The Royal Society of New Zealand

Founded in 1867

The Royal Society of New Zealand was formally founded in 1867 when, on 16 August, William Travers introduced a private members bill into Parliament named the New Zealand Institute Act. This Act passed through Parliament and the New Zealand Institute was founded as a national organisation. This marks the beginning of the organisation known today as the Royal Society of New Zealand. We must go back a little, however, to give some background to the setting up of the New Zealand Institute.

The first European settlers arrived in New Zealand in 1840. The first scientific society was founded in the following year when the Literary and Scientific Institution of Nelson is set up on the emigrant ship Whitby on route from England to New Zealand. This Society still operates. The New Zealand Society was founded in Wellington by the governor George Grey in 1851. Similar organisations were founded in Canterbury in 1862 and Auckland in 1867. All three were founded with the intention of publishing scientific papers but never managed to do so because of lack of funds. The person considered as the founding father of the Royal Society of New Zealand is the Scottish geologist, naturalist and surgeon James Hector (1834-1907) who arrived in New Zealand in 1862 to conduct a geological survey of Otago province [2]:-
In 1865, he is appointed to the Geological Survey in Wellington for three years. ... His career sees him effectively in control of the direction of New Zealand Science for several decades. He is ultimately responsible for the Meteorological Department, the Colonial Observatory, the Wellington Time-ball Observatory and the Botanic Garden of Wellington. He also assumes responsibility for the custody of the standard weights and measures and the Patent Office library. He is frequently called upon to advise in an official capacity on questions in the fields of science and technology, medicine and even commercial activity.
Hector was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1865. In the following year the geologist and biologist Frederick Wollaston Hutton (1836-1905) arrived in New Zealand. Years later, he will become the first president of the New Zealand Institute which was later named the Royal Society of New Zealand. The bill introduced by William Travers on 16 August 1867 to set up the New Zealand Institute did not pass easily through parliament since money was tight and many argued that the country could not afford to fund such a body. The potential benefits to New Zealand, however, outweighed the need for financial austerity and the New Zealand Institute Act was passed. The Board of Governors, all of whom had been appointed, met for the first time in January 1868 and drew up rules for the Institute. In particular they set up the necessary machinery for publishing the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. The first volume was published in 1869 with the Preface, written by James Hector, dated 5 May 1869. The Preface begins [5]:-
In issuing the first volume of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, the Editor has to acknowledge the many imperfections of the work, both in the typography and in the general arrangement, inseparable from a first effort to publish in a combined form the Reports of Societies only recently organized. It will be observed that the size of the volume has been very considerably increased by the insertion of matter which does not properly belong to the proceedings of the current year, such as communications of earlier date to the various Societies, and by the publication of eight essays which were written originally in connection with the New Zealand Exhibition, 1865. In future, therefore, the volume will be less bulky and expensive, and it is hoped free from the errors which, unavoidably, have crept into the present issue, from various causes.
The inaugural meeting of the New Zealand Institute was held on 4 August 1868 at the Colonial Museum in Wellington. The Minutes record that [5]:-
... many members of various local societies for the promotion of Art and Science assembled to listen to the Inaugural Address of His Excellency the Governor.
The Governor was Sir George Ferguson Bowen (1821-1899) an author and professional administrator. He was Governor of New Zealand from February 1868 to March 1873.

During the 1880s there were moves to reform the New Zealand Institute, some feeling that James Hector's close association with the government were leading to the Institute becoming less independent. The fact that the Institute relied on government funding also made some feel that this threatened an unbiased independent approach to science. For example, the Institute's Board were appointed rather than elected, it had no president but was managed by Hector, and there was an argument in favour of increased democracy with an elected Board. George Malcolm Thomson (1848-1933), a naturalist, teacher and politician, led the moves for reform [4]:-
Disillusionment with the dominance of the New Zealand Institute by James Hector, its manager and the director of the Geological Survey and Colonial Museum, had led Thomson to launch a quarterly, the 'New Zealand Journal of Science', in 1882. Although the journal survived for only a few years, criticism by Thomson and other scientists such as Hutton led to the New Zealand Institute being separated from government scientific bodies, and control of the institute transferred to its incorporated societies.
In fact it was not until 1903 that the reforms for which Thomson argued were formalised by an Act of Parliament.

The work of the New Zealand Institute is not much involved with mathematics. If we look at Volume 25 of the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute published in 1892 there are 30 papers in Section I: Zoology, 15 papers in Section II: Botany, 7 papers in Section III: Geology, 2 papers in Section IV: Chemistry, and 22 papers in Section V: Miscellaneous. Even in the Miscellaneous there is nothing which could be classed as mathematics and little that could be classed as physics. It is interesting to note, however, that this 1892 volume contains three papers by women.

The first of these three papers is After-images, by Miss K Browning, read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute on 21 July 1892. The paper begins [6]:-
The phenomena to which I wish to draw your attention to-night are so common that my only excuses in bringing them before your notice are - firstly, the great interest I have always taken in the subject; and, secondly, the hope that if, after hearing the notes, you say to yourselves, "We knew all that before," some other member will take up the theme and tell us a little about his experiences, or throw some further light on the question. Every one has noticed after-images, but few realise what an important bearing they have on the discussion of memory, for, unless percepts persisted for a time, we should be unable to grasp the idea that separate perceptions - say a, b, c, d, e - form one whole. After-images form a connecting-link between percepts and revived mental images, and they probably underlie many of the lesser acts of remembering, as Sully has well pointed out. Revived mental images are more important, because they lead to greater knowledge ; but a clear understanding of after-images forms a good introduction to the subject of reproductive imagination.
The second of these papers, perhaps the most of any papers in the volume to be related to physics, was Analogy between light and sound: Are they Convertible? read at a meeting of the Otago Institute on 11 October 1892 by Miss Annette Wilson [6]:-
That a certain analogy exists between light and sound has long been a recognised fact, and more or less commented on. But that that analogy should be so complete as to argue an affinity between them - nay, more, that it might even be possible to convert the one into the other - this is by no means so generally admitted. In this idea, which I have long entertained, it would appear that I am not alone, as only a short time ago mention was made in one of the daily papers that Edison purposed making us hear noises in the sun, and this was to be effected by converting the rays forming the spectrum into sound. It is my purpose to-night to illustrate this idea, first directing your attention to some of the remarkable analogies existing between light and sound, and then translating sound into colour, by what I believe to be a novel process or experiment, using for that purpose coloured glasses.
The third was National Melodies, by Miss Morrison, read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute on 28 November 1892.

The lack of mathematics or physics papers changed in 1894 when Ernest Rutherford published his first paper in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute journal, volume 27, entitled The Magnetization of Iron by High Frequency Discharges.

In 1903 the reforms for which Thomson argued were formalised by an Act of Parliament [2]:-
Twenty years earlier, George M Thomson expresses a desire among members to make their Society more democratic. The eventual new Act of Parliament in 1903 makes special mention of this desire to link the Institute's governance more closely with affiliated societies. For the first time the Board of Governors of the Institute comprises a majority of elected members, directly from the affiliates. The changes are fundamental in their effects and by their design. After several decades as the guiding hand of New Zealand science, James Hector retires from his positions. His departure leaves a significant hole in the organisation of science in New Zealand, particularly through his close association with government. For the first time in its history, the Institute establishes the position of president and the role of editor of the Transactions journal, both Board appointments. Additional funding refuses to be forthcoming, however, as the £500 government grant remains fixed, although, no longer subject to an annual vote by Parliament.
These reforms, however, still did not allow for the election of fellows. James Allan Thomson, George M Thomson's son, compiled a report in 1919 on the state of science in New Zealand and in it he drew attention to the problems of the New Zealand Institute, particularly financial problems arising from the fact that the government grant of £500 per year, originally made in 1867, had never been increased. This report led to the New Zealand Institute electing 20 fellows based on their scientific research achievements. Being a fellow of the Institute soon became the highest scientific honour in New Zealand.

In 1930, the President of the New Zealand Institute proposed that its name be changed to the Royal New Zealand Institute. The reason for the proposal was so that the Institute might have a name distinguishing it from the many other institutes which existed in New Zealand. This never happened but in 1933 the New Zealand Institute changed its name to the Royal Society of New Zealand. This name was chosen to be more in keeping with the Royal Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Canada, etc., all of which existed at this time. The Act which saw this change of name also made the Royal Society of New Zealand just a scientific society. In fact it was not until 2012 that the humanities became a part of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

The recent Acts which have modified the Society are as follows. The present Royal Society of New Zealand is constituted under the Royal Society of New Zealand Act 1965, and continued by the Royal Society of New Zealand Act 1997, amended in 2012, for the purpose of advancing and promoting science, technology and the humanities in New Zealand. In March 2012 the Act was amended in order to allow the Royal Society of New Zealand to:

(a) incorporate the discipline of humanities into its object and functions;

(b) rename the Academy Council the Academy Executive Committee;

(c) amend the standard for the election of Companions of the Society; and

(d) amend the election process for Councillors of the Society.

Although the early New Zealand Institute had little to do with mathematics, the Royal Society of New Zealand today makes major contributions to mathematics. For example the New Zealand Science and Technology Gold Medal, renamed the Rutherford Medal in 2000, was awarded to Vaughan Jones in 1991. The Jones Medal is awarded biennially, for lifetime achievement in pure or applied mathematics or statistics by a person with substantial connections to New Zealand. This Medal was established in 2010 in honour of Sir Vaughan Jones. The Hector Medal is an award for outstanding work in chemical, physical or mathematical and information sciences by a researcher in New Zealand, awarded annually. Awarded since 1912, the award was won by Rod Downey in 2011 for his influential and innovative work in mathematical logic:-
The 2011 Hector Medal for an outstanding contribution to the advancement of mathematical and information sciences: awarded too Rodney Graham Downey for his outstanding, internationally acclaimed work in recursion theory, computational complexity, and other aspects of mathematical logic and combinatorics. Professor Rod Downey, of Victoria University of Wellington is internationally recognised for his influential and innovative work in mathematical logic and computer science. He is acknowledged as one of the world's foremost experts in recursion theory, a technically difficult branch of mathematical logic dealing with the fundamental limits of computation. He inaugurated research in parameterised complexity, which includes the input size as one of the parameters in the analysis of the complexity of computation. This work attracted the attention and involvement of several leading complexity theorists worldwide, and culminated in the publication of a large monograph in 1999. In recent years, Professor Downey and his collaborators have made very significant advances in the study of algorithmic randomness and complexity, again culminating in a large monograph, published in 2010. In addition to these two books, he has published more than 220 research articles in leading journals and conference proceedings. His international standing is highlighted by his invitation to give an address at the 2006 International Congress of Mathematicians, the first New Zealander invited to do so.
The Hector Medal was won by Marston Conder in 2014 for his outstanding contributions to mathematics. The citation reads:-
[Marston Conder's] main interest is in group theory and its applications, especially to the study of symmetry. He is considered a world authority on discrete objects with maximum possible symmetry in their class. In mathematics, 'symmetry' describes how an object's properties stay the same under transformation - for example, rotating or reflecting a pentagon doesn't change its appearance. He is also renowned for pioneering the application of an array of algebraic, combinatorial and computational techniques to find answers to open questions in a wide range of fields. He is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Auckland, and former co-director of the New Zealand Institute of Mathematics and Applications.
I [EFR] am particularly pleased to see Marston Conder receiving this honour. I have written two joint papers with Marston, one in 1992 and one in 1994.

The Society gives its role and functions as follows [3]:-
We support New Zealanders to explore, discover, and share knowledge.
We advance and promote research and scholarly activity, the pursuit of knowledge.
Our Act talks about science, technology and humanities. In practice that includes engineering, applied science, and social sciences; and effectively the pursuit of knowledge in general.
We foster a culture that supports science, technology, and the humanities by: (i) raising public awareness, knowledge, and understanding; (ii) advancing education.

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. M E Hoare, Reform in New Zealand science, 1880-1926 (Melbourne, 1977).
  2. Our History, Royal Society of New Zealand.
  3. Our role, Royal Society of New Zealand.
  4. E Y Speirs, Thomson, George Malcolm, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (1933).
  5. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute Volume 1.
  6. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute Volume 25.

Last Updated September 2018