and himself. Sir W. Petty told Pepys that he had left in his will sums of money to be given as prizes to persons who should make certain inventions, among others "to him that could invent proper characters to express to another the mixture of relishes and tastes. And says that to him that invents gold he gives nothing for the philosopher's stone; for (says he) they that find out that will be able to pay themselves!"
The Fellows of the Royal Society were much interested in anatomy, and sometimes witnessed dissections of men or animals. Pepys writes, July 3, 1668: "To an alehouse; met Mr. Pierce, the surgeon, and Dr. Clerke, Waldron, Turberville, my physician for the eyes, and Lowre to dissect severall eyes of sheep and oxen, with greate pleasure and to my greate information. But strange that this Turberville should be so greate a man, and yet to this day had seen no eyes dissected, or but once, but desired Dr. Lowre to give him the opportunity to see him dissect some." Turberville was a celebrated oculist, and was recommended to Pepys by that illustrious philosopher, Mr. Boyle.
The Royal Society were in the habit of inviting distinguished foreigners who visited London to attend their meetings. Evelyn writes, August 30, 1680: "I went to visite a French gentleman, one Monsieur Chardine, who, having ben thrice in the East Indies, Persia, and other remote countries, came hither in our returne ships from those parts, and it being reported that he was a very curious and knowing man, I was desir'd by the R. Society to salute him in their name, and to invite him to honour them with his company. Sir Jo. Hoskins and Sir Christopher Wren accompanied me. . . . He was sorry he could not gratify the curiosity of the Society at present, his things not being yet out of the ship, but would wait on them with them on his return from Paris, whither he was going next day, but with intention to return suddenly and stay longer here, the persecution in France not suffering Protestants—and he was one—to be quiet." Chardine went to the East in search of jewels and had become very rich. They "found him at his lodgings in his Eastern habit, a very handsome person, extremely affable, a modest, well-bred man, not inclin'd to talke wonders. He seem'd about 36 years old." Chardine was the author of the excellent and well-known volume of travels.
Frequently scientific parties visited the homes of English virtuosi who had cabinets of scientific or historical curiosities or inventions of their own to exhibit. Pepys mentions, May 1, 1665, meeting and joining Lord Brouncker, Sir Robert Murray, "the heart and soul of the Royal Society"; Dean Wilkins, and Mr. Hooke, curator of the society, who were going by boat and coach to dine with the inventor, Colonel Blount, and witness "the trial of some experiment about making coaches easy." After admiring their host's "long spring coach" and dining with him, the party went to Deptford, and "into Mr. Evelyn's (Sayes Court), which is a most beautiful place. ... A lovely and noble ground he hath indeed. And among other varieties a hive of bees, so as being hived in glass, you may see the bees making their honey and combs mighty pleasantly. ... It being dark and late I stayed not; but Dean Wilkins and Mr. Hooke and I walked to Redriffe; and noble discourse all day long did please me."
The transparent apiary to which Pepys alludes was a present from Dr. Wilkins, who invented it, to Evelyn. It was regarded as so great a curiosity that Charles II made an excursion to Sayes Court expressly to see it. Evelyn described the hive as built like a castle or palace, adorned with little statues, dials, and vanes, and so contrived that the honey could be removed without injuring the bees. Evelyn was a scientific horticulturist, and his gardens and orchards were the wonder and admiration of his contemporaries, one of whom described his grounds as a "garden exquisite and most boscaresque, and as it were an exempler of his book of forest trees"—the famous Sylva written for the Royal Society at the request of the Admiralty Board. August 4, 1665, Evelyn writes: "I call'd at Durdans, where I found Dr. Wilkins, Sir William Petty, and Mr. Hooke, contriving chariots, war rigging for ships, a wheele for one to run races in, and other mechanical inventions; perhaps three such persons together were not to be found elsewhere in Europe for parts and ingenuity." Petty made fame and fortune by his inventions. Evelyn writes in 1655: "Came that renowned mathematician Mr. Oughtred to see me, I sending my coach to bring him to Wotton, being now very aged; Among other discourse he told me he thought water to be the philosopher's first matter, and that he was well perswaded of the possibility of their elixir; he believed the sun to be a material fire, the moone a continent, as appears by the late selenographers; he had strong apprehensions of some extraordinary event to happen in the following yeare, from the calculation of coincidence with the diluvian period; and added that it might possibly be to convert the Jewes by our Saviour's visible appearance or to judge the world." Such was the mixture of sense and nonsense which occupied the minds of superior men in the seventeenth century!
September 10, 1676, Evelyn mentions dining with the first astronomer royal, "Mr. Flamstead, the learned astrologer and mathematician, whom his Majesty had established in the New Observatorie in Greenwich Park furnished with the choicest instruments. An honest, sincere man."
Evelyn believed that diseased children had been healed by baptism, and that there were other well-attested modern miracles, and is careful to state that he planted the orchard at Sayes Court in the full of the moon; yet he was less credulous than many of his learned colleagues. In 1670 "a plaine, ordinary, silent working wench," whose arm three different times in July was powdered with red crosses arranged in a diamond-shaped figure, was brought to Sayes Court by friends who regarded this poor girl's malady as the result of a miracle, and wished the opinion on the case of an P. R. S. Evelyn was reminded of the "impostorious nunns" of Loudune, France, whom he had seen, and remembered that M. Monconys "was by no means satisfied with the stigmata of those nunns because they were so shy of letting him scrape the letters, which were Jesu, Maria, Joseph, as I thinke, observing they began to scale off with it, whereas this poor wench was willing to submit to any trial; so that I profess I know not what to think of it, nor dare I pronounce it anything supernatural." "Curing by the touch," animal magnetism, or hypnotism, was not unknown in London in the seventeenth century, and "Gretrex and Stroaker" is mentioned in the Transactions of the Royal Society.
The members of the Royal Society considered themselves "intolerable losers" when prevented from attending the profitable and desirable meetings at Gresham College. "I now and then," one complains, "get a baite at Philosophy; but it is so little and jejune, as I despair of satisfaction 'till I am againe restor'd to the society, where even your very fragments are enough to enrich any man that has the honour to approach you." He calls heaven the Royal Society above, "where those whose refined and excellent natures make them capable of the sublimest mysteries, and aspire after experimental knowledge, truly so called, shall be fill'd; and there without danger taste of the fruit of the tree which cost our unhappy parents so dear, shall meet with no prohibition of what is desirable, no serpent to deceive, none to be deceived."
Many of the members of the Royal Society, while distinguished for their patient industry, could not philosophize on the facts they had collected, and their grammar and literary style were open to criticism. Their published works were consequently ridiculed by their ever-watchful opponents. One chief victim of the wits was Sir Hans Sloane, noted, like Ashmole, for his museum. The brilliant Dr. King produced a parody or travesty on Sloane's valuable history of Jamaica (quoting verbatim his bulls and blunders), which is "one of the severest and merriest satires that was ever written in prose." Yet we find the society, as early as 1665, appointing a committee to consider the improvement of the English language. And in Evelyn's correspondence appears a long letter addressed to Sir Peter Wyche, Knt., chairman of the committee, in which he says that they ought to prepare manuals of grammar, orthography, and punctuation, and a lexicon of current, obsolete, and technical words. Out of this grew a project for the establishment of an institution similar to the French Academy.
"And, indeed," writes Evelyn to Pepys, in 1689, "such was once designed since the Restauration of Charles II (1665), and in order to it three or four meetings were begun at Gray's Inn by Mr. Cowley, Dr. Spratt, Mr. Waller, the Duke of Buckingham, Matt Clifford, Mr. Dryden, and some other promoters of it. But by the death of the incomparable Mr. Cowley, distance and inconvenience of the place, the contagion and other circumstances intervening, it crumbled away and came to nothing; what straw I had gathered towards the bricks of that intended pyramid (having the honor to be admitted an inferior laborer) you may command and dispose of, if you can suffer my impertinences; and that which I have not shew'd you, the plan I drew and was laying before them for that designe, which was, I say'd, the polishing of the English tongue, and to be one of the first intentions and chiefest subjects of the Academists."