Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/April 1875/The Royal Institution and the Society of Arts
|THE ROYAL INSTITUTION AND THE SOCIETY OF ARTS.|
By BERNARD H. BECKER, Esq.
COMMENCING with the nineteenth century, the Royal Institution, that stronghold of fashionable science in Albemarle Street, can claim for itself many of the most remarkable discoveries which have distinguished an era of unrivaled activity. It owes its origin partly to Sir Joseph Banks, but in a far greater degree to a more remarkable man. Benjamin Thompson, afterward Count Rumford, was a lineal descendant of one James Thompson, who figured at Charlestown in Winthrop's company in 1630. Born in his grandfather's farmhouse, he enjoyed the advantage of a good grammar-school education, and then advanced in the world by the steps familiar to this day in America, but almost unknown in Europe. He was apprenticed to an importer of British goods, was allowed to make small ventures on his own account, fancied that he had invented perpetual motion, took a great interest in questions relating to light, heat, and the wind, lost his place, and blew himself up with fireworks before the age of sixteen. At seventeen he was a dry-goods clerk in Boston, studied French during his evenings, and got himself an electrical machine with money earned by cutting and carting firewood. He then boarded for some eighteen months with a Dr. John Hay, and picked up a little anatomy, chemistry, surgery, and physic, and in 1771 went to bridge, Massachusetts, to attend Winthrop's lectures on "Experimental Philosophy." He then, after the manner of his country, "taught school" at Wilmington; and afterward became master of a school at a place originally called Rumford, but subsequently rechristened Concord, when the disputes as to the State to which it belonged were finally settled, and it was ceded to New Hampshire for good and all.
Shortly before attaining the age of twenty, Thompson, a fine, handsome young man, married—or, to use his own expression—"was married by" Mrs. Rolfe, a wealthy widow of Concord. There was now no more occasion to "teach school," and Thompson hoped for leisure to pursue science vigorously; but the American Revolution breaking out, he speedily found his way to England, in 1778 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and two years later became an under-secretary of State, and colonel of the king's American Dragoons. At the conclusion of the war he was knighted by George III., and, having met the Elector of Bavaria at Strasbourg, passed a considerable time in Munich, busying himself in improving the breed of cattle and in building workhouses, and it was in order to find the most economical method of lighting the workhouse in Munich that he initiated the series of experiments afterward embodied in a paper on "The Relative Intensities of the Light emitted by Luminous Bodies," read before the Royal Society.
Honors now fell thickly upon the successful American. In 1785 he was elected member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and in the two succeeding years was made a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, and received the order of St. Stanislaus. Finally, Sir Benjamin Thompson became Lieutenant-General of the Bavarian Armies, received the order of the White Eagle, and was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire.
After the death of his wife he traveled for sixteen months in Italy, and during his stay at Verona rebuilt the kitchens of the two great hospitals—La Pieta and La Misericordia. Seven-eighths of the firewood were saved, and his success in this enterprise appears to have greatly encouraged Count Rumford to pursue his investigations into the proper management of fuel. A curious essay written by him about this time contains the mixed philanthropic and philosophic germ of the Royal Institution. This is a "proposal for forming in London, by private subscription, an establishment for feeding the poor and giving them useful employment, and also for furnishing food at a cheap rate to others who may stand in need of such assistance, connected with an institution for introducing and bringing forward into general use new inventions and improvements, particularly such as relate to the management of heat and the saving of fuel, and to various other mechanical contrivances by which domestic comfort and economy may be promoted." This was followed by other essays on "Food and feeding the Poor," on "Rumford Soup and Soup-Kitchens," and on "Chimney Fireplaces." The Rumford medal was now presented to the Royal Society "for discoveries tending to improve the theories of fire, of heat, of light, and of colors, and to new inventions and contrivances by which the generation, and preservation, and management of heat and of light may be preserved." The endowment of the medal consisted of £1,000 stock, and was, I may add, presented on the first award, in 1802, to its founder. Meanwhile Rumford went to Ireland and fitted up laundries and model kitchens, cottage fireplaces, and model lime-kilns; served in Bavaria, preserving by his firmness and skill the neutrality of that country; and finally determined to return to America, but was deterred from carrying out this project by his anxiety to launch the Royal Institution. In the mind of Rumford the dominant idea was originally that of bettering the condition and increasing the comforts of the poor. A society was formed for this, purpose, and out of it sprang, from a proposal of Count Rumford, a scheme for forming a new "Establishment in London for diffusing the Knowledge of Useful Mechanical Improvements." The two great objects of the institution were declared to be, the diffusion of the knowledge aforesaid and the teaching of the application of scientific discoveries to the improvement of arts and manufactures in this country. To fulfill the first object were to be exhibited full-sized working models of fireplaces, kitchens, stoves, grates, boilers, coppers, etc., and smaller models of houses, bridges, spinning-wheels, and of all "such other machinery and useful instruments as the managers of the institution shall deem worthy of the public notice."
In order to carry into effect the second object of this institution—namely, "teaching the application of science to the useful purposes oil life"—a lecture-room was to be fitted up "for philosophical lectures and experiments, and a complete laboratory and philosophical apparatus, with the necessary instruments, will be provided for making chemical and other philosophical experiments." On the 7th of March, 1779, a meeting was held at the house of Sir Joseph Banks, at which the list of original fifty-four proprietors and subscribers of fifty guineas was read. In addition to the names of Rumford and Banks are found on this list those of Angerstein, Joseph Grote, the Duke of Devonshire, Earl Spencer, Earl Holland, Lord Palmerston, the Earl of Winchelsea, and William Wilberforce. By the end of June, 1801, the Royal Institution had received upward of £20,000 in subscriptions. The site of four houses had been purchased in Albemarle Street, professors of chemistry, physics, and mechanics, had been engaged, daily lectures were delivered, a spacious chemical laboratory had been erected, workshops for making models had been built, and skilled workmen engaged for making apparatus and models of various kinds. Early in this year Count Rumford wrote to his daughter that the Royal Institution was "not only the fashion but the rage," and mentions incidentally that "we have found a nice, able man for this place as lecturer—Humphry Davy." This "nice, able man" was the eminent philosopher destined to explode a great part of Rumford's scheme, his models, his fireplaces, his kitchens, his experimental cooking, and his experimental dinners. In 1802 Count Rumford forsook England for Bavaria—as it turned out, forever—and, like many other benefactors of his species, was considered a good riddance. So far as can be ascertained, the American-Bavarian Count was offensively dictatorial in his manner, and exasperated those whom he did not succeed in crushing. Having shaken off Dr. Garnett, the first Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, he engaged Davy as an assistant lecturer in chemistry, director of the laboratory, and assistant editor of the journals of the Institution. The future president of the Royal Society was granted a room in the house, coals, candles, and a salary of 100 guineas per annum.
The first interview of Davy with Count Rumford was not very agreeable to the young chemist, then in his twenty-third year. The intensely juvenile air of the candidate, his almost provincial manners, and a slight Cornwall accent, sufficed to reduce the glacial count to a lower temperature than usual. With considerable difficulty Davy obtained permission to give a few lectures on the properties of gases. This, however, was sufficient. At the first lecture the variety and ingenious combination of his ideas, and the fire, vivacity, clearness, and novelty, with which they were expounded, enchanted the few who came to listen to the young lecturer, in whom they found united the power of poetry, oratory, and philosophy. The second lecture was crowded, and his course was obliged to be removed to the large amphitheatre, whither his fervid genius, and in some degree his youth and good looks, drew immense audiences. The ladies were charmed by the handsome young lecturer, and never tired of praising the beauty of his eyes, which they declared were "made for something besides poring over crucibles."
Before coming to the Royal Institution, Davy had already attained a certain celebrity by discovering the anæsthetic properties of nitrous oxide, and the period of his professorship was signalized by many brilliant discoveries. Named titular Professor of Chemistry in 1802, he only resigned the chair in 1813. He delivered his last lecture on the 9th of April, 1812, the day after he was knighted by the prince regent, and the day before his marriage with Mrs. Apreece, a wedding which put him in possession of a large fortune. The splendor shed upon the Royal Institution by the new Professor of Chemistry prevented the exhibition of any regret at the entire alteration of the original plan of the establishment. The Institution was no longer a popular school of technical science, but became almost the exclusive property of the higher classes. Ladies of the highest rank, and young noblemen, assiduously followed the lectures of Davy, while his researches in the laboratory produced the most solid results. It was there that he discovered the laws of electro-chemical decomposition, and succeeded in decomposing fixed alkalies—that he established the true nature of chlorine and the philosophy of flame. The electric battery with which the separation of potassium and sodium was operated is still preserved in the Royal Institution along with other apparatus used by Davy. The delight of the investigator, on seeing the globules of the new metal start through the crust of potash and catch fire on contact with the air, was intense. "He could not contain his joy, and danced round the room in an ecstatic transport; it was only after a while that he recovered sufficient calmness to continue the experiment." An immense electric battery was now constructed, and this heavy artillery directed against resisting earths. The result of experiment was to add four new metals to the list—barium, strontium, calcium, and magnesium. On resigning the chair of chemistry, Davy declared that he only renounced teaching in order to devote himself to original investigation, but after this date his life was only marked by one great discovery—that of the safety-lamp which bears his name.
In the year marked by the rising of that brilliant star, Sir Humphry Davy, the directors of the Royal Institution made another great success by appointing to the chair of natural philosophy a man of transcendent genius, the celebrated Dr. Young. He was one of the few infant prodigies who have made a mark in after-life. At two years of age he could read. At four he could recite by heart numerous English and Latin poems, of which last, by-the-way, he did not then understand a word; but by the age of fourteen he had learned—besides Greek and Latin—French, Italian, Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic. His passion for learning was immense, and his talent for overcoming difficulties astounding. On reaching man's estate he was an accomplished linguist, a brilliant mathematician, a botanist, a skillful musician, a neat turner, and a daring circus-rider. This universal genius did not remain long at the Royal Institution, but yet had time to deliver a notable course of lectures on "Natural Philosophy" before his retirement, when his place was occupied by Dalton. The famous author of the "Atomic Theory" was surprised, like other people, at the youthful appearance of Davy, and writes, characteristically enough: "He is a very agreeable and very intelligent young man, and we have extremely interesting conversations of an evening; his principal defect—as a philosopher—is that he does not smoke."
Although in the foremost rank of scientific men, Dalton was far from achieving great success as a lecturer, being almost utterly devoid of the fluency and power of illustration possessed in such a remarkable degree by Davy and Faraday. A most amusing account was given by Babbage of the incidents attending the presentation of Dalton at court. Firstly, he was a Quaker, and would not wear the sword, which is an indispensable appendage of ordinary court dress. Secondly, the robe of a doctor of civil law was known to be objectionable on account of its color—scarlet one forbidden to Quakers. Luckily, it was recollected that Dalton was afflicted with the peculiar color-blindness which bears his name, and that, as the cherries and the leaves of a cherry-tree were to him of the same color, the scarlet gown would present to him no extraordinary appearance. So perfect, indeed, was the color-blindness, that this most modest and simple of men, whose only pleasures were a pipe and a game of bowls, after having received the doctor's gown at Oxford, actually wore it for several days in happy unconsciousness of the effect he produced in the streets. The inventor of the calculating-machine, having offered to present his Quaker friend, was evidently in a state of fussy excitement about the result of the experiment. Poor Dalton was compelled to rehearse thoroughly the ceremony of presentation by the inexorable calculator, who—having found the chances in favor of a faux-pas to preponderate—was in a dreadful "taking" on the eventful day. The calculator was completely wrong. The king-addressed a few remarks to Dalton, who replied in fitting terms, and the tribulation of Babbage was over.
While the claims of science were amply supplied by the genius of Dalton, Young, and Davy, literature and moral philosophy were intrusted to no ordinary hands. During the years 1804-'6, the town-talk of London was divided between young Roscius, the youthful tragedian, and the lectures on moral philosophy delivered by the Rev. Sydney Smith, who, forty years after, said, "I did not know a word about moral philosophy, but wanted two hundred pounds to furnish my house. My success was prodigious." The "loudest wit I e'er was deafened with" probably exaggerated his ignorance of his subject, as he had passed five years at Edinburgh, and had opportunities of hearing Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown; but in any case the lectures were a certain success in the hands of the eloquent preacher, who, if himself knowing little about moral philosophy, addressed an audience which knew nothing at all. Of very different calibre were the lectures on poetry delivered by Coleridge. It will be recollected that it was in these famous discourses that the author of "Christabel" promulgated those views which have since spread far and wide, and will probably hold their ground when the ephemeral opponents of Shakespeare, and worshipers of a second-rate poet like Schiller, have for long ages been consigned to oblivion.
On the retirement of Davy, in 1813, William Thomas Brand, a distinguished chemist and Copley medalist, was nominated to the chair, which he so admirably filled for forty years. Meanwhile, a young man w r hose achievements were destined to invest the Royal Institution with peculiar glory had, in a manner of speaking, received the mantle of Davy. Michael Faraday was born at Newington Butts, of poor parents. His father was a farrier, of whom—to the great sorrow of Prof. Tyndall—his son could never call to mind a single trait of intelligence. The boy was apprenticed to a bookbinder, but in his leisure moments learned "a little chemistry and other parts of philosophy." He had so far advanced as to construct for himself an electrical machine, when his master happened to show this specimen of ingenuity to one of his clients, Mr. Dance, who obtained permission for the apprentice bookbinder to be present at the last four lectures of Davy. The youth listened attentively, and made such notes that he was enabled to write a report of the lectures, which he sent to Davy, with a modest request that he might be employed in the laboratory of the Institution. Davy was struck by the clearness and exactitude of the young bookbinder, and gave him, at the commencement of 1813, the post of laboratory assistant. Toward the end of the year he accompanied Davy abroad, as his assistant and secretary. Returning to London in 1815, he recommenced his duties in the laboratory of the Institution, was appointed director of the laboratory in 1825, and two years later became one of the regular professors of the Institution, where his scientific researches, like those of Davy, were made at the cost of the society alone, without any assistance on the part of the state.
Among the many achievements of Faraday are the demonstration of the condensability of many gases, and his investigations into the reciprocal relations of heat, light, magnetism, and electricity. Not the least noble quality of this remarkable man was his marked preference of a purely scientific career over the acquirement of wealth. With the reputation acquired by the year 1832, he might have made several thousands a year by ordinary professional work, but, considering all the time not actually devoted to experiment or to demonstration as a sacrifice of original investigation, Faraday lived and died poor in the world's goods.
At the present day the Royal Institution maintains its renown—thanks to Prof. Tyndall, who, by his work on "Heat considered as a Mode of Motion," has proved himself no unworthy successor of Davy and Faraday. The late president, Sir Henry Holland, was, on his decease, replaced by the Duke of Northumberland, whose keen interest in scientific inquiry is well known. The important office of Treasurer and Honorary Secretary—on which to a great extent the success of the Institution depends—is now ably filled by Mr. W. Spottiswoode.
The Royal Institution, in addition to the attractions of its lectures, possesses a model-room, a newspaper-room, a reading-room, and a library of 36,000 volumes, presided over by Mr. Benjamin Vincent.
As might be expected in a highly-fashionable institution, membership is not acquired at a cheap rate, but candidates who are proposed by four members are immediately admitted to the privileges of the Institution, and pay on election ten guineas (five guineas as an admission-fee, and five guineas as the first annual payment). This payment secures admission to all lectures delivered in the Institution, to the libraries, and to the weekly evening meetings, with certain other privileges—such as the right of admitting two friends to the Friday evening meetings—a privilege often abused on occasions when a lion of unusual magnitude is about to roar. An inferior kind of member is the annual subscriber, who enjoys most of the privileges above named, with the exception of admission to the weekly meetings, from which sublime gatherings he is excluded. Other persons are suffered to subscribe to the afternoon lectures at the very moderate price of two guineas for all courses of lectures from Christmas to midsummer, but are not allowed to show themselves elsewhere than in the lecture theatre, and never there on a Friday night.
This weekly meeting is a wonderful combination of science and society, of physics and fashion, albeit once in a while a printer or photographer manages to obtain permission to dilate on the excellence of his wares, and to thus advertise himself. Nevertheless, in spite of an occasional drawback of this kind, the Friday evening lectures are of sufficiently high class to please all but a purely scientific audience. It is clear that to gratify the members—who are, after all, mere flesh and blood, and not philosophical abstractions—concessions to popular taste and feeling must occasionally be made. Thus, while all may equally enjoy a lecture on the "Acoustic Transparency and Opacity of the Atmosphere"—a subject which, in its practical relation to fog-signals, is full of general interest—those of a higher and drier turn of mind experience ineffable delight when Prof. Sylvester holds forth on the conversion of circular into parallel motion; while the noble army of simple lion-hunters rush not only to hear, but to see, Sir Samuel Baker. On this particular night I find all the approaches to Albemarle Street blocked by carriages, and on making my way into the Royal Institution find the theatre fully occupied at a quarter-past eight o'clock, or three-quarters of an hour before the time of the lecture. With the exception of a few seats reserved for the two Boards of Managers and Visitors, the hall is crowded to the ceiling, every avenue being already jammed with a dense mass of people, among whom gay opera cloaks and Angot caps largely predominate over black coats and showy shirt-fronts. A few young men are visible, but, after standing about for a while, and finding it impossible to approach their far friend, these youths vanish through the crowded door-way and are seen no more, thus leaving the entire field clear to the British matron, who prevails to-night to an extent that would have struck terror into the soul of poor Nathaniel Hawthorne. There is no inconsiderable amount of crowding and pushing in this elegant throng, and I am forcibly reminded of the saying of a certain philosopher—who has seen men and cities, and the customs of them—that "a well-dressed crowd is a rude crowd."
So thoroughly and completely packed is every bench, step, and door-way, that it occurs to me as a piece of singular luck that no formidable philosophic apparatus is necessary for a dissertation on the "Slave-Trade of the White Nile," as the space often occupied by Prof. Tyndall's tubs is packed full of chairs, to the great relief of a number of ladies. Sir Samuel Baker delivers his views on the "Slave-Trade" to an evidently sympathetic audience, easily put into good-humor by being told that England was the first nation to set the world the noble example of liberating her slaves—a statement, by-the-way, not precisely accurate, inasmuch as in 1780 was passed an act for the gradual extinction of slavery in Pennsylvania, an example followed four years later by the States of New Jersey and Connecticut, and in 1793 the French abolished slavery in Hayti, forty years before its abolition in our West India colonies. No doubt, to those who had never heard much about slavery, the remarks on its cruelty and injustice were interesting enough, but I, infelix, have had my ears too often pierced by shrill American voices, raised to shrieking pitch on this subject, during "the late trouble." Sir Samuel Baker is an excellent advocate for a new crusade against slavery, and produces ample evidence as to the atmosphere of general rascality evolved by slave-holding and slave-dealing, but his arguments, though true enough, are not very new. The lecturer, however, possesses the excellent gift of carrying his audience along with him, and sends them home happy in the conviction that they have assisted at an anti-slavery demonstration.
The claims of science are amply vindicated on the following Friday by Dr. Wright, an experimentalist of known boldness, who delivers a discourse on the "Chemical Changes accompanying the Smelting of Iron in the Blast-Furnace." Dr. Wright has enjoyed the advantage of pursuing his investigations in concert with Mr. Lowthian Bell, a gentleman well known by his inquiries into the chemistry of the blast-furnace, as well as by his office as President of the Iron and Steel Institute, and his gigantic enterprises in the production of iron and chemicals. Although of little interest to the general public, this lecture commands a good attendance of experts, who follow Dr. Wright very attentively through his exposition, and endure, without a murmur, an atmosphere heavily charged with noxious gases.
I have already observed that, in addition to the Friday evening meetings, where lions of the first magnitude roar by turns, several courses of afternoon lectures, in which actual teaching is combined with attractive experiments, are given during the session. These lecturers and their subjects attract audiences of varying strength. Looking in, one afternoon, to hear a lecture on Paleontology by Prof. Duncan, I find the theatre but thinly attended, in spite of the interesting character of the lecture, and its eloquent treatment by the expositor. This apathy may perhaps be explained by the difficulty of inspiring ordinary human beings with a taste for science, pure and simple; as I well recollect that, when—at the dawn of the Darwinian system—paleontological lectures were unavoidably associated with the controversy initiated by that philosopher, every lecture directly or indirectly bearing on the theory of development commanded a numerous and fashionable audience. Attentive listeners sought, in the discourses of Prof. Owen, for facts and deductions more or less damaging to the bold theory advanced in the now famous "Origin of Species by Natural Selection." But the uproar occasioned by the "Essays and Reviews," and Mr. Frederick Harrison's review of the reviewers in the Westminster, has nearly subsided, and the polemical element has faded out of geological discussion. Denuded of its controversial spice, paleontology no longer possesses its whilom attractiveness, and the audience of to-day is apparently composed of those who care for the subject for its own sake alone. Prof. Duncan is discoursing on that friend of my youth, the ichthyosaurus, and in a few neat and graphic sentences describes the manners, customs, and peculiar structure of the great fish-lizard, with whale-like body, crocodile head, and monstrous saucer-eyes. The plesiosaur with the outline described by the late Prof. Buckland as that of a "turtle with a serpent pulled through it" next engages attention, and is described very graphically as a "longshore-man" of the diluvial period, a prowler on the edges of the great deep, and a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. Plesiosaurus disposed of, the inevitable pterodactyle turns up, the flying lizard of predatory habits, the possible progenitor of birds, and the certain original of the heraldic dragon and griffin. The shape of the head and the gradual adoption by this grewsome creature of a breastbone, give still more coherence to the theory that pterodactyle is a lizard which is rapidly making up his mind to become a bird. These particulars, and a dissertation on coral islands, make up the body of an interesting lecture, which fails, however, to warm the audience into enthusiasm. Perhaps people don't care for coral islands, or mayhap, to parody a line of Mr. Bret Harte—"the pterodactyle's s played out."
On another raw afternoon, about 3 p. m., I betake myself to Albemarle Street, and become the spectator of a widely-different scene. The theatre is already full of eager visitors and thirsters after science, when elucidated by those brilliant experiments which excite the admiration and envy of Prof. Tyndall's imitators—I had almost written rivals, forgetting that in this country, and in his own particular line of physical demonstration, Dr. John Tyndall, F. R. S., philosopher and cragsman, has no rival. At a three-o'clock lecture many ladies are, of course, present, in all the variety of gorgeous array at present in fashion, for, however severe may be the mental attributes of these fair students of physical science, no sternness is ever visible in their outward appearance. Pending the arrival of the Professor of Natural Philosophy, these young ladies are chatting pleasantly among themselves. Are they talking science, I wonder, or discussing the merits of the Leonardo da Vinci hat, or the grace and style communicated by the Norwegian waist-belt, with all sorts of turnip watches and other quaint odds and ends dangling from it? Do they know much about liquids and gases, or have they come to learn? Verily, I know not. The well-known lecture-table is covered with apparatus, and a huge bath-tub occupies a considerable space. Mr. Cottrell, the laboratory assistant, is very busy, till, punctual to the stroke of three, a tall, slender man, of undeniably Scottish aspect, steps to his place behind the lecture-table, and a murmur of applause proclaims the satisfaction of the audience at the arrival of the successor of Faraday. The lecture, interesting in itself, is rendered doubly so by numerous and beautiful experiments, which succeed with infallible certainty. Perhaps the listeners to Prof. Tyndall are accustomed to see his experiments "come off" in this way, but the traveler in search of science often sees experiments—chemical, physical, and others—break down with provoking perversity. No approach to any thing like failure occurs to-day, and the applause is great on the light-carrying power of water being demonstrated by an experiment of singular beauty. The prescribed hour appears unnaturally short when the clock strikes, the lecture is closed by a short sentence, and, amid a mighty rustling of silks, the audience prepares to depart. For a few minutes a talkative crowd blocks up the wide staircase and hall, and a sort of scramble takes place for the carriages of which Albemarle Street is full. Fashion takes its departure, and, having laid in science enough to last for a week, leaves the professor to enjoy himself in his admirably-appointed laboratory.
As I wend my way homeward, I reflect on the large amount of good solid work that has been done in the laboratories of the Royal Institution during the last seventy years, and on the effect produced by the dissemination of scientific knowledge among the upper classes. As a firm believer in the doctrine that all revolutions in taste must take their inception above and gradually percolate through the several strata of society, I keenly sympathize with the efforts of the Royal Institution toward inoculating a love for scientific investigation. Following the example of the sun—which first illumines the mountain-tops, and later in the day penetrates into the deeper valleys—knowledge, striking first on the upper social regions, gradually descends, until all sorts and conditions of men are irradiated by its peaceful light.
Like its younger sister in Albemarle Street, the Society of Arts is a notable instance of that drifting faculty which exercises so great an influence on all human institutions. Launched with widely-differing objects on the stream of events, these societies have in a certain measure displaced each other. The Royal Institution, now devoted to literature, and in a greater degree to pure science, was originally founded to promote those objects which have been fostered by the elder society, which, drifting away from Art in its highest sense, has taken in hand industrial art and applied science. One single comparison will demonstrate my meaning. In the beginning of the century—under the auspices of Count Rumford—the Royal Institution undertook to improve the dwellings of the working classes, to warm and ventilate workhouses, hospitals, and cottages, and to and patronize improvements in the economical consumption of fuel and the teaching of culinary science. In the present year the Society of Arts, founded originally to encourage young artists, has offered premiums for the best kinds of culinary and domestic warming apparatus, and has directly fostered attempts to instruct the people of England in the best methods of preparing food.
The Society of Arts has now existed for a hundred and twenty years, and owes its foundation to Mr. William Shipley, a landscape-painter, who, from a "well-grounded persuasion of the extensive utility of the art of drawing to this nation, erected the Academy in the Strand, opposite to Exeter Change." By the efforts of this gentleman a meeting was held in 1754 at Rawthmell's coffee-house, to consider the propriety of establishing a "Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce."
It was resolved to bestow premiums on a certain number of boys and girls, and an advertisement was issued accordingly. The industrial element, however, was not lost sight of, as, while a number of drawing prizes were advertised, premiums were offered for the discovery of cobalt in England, the growth of madder, and the manufacture of buff leather. The primary object was the encouragement of art, but the view taken of the "polite arts" was a sufficiently wide one, inasmuch as the premiums offered under this head were ultimately grouped under 196 classes. Many prizes were awarded for drawing, and among the recipients was Richard Cosway, who afterward became a Royal Academician, and a portrait-painter of repute. It was soon found necessary to confine the objects of study to certain models, and, as no public museum or National Gallery then existed, individual collections, such as that formed by the Duke of Richmond, were selected for study.
On the consolidation of the Society, the artists of London applied for permission to hold an exhibition in the Society's rooms. This permission was granted, and exhibitions continued to be held for several years. This annual inspection of the works of rival artists, who formed themselves into separate bodies, excited emulation, directed public attention toward their works, and ultimately secured for them the royal patronage and protection. These first exhibitions of pictures by native artists in the rooms of the Society of Arts may, therefore, be regarded as the origin of that exhibition of the Royal Academy which now forms one of the great events of the London season.
While the encouragement of art—pure and simple—thus formed the main object of the Society, investigation was directed toward many practical subjects related to the central idea. Endeavors were made to improve the materials employed by artists, and much attention was devoted to the various engraving processes as they gradually came into vogue. Wood-engraving, aquatint, and mezzotint, were the subject of anxious care, as were improvements in pigments, oils, and varnishes.
Bronze casting and chasing, iron-castings, and artistic metal-work, were also encouraged, and at a later date, when Alois Senefelder, an actor of Munich, discovered lithography, the new art was first introduced to this country under the auspices of the Society of Arts. Steel engraving was also first taken seriously in hand by Mr. Charles Warren, chairman of the Fine Arts Committee, who, at the suggestion of Mr. Gill, chairman of the Mechanics Committee, adopted a new method of treating steel plates. Previously to this, many attempts had been made to engrave on steel. Albert Dürer is said to have etched on steel, and there are four plates etched by this artist, impressions of which exist in the British Museum, and which in all books of art are recorded as having been executed on steel. In the attempts to revive this art, pieces of saw-blades were selected as the most promising material, but these efforts were attended with very little success. A Mr. Raimbach then endeavored to engrave on blocks of steel, but without achieving any material advance. Mr. Gill now drew the attention of Mr. Warren to the method employed at Birmingham in the manufacture of ornamental snuffers and other articles of cast-steel. The process employed at Birmingham was "to subject the steel, after having been rolled into sheets, to the process of decarbonization, by means of which it was converted to a very pure soft iron, being then made into the required instrument or other article. The ornamental work is engraved or impressed on the soft metallic surface, which, by cementation with proper materials, is again converted superficially into steel. Mr. Warren modified this process, and obtained thin plates of steel capable of being acted upon by acids and cut with the graver, without destroying the cutting edge of the tool—as was the case with the saw-blades. The resulting plate yielded a greatly-increased number of impressions." When brought to perfection, steel plates were found equal to the production of ten or twelve times the number of impressions yielded by copper plates. Capital was invested in the production of works of a high class, with the effect of spreading far and wide through the country myriads of prints calculated to elevate and improve the taste of the people. This process of conversion and reconversion of steel was soon afterward applied by Perkins to the production of steel rollers. These were first softened and then pressed into the engraved surface of a hardened steel block, and having acquired a design in relief were themselves hardened in their turn, and by being applied to softened steel plates produced almost indefinite multiplication of the original engraved plate. For commercial purposes this invention proved of immense value in the production of bank-notes, receipts, and postage-stamps.
To ignore the exertions of the Society of Arts in the direction of agriculture, and especially arboriculture, would be to omit an important page in its history. The introduction of new varieties of grasses and roots was sedulously encouraged, while drill-ploughs, the drainage of land, root-slicers, chaff-cutters, scarifiers, reaping-machines, and means of harvesting hay and corn in wet seasons, were all subjects of premiums. Big things and little things came in for their share of attention. In the early days of the Society sheep were marked with tar, to the great loss of wool-growers. The Society sought strenuously to modify and improve the mode of marking sheep, and meanwhile instituted a crusade against that bold invader, the Norway rat, who had recently overrun the country.
The preservation of timber was an object of earnest solicitude. In this age, when coal has effectually displaced wood as a heat-producer, and iron has been successfully applied to the construction of houses and ships, it is difficult to realize the anxiety of our forefathers at seeing whole forests destroyed for smelting purposes. For a long time past the work of destruction had been going on, when the Society of Arts stepped in to advocate the planting of trees on a large scale. The production of oak was a special object of the Society's attention, the planting of acorns was carried on to a very large extent, and gold medals for raising that description of timber were awarded to many noblemen and gentlemen, among whom were the Earl of Wilton, the Marquis of Tichfield, Mr. Morse, Mr. Curwen, and others. The cultivation of the ash—for which the Bishop of Llandaff received a gold medal—of the Scotch fir and larch, and of fruit-trees generally, received active encouragement. Under the auspices of the Society millions of trees were planted, to the enrichment and adornment of many previously-barren slopes. It is worthy of remark that to a neglect of these precautions is assigned an actual change of the climatic conditions of parts of Italy, and that the reduction of the Arno to an insignificant stream is ascribed to the reckless denudation of the mountains among which that historic river takes its rise. Travelers in Switzerland also have not failed to observe in the side valleys many relics of ancient mines, deserted, at last, because all the wood within carrying distance had been recklessly destroyed without any attempt being made to replace it by planting.
Considerable effort was devoted to encouraging the introduction and culture of spices into the British possessions. The cinnamon-tree was introduced into Jamaica; the nutmeg-plant into St. Vincent; the clove-tree into Trinidad; the mango and the bread-fruit tree were also planted in the West Indies. Attention was also directed toward such imports as were capable of discovery, manufacture, and culture, at home.
Cobalt was discovered in Cornwall; buff leather and its manufacture improved; copper and brass vessels were tinned; and hemp, flax, and madder, were cultivated for the use of our manufacturers. "Saw-mills were built; our fish-supply improved; and the curing offish encouraged. Upon the fish-trade alone the Society expended many thousands of pounds, and succeeded in establishing a regular supply to the London markets."
During the greater part of its career the Society thus addressed itself to the task of fostering the useful arts. One condition, however, was, in the early days of the Society, rigidly insisted upon. The inventor who sought to obtain recognition of his discovery was obliged to forego the idea of patenting his work. What was given to the world by the assistance of the Society of Arts was to be given freely and openly for the benefit of all. Although this principle would find many and eloquent advocates at the present day, a period intervened during which it was found necessary to make concessions to patentees. The introduction of steam as a motive power led to a sudden and immense development of mechanical ingenuity, and swelled the prospective reward of a successful inventor to such large proportions that it was no longer probable that men would work for honor and glory alone. Eventually patentees were permitted to read papers before the Society of Arts, which, during the greater part of a century, continued to take an active interest in advancing the interests of science, and in affording aid and countenance to the other societies of less catholic tendencies, which sprang rapidly into existence. As has been already pointed out, the Royal Academy in its youth owed much to the Society of Arts; and it is worthy of note that, not only was the first exhibition of the works of rival artists held in the Society's rooms, but the first collection of photographs exhibited there in 1853. The Society still maintains a liberal tone, and is generous enough to grant the use of its handsome room to many societies for the purpose of holding their various meetings.
If the Society in the Adelphi merit a place of honor as a promoter of other societies, still more does it demand notice as the mother of exhibitions. Its exhibitional maternity was shown in this wise: In the year 1841 the Society of Arts, like many other originally active bodies, had shown signs of falling into decrepitude. For many of the purposes for which it was originally established, its office had been filled by other institutions, which, being less expansive in their views, appeared likely to act toward the mother-society like young ducks hatched by a barn-door hen, and to take to the stream of the future without consulting the feelings of their foster-parent. The Society was obviously falling into the sere and yellow leaf, and it was clear that something had to be done to rejuvenate it. A committee was appointed to revise the working of the Society, and that body recommended that a council to manage the affairs of the Society should be instituted. The committee in its report also gave expression to the conviction that "the Society cannot continue to exist on the plan of proceeding which is at present pursued," and that "the object of the Society is the promotion of the useful arts rather than the personal gratification of the members." It was further recommended that six committees should be established, of five members each, and many other valuable pieces of advice were tendered, but nothing came of all this for the time being. At length, however, measures were taken for obtaining a royal charter of incorporation, finally granted in 1847, and in the mean time it was proposed that an exhibition of English industry, analogous to those held abroad, should be instituted. The first action taken in this direction was an offer of special prizes for articles of manufacture, and a special fund was obtained for this purpose by private subscription. It was deemed necessary to stimulate the makers of English pottery to efforts toward an artistic combination of form and color. A committee of artists was appointed to adjudge the prize for a tea-service, and this was awarded to a set designed by "Felix Summerly," and manufactured by Messrs. Minton. The identity of "Felix Summerly" was then disclosed, and the Society's silver medal was presented to Mr. Henry Cole (who has since received the Companionship of the Bath), on the 12th of June, 1846. From this date a notable change came over the constitution of the Society. Yearly exhibitions were held. It is true that these were of a sectional character, and only proposed to illustrate certain branches of English industry; but it is not the less true that they were the immediate precursors of the great Exhibition of 1851. Prizes for modern industrial art were offered, and were eagerly competed for. Manufactures and artistic productions were got together at great expenditure of cash and industry, with the effect of rapidly increasing the number of members. In 1847 the members of the Society numbered scarcely five hundred; but within three years these numbers had tripled. But, in 1849, there were "croakers" in the camp. Not a few of the ruling spirits were inclined to "look back from the plough." As an instance of this may be quoted a recommendation of the Finance Committee of 1849, that "the exhibitions be discontinued," and another, passed in December of the same year, that "it is expedient to reconsider the policy of an Art Manufacture Exhibition in the year 1850." But the advanced spirits of the Society were not to be balked. Against the council of the ancients a formidable opposition was organized. Mr. Cole resigned his seat on the council, and, biding his time till the general meeting, effected a noteworthy coup d'état. On election-day the reactionary party were ousted by an immense majority, and an entirely new council elected. The Exhibition of Ancient and Mediaeval Art was duly held, and resulted in a splendid success, and a complete revolution of the financial condition of the association. In 1850 the debts of the Society amounted to £2,402, an amount that was reduced in 1851 to £1,696, since when the Society has become not only solvent, but possessed of a large accumulation of capital, which—in the opinion of many of the members, now amounting to over 3,000—it is somewhat chary in dispensing. This great storm, which completely altered the condition of the Society of Arts, and culminated in the Great Exhibition of 1851, can thus be distinctly traced to Mr. Felix Summerly's "teacup."
The merit of initiating the idea of an international exhibition has been often warmly contested, but there is no longer any doubt that the original proposition was made to the committee of the Society of Arts in 1844, by Sir William Fothergill Cooke. There is no question that the idea of this gentleman was clearly that of an international exhibition, at that time declined by the committee of the Society of Arts, but at a later period adopted by that body with the sanction and coöperation of the late prince consort.
In the month of June, 1849, the secretary, Mr. J. Scott Russell, stated at the annual meeting, in the presence of the late prince consort, that, owing to the yearly increasing success of the Society's exhibition, the council had no doubt of their being able to carry out the plan originally proposed for holding a great national exhibition of the products of British industry in 1851. This statement led to frequent communications between his royal highness the president and various members, with the ultimate result of expanding the plan to international dimensions. The prince consort, as president of the Society, brought the scheme officially under the notice of the Government; but in the mean while the Society of Arts was not idle, and had already entered into a contract for building a convenient edifice, when a royal commission was issued. Mr. Scott Russell and Mr. (now Sir) Stafford Northcote were appointed secretaries. An executive committee was formed, consisting of "Henry Cole, Charles Wentworth Dilke the younger, George Drew, Francis Fuller, and Robert Stephenson, with Matthew Digby Watt as secretary." Meanwhile the Society of Arts had organized the financial arrangements necessary for carrying out the scheme, but the immediate connection of the Society with the exhibition now came to an end; the child had outgrown its nurse, and required nothing short of a royal commission to manage it. How well the Exhibition of 1851 was managed, and how, after the final adjustment of accounts, a surplus of £186,438 18s. 6d. remained in hand, are now matters of history, as well as the expenditure of that sum as part of the money devoted to the purchase and development of the Gore House estate.
Since the launching of the Great Exhibition, the Society of Arts has done much good work in promoting industrial art and encouraging inventive genius. It is true that much of its work has been taken out of its hands by the societies and museums to which it has given rise. Among these is the Photographic Society, whose inception was due to the exhibition organized by Dr. Diamond. The South Kensington Museum itself may be fairly regarded as an offshoot of the Mediæval Exhibition, while the Government Department of Science and Art is directly descended from the parent body. But the mission of the Society is not to repose on its laurels. It comes to the fore with a formidable list of premiums, at the head of which is a series of gold medals and prizes of 50 for improved cooking and warming apparatus; 500 are devoted to this purpose, and have been placed at the disposal of the Society by a single member. A large number of prizes in money, and many gold and silver medals, are also offered to inventors. Much interest is excited at the present moment concerning the award of the Albert Gold Medal, a prize established in memory of the late prince consort, to reward "distinguished merit in promoting arts, manufactures, or commerce." This medal was first presented in 1864, to Sir Rowland Hill, K. C. B., in 1865 to the late Emperor of the French, and in 1866 to Faraday. Since then, this distinguishing mark of the Society's appreciation has been conferred on Wheatstone, Whitworth, Liebig, Henry Cole, Henry Bessemer, and has this year been awarded by the council to Dr. C. W. Siemens, "for his researches in connection with the laws of heat, and the practical applications of them to furnaces used in the arts; and for his improvements in the manufacture of iron; and generally for the services rendered by him in connection with economization of fuel in its various applications to manufactures and the arts."
For some years the Society's examinations, conducted through local institutions about the country, have assisted the spread of general education, and, now that this work is being more completely executed by the university local examinations, the Society has set on foot a scheme of technological examinations, which it is hoped may bear good fruit.
- Abridged from "Scientific London."