The British Association for the Advancement of Science

Founded in 1831

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1831. One of the main advocates for its founding was David Brewster, a physicist who made important contributions to the polarization of light, metallic reflection, and light absorption. He is perhaps best known for his invention of the kaleidoscope in 1816. He had been elected to the Royal Society in 1815 but felt that that organisation was too elitist and conservative to fully support the development of science in Britain. He was not the only person with this view, of course, for Charles Babbage had very similar views which he had exptessed in Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830). Brewster's assessment of the position of science in Britain at the time shows clearly his motives in seeking to found a new Association:-
Elevated by her warlike triumphs, [Britain] seems to have looked with contempt on the less dazzling achievements of her philosophers, and, confiding in her past pre-eminence in the arts, to have calculated too securely on their permanence. Bribed by foreign gold, or flattered by foreign courtesy, her artisans have quitted her service - her machinery has been exported to distant markets - the inventions of her philosophers, slighted at home, have been eagerly introduced abroad - her scientific institutions have been discouraged and even abolished - the articles which she supplied to other States have been gradually manufactured by themselves; and, one after another, many of the best arts of England have been transferred to other nations ...
Brewster arranged the first meeting of the new Association to be held in York beginning on 26 September 1831. On the following day William Vernon Harcourt formally proposed the founding of:-
... a British Association for the Advancement of Science, having for its objects, to give a stronger impulse and more systematic direction to scientific inquiry, to obtain a greater degree of national attention to the objects of science, and a removal of those disadvantages which impede its progress, and to promote the intercourse of the cultivators of science with one another, and with foreign philosophers.
The Association was divided into a number of Sections. The one which is most relevant to this Archive is Section A. Mathematical and Physical Science. Each Section had a President and the president opened each session with an address. The result was a fascinating collection of addresses by presidents such as Sylvester in 1869 Cayley in 1883, and Forsyth in 1897.

Before we end this article, let us note that Brewster became principal of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard of the University of St Andrews in 1838 and then, in 1859, became principal of the University of Edinburgh.

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Last Updated April 2007