The Royal Society

Founded in 1660

The beginnings of the Royal Society came about around 1645 when a group of scientists began to hold regular meetings. The common theme among the scientists who began the Society was acquiring knowledge by experimental investigation. The first group of such men included Robert Moray, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, John Wallis, John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and William Petty.

Boyle, in his letters written in 1646 and 1647, refers to our Invisible College or the Philosophical College. In an October 1646 letter written to his former tutor Isaac Marcombe in Paris he says (see for example [6]):-
The best of it is that the cornerstones of the Invisible (or as they term themselves the Philosophical) College, do now and then honour me with their company, which makes me sorry for those pressing occasions that urge my departure.
In the regular meetings, Boyle writes, members of the College discussed:-
... natural philosophy, the mechanics and husbandry according to the principles of the Philosophical College, that values no knowledge but that it has a tendency to use.
We are particularly lucky to have a description of the beginnings of the Society from John Wallis (see for example [7]):-
About the year 1645, while I lived in London (at a time when, by our civil wars, academical studies were much interrupted in both our Universities), ... I had the opportunity of being acquainted with divers worthy persons, inquisitive natural philosophy, and other parts of human learning; and particularly of what hath been called the New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy. We did by agreements, divers of us, meet weekly in London on a certain day and hour, under a certain penalty, and a weekly contribution for the charge of experiments, with certain rules agreed amongst us, to treat and discourse of such affairs...

About the year 1648-49, some of our company being removed to Oxford (first Dr Wilkins, then I, and soon after Dr Goddard) our company divided. Those in London continued to meet there as before (and we with them, when we had occasion to be there, and those of us at Oxford ... and divers others, continued such meetings in Oxford, and brought those Studies into fashion there...
The London group continued to meet at Gresham College until the year 1658 when the they had to disband in fear of their lives as soldiers took over their meeting rooms and London underwent a period of terror. In February 1660 Monk's army entered London and restored order. King Charles II returned to London at the end of May 1660 and the meetings at Gresham College resumed. Lyons writes [7]:-
On the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 those who were living in London resumed their meetings that had been discontinued in 1658, and others who had been at Oxford joined them; by the end of the year they had a number of their friends having similar interests resolved to constitute themselves a Society of Philosophers which they succeeded in doing.
The first meeting of the founding twelve men was on Wednesday 28 November 1660 following Wren's astronomy lecture in Gresham College. They decided to invite forty further members and a list was drawn up. Lyons writes [7]:-
The response to this appeal was very satisfactory, for of those whose names appear on the list only five did not become Fellows of the Society. Of the remaining thirty-five candidates, nineteen may be considered as men of science while the other sixteen included statesmen, soldiers, antiquarians, administrators, and one or two literary men.
Also at this first meeting the Society decided to put itself on a more formal basis, and Moray agreed to approach the King. By the second meeting, which was on 5 December 1660, Moray was able to report that he had approached King Charles II. The record of the 5 December 1660 meeting states that:-
... the King had been acquainted with the design of this Meeting. And he did well approve of it, and would be ready to give encouragement to it. It was ordered that Mr Wren be desired to prepare against the next meeting for the pendulum experiment. ...
By the summer of 1661 the members were discussing the name of the Society and how they might obtain a Royal Charter of incorporation. By the meeting of 18 September 1661 they had agreed a draft Charter and by the 16 October Moray and Neile had:-
... kissed the hand of the King in the Company's name.
The King indicated that he would grant the petition and he also indicated that he wished to become a Fellow of the new Society.

The Charter of Incorporation passed the Great Seal on 15 July 1662 and the Royal Society of London officially existed from that date with the name of 'The Royal Society'. The Charter gave the names of the first Council members and named Viscount William Brouncker as the first President. However the Society rapidly sought a second Charter. The two most significant differences in this were that the King was named as Founder and the name of the Society was changed to 'The Royal Society of London for Promoting Natural Knowledge'.

The Second Charter received the Royal Seal on 23 April 1663 and the King presented the new Society with a silver mace which has the emblems of England, Ireland, Scotland and France on its head. The Second Charter named John Wilkins and Henry Oldenburg as Secretaries of the Society. By the meeting of the Society on 20 May 1663, 150 Fellows had been elected. The number rose from the original 150 to over 200 by 1675 but then dropped to around 100 by 1690. There was then a steady increase in the number of Fellows until around 1840 when there were approximately 750. The numbers then fell rapidly to around 450 by 1880. The number of Fellows then remained fairly constant.

The Society valued experimental work very highly and this was emphasised with the appointment of Hooke as Curator of Experiments in November 1662. His task was:-
... offering to furnish them every day on which they met with three or four considerable experiments.
One of the major problems which the Society tackled in its first years was that of finding ways to determine the longitude at sea. This work is studied in detail in our article English attack on the Longitude Problem. Many other questions studied were also related to navigation at sea which was a topic of major practical importance at the time. For example much work was undertaken on magnetic properties because of their connection to the ships compass. Another related topic was the pendulum clock, and Huygens, who was the first foreign scientist to visit and work with the Society which he did in 1661, was the leading expert.

The young Society soon decided that it needed a publication to record its work. As early as September 1661 Moray wrote to Huygens (see for example [6]):-
... we shall print what passes among ourselves, at least everything which may be published. Then you shall have copies among the first, and if there is something withheld from publication, it will be much easier for me to communicate it to you than to have to send word of everything by letter.
It was not, however, until 1 May 1665 that Moray formally put the motion to the Council of the Society that-
... The Philosophical Transactions, to be composed by Mr Oldenburg, be printed the first Monday of every month, if he have sufficient matter for it, and that the tract be licenced ... and the President be now desired to licence the first papers thereof.
In fact the money to publish The Philosophical Transactions was put up by Oldenburg, and he was then able to sell it for profit. At least he anticipated making a profit, but a downturn in the book trade in London almost certainly resulted in The Philosophical Transactions making a loss. The first volume consists of 22 parts, bound into a single volume with a title page and index. Oldenburg dedicated it to the Royal Society. After this he bound the twelve monthly parts into a single volume each year and continued this until his death at which time he was working on the twelfth volume. After this subsequent secretaries to the Society continued to publish The Philosophical Transactions at their own expense up until 1750 when the Society took over the financial responsibility.

More information about the Society is contained in the following:

Fellows of the Royal Society
Royal Medal
Sylvester Medal
Copley Medal
Bakerian Lectures

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. T Birch, History of the Royal Society (London, 1744).
  2. E N da Costa, A brief history of the Royal Society (London, 1960).
  3. M L Gleason, The Royal Society of London : years of reform 1827-1847 (London, 1991).
  4. H Hartley (ed.), The Royal Society, its origins and founders (London, 1960).
  5. M Hunter, The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1700 (London, 1982).
  6. R Lomas, The Invisible College (London, 2002).
  7. H Lyons, The Royal Society 1660-1940 (Cambridge, 1944).
  8. H Lyons (ed.), The Royal Society : the record of the Royal Society of London for the promotion of natural knowledge (London, 1940).
  9. M Purver, The Royal Society : concept and creation (London, 1967).
  10. T Sprat, A history of the Royal Society (London, 1667).
  11. T Thompson, History of the Royal Society (London, 1812).

Last Updated August 2004