History of the Royal Society

The History of the Royal Society of London

The beginnings of the Royal Society come about around 1645. The common theme among the scientists who began the Society was acquiring knowledge by experimental investigation. The first group of such men included Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, John Wallis, John Evelyn, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren and William Petty.

Boyle, in his letters written in 1646 and 1647, refers to our invisible college or the philosophical college. We are particularly lucky to have a description of the beginnings of the Society from John Wallis:-

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 returned to London at the end of May 1660 and the meetings at Gresham College resumed.

The Society decided to put itself on a more formal basis. Meetings became more formal and 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. After petitions to King Charles II, the Charter of Incorporation passed the Great Seal on 15 July 1662 and the Royal Society of London officially existed from that date. The King presented the new Society with a silver mace which has the emblems of England, Ireland, Scotland and France on its head.

The Charter gives the names of the first Council members and names Viscount William Brouncker as the first President. At the meeting of the Society on 20 May 1663, 150 Fellows were elected.

Of course the total number of Fellows greatly exceeds the list of those given. 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.

MacTutor links:

Royal Society of London
History of the Royal Society
Fellows of the Royal Society
Presidents of the Royal Society

Royal Society Prizes etc:

Royal Medal
Sylvester Medal
Copley Medal
Bakerian Lectures

Other Web site:

Royal Society Web site

Index of Societies, honours, etc.
Main index Biographies Index

JOC/EFR February 2016

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