Nov 282016


The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, was founded on this date in 1660 although it did not go by that name at first. It is perhaps the oldest official learned society in the world dedicated to the study of scientific matters. It was on this date in 1660 that the “1660 committee of 12” announced the formation of a “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning” which would meet weekly to discuss science and run experiments. At the second meeting, Sir Robert Moray announced that the king, Charles II, approved of the gatherings, and he signed a royal charter on 15 July 1662 which created the “Royal Society of London” with Lord Brouncker serving as the first president. A second royal charter was signed on 23 April 1663, with the king noted as the founder and with the name of “the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.” Robert Hooke ( ) was appointed as Curator of Experiments in November. This initial royal favor has continued and, since then, every monarch has been the patron of the society.

The society’s early meetings included experiments performed first by Hooke and then by Denis Papin, who was appointed in 1684. These experiments varied widely in their subject area as well as significance. The society also published an English translation of Essays of Natural Experiments Made in the Accademia del Cimento, under the Protection of the Most Serene Prince Leopold of Tuscany in 1684, an Italian work documenting experiments at the Accademia del Cimento. Although meeting at Gresham College, the Society temporarily moved to Arundel House in 1666 after the Great Fire of London, which did not harm Gresham but did lead to its appropriation by the Lord Mayor. The Society returned to Gresham in 1673.


There had been an attempt in 1667 to establish a permanent college for the society, rather different from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. The first proposal was given by John Evelyn to Robert Boyle in a letter dated 3 September 1659. He suggested building a college with apartments for members and a central research institute. Similar schemes were put forward by Bengt Skytte and later Abraham Cowley, who wrote in his Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy  (1661) of a “‘Philosophical College” with houses, a library, and a chapel. The society’s own ideas were simpler and  included residences only for a handful of staff. Henry Oldenburg and Thomas Sprat put forward plans in 1667 and Oldenburg’s co-secretary, John Wilkins, moved in a council meeting on 30 September 1667 to appoint a committee “for raising contributions among the members of the society, in order to build a college.” These plans were progressing by November 1667, but never came to anything, partly because of the lack of contributions forthcoming, and partly because the general plan did not have sufficient support.

The 18th century is sometimes thought of as a slack period for the Royal Society, but this characterization is unfair.  It was customary, for example, for the government to refer concerns over scientific matters to the council of the society for advice, which occasionally spilled into politics. In 1777, for example, the matter of the most effective lightning conductors to use on buildings was referred to the society. The pointed lightning conductor had been invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, while Benjamin Wilson had invented blunted ones. During the argument that occurred when deciding which to use, opponents of Franklin’s invention accused his supporters of being U.S. allies rather than being British patriots, and the debate eventually led to the resignation of the society’s president, Sir John Pringle. During the same time period, it became customary to appoint society fellows to serve on government committees where science was concerned, a practice that still continues.