Promoting Physico-Mathematical-Experimental Learning: Founding the Royal Society of London

Part of the Science Networks. Historical Studies book series (SNHS, volume 39)


Except for the early formative years in Oxford, Hooke’s entire scientific life was devoted to the Royal Society of London. It defined him, and to a considerable extent, he defined it. Initially only the Society’s first Curator of experiments — a position he held for nearly four decades — Hooke soon became the lifeblood of the Society in the critical early years when it was struggling to establish itself as, essentially, the world’s first professional scientific society.1) And while natural philosophers and mathematicians had gained positions at court in various ways, many had patrons, and some held university positions, Hooke, as the first scientific “employee” of the world’s first scientific institution, deserves to be considered the first professional scientist. With this in mind, it would make little sense to think of understanding Hooke’s career as a natural philosopher without first studying the Society itself, its origins, who its members were and therefore who were his colleagues, how meetings were conducted, Hooke’s own role in those meetings, and the difficulties encountered by the Society as it struggled through its first three decades. In doing so, we will not give any special attention to Hooke’s science per se, which will be the focus of Chapter 7.


Royal Society Professional Scientist Natural Philosopher Invisible College Mechanical Philosophy 
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  1. 2).
    The story of the founding of the Royal Society of London “for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall-Experimental Learning” has been told in detail else-where, making it unnecessary to give more than the bare outlines here. Indeed, Michael Hunter has asked whether there is anything new to be said about the Society (M. Hunter and P. Wood (1966). The authoritative contemporary account is that of Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society, written just six years after the Society’s founding (published in 1667), and under the direction of some of its founding members. For this last reason, however, its objectivity can be questioned. Recent works include: Purver (1967); Hunter (1989), Marie Boas Hall (1991), Stewart (1992), etc. The literature is vast. A. Rupert Hall’s introduction to Birch is also important. For background, the monumental work of Charles Webster, The Great Instauration (Webster, 1976) is indispensable, but for criticism of Webster’s thesis of an alliance between Puritanism and science, see Henry (1992). Hunter’s The Royal Society and its Fellows 1660–1700 (Hunter 1994a) is invaluable.Google Scholar
  2. 3).
    Quoted in O.L. Dick’s introduction to Aubrey’s Brief Lives, p. liii. One can, if he wishes, extend the line of descent further into the 1640s, e.g., the trio Thomas Harriot, Walter Warner, and Robert Hues, “the Earl of Northumberland’s three Magi,” or the Welbeck circle, which included Thomas Hobbes. See John Henry, “The Scientific Revolution in England,” in Porter and Teich, The Scientific Revolution in National Context, and references therein.Google Scholar
  3. 4).
    Some sources include Shapiro (1989) and references therein (e.g., p. 260), Purver (1967), Chapter 4. See also Webster (1976), Chapter II, “The Spiritual Brotherhood.” The idea of a “universal college,” or loose network of philosophers was widespread in the seventeenth century. But Comenius’ visit to London in 1641-2 under the sponsorship of William Hartlib provided the initial impetus that led to the Invisible College, the 1645 group, and eventually, the Royal Society. Apparently members of the Invisible College included Wilkins, Wallis, Boyle, Theodore Haak, and at least six others, all of whom were founders or early members of the Society. See also Stimson (1935) or Greengrass, et al. (1995). Boyle’s sister, Lady Ranelagh, was very much involved with the circle around Hartlib. See Jardine (2002), p. 88.Google Scholar
  4. 5).
    Wallis’ accounts appear in his “A Defence of the Royal Society,” and in “Account of Some Passages of His Own Life,” which appeared in Thomas Hearne’s edition of Peter Langtoft’s Chronical in 1725. Charles I was executed in 1649, leading to the Republic and in four years Cromwell and the Protectorate, and Puritan ascendancy. This lasted less than a decade. Oxford was in Puritan hands when the moderate Wilkins went there as Warden of Wadham College, but he attracted both Puritan and Anglican (royalist) scholars.Google Scholar
  5. 6).
    Shapiro (1969), p. 125.Google Scholar
  6. 9).
    It did have a set of rules governing its activities, however. See Purver (1967), p. 111. It evidently thrived, however, having, according to Seth Ward, about 30 members in 1652. See Robinson (1949).Google Scholar
  7. 10).
    Sprat, p. 56.Google Scholar
  8. 11).
    Wren and Rooke were joined by Brouncker, Brereton, Neil, Evelyn, Henshaw, Slingsby, Clark, Ent, Ball, Hill, Crone, and others. Sprat, p. 57. Wren became professor of astronomy in 1657, when Rooke switched from that post, which he had held for five years, to Professor of Geometry. Wren left Gresham to become Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in 1661, and Rooke died in 1662.Google Scholar
  9. 12).
    Sprat, pp. 56–8. Sprat wrote to Wren that “This Day I went to visit Greshamcollege, but found the Place in such a nasty condition, so defiled and the smells so infernal that, if you should now come to make use of your tube, it would be like Dives looking out of Hell into heaven.” Sprat described the building’s “noisesome condition”, and wrote of “infernal smells” and other indignities ... Sprat to Wren, Parentalia, p. 254. Archimedes, it is traditionally said, was slain by a Roman soldier in Syracuse as he worked on a problem in geometry.Google Scholar
  10. 13).
    Wallis made this claim in 1678, some thirty years after the fact. The 1645 group was Boyle’s “Invisible College”. See Birch, I, 2.Google Scholar
  11. 14).
    Barbara Shapiro’s John Wilkins (Shapiro, 1969) contains a good summary pp. 25–28.Google Scholar
  12. 17).
    Whence the title of this chapter. Birch , I, p. 3; Record of the Royal Society, p. 7. Rooke’s contributions as a natural philosopher were primarily in astronomy, and especially astronomical methods for determining longitude. See Ronan, 1960.Google Scholar
  13. 18).
    The Society met at Gresham College until 9 January 1666/7, when, following the Great Fire, it moved to Arundel House. The Society met there for over six years, but at a meeting of the Council on 9 Oct 73 was invited back “by a committee of the professors of Gresham College and another of the Mercers company.” At the time, the Earl of Norwich “could not but take it very unkindly” if they should move from Arundel. He later relented, and on 6 November, the Council decided to move, largely to be near Hooke’s rooms, where he could more easily offer experiments. The Society’s space at Gresham College is described in Johnson (1940). Typically meetings commenced at 3 in the afternoon.Google Scholar
  14. 19).
    Moray (or Murray), a Royalist who went into exile with Charles I in 1646, was instrumental in obtaining a royal charter for the society. Moray’s connections were undoubtedly the reason why he became the Society’s first president, rather than, say, Wilkins, with his relation by marriage to Cromwell. Boyle also had ties to the monarchy; his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Killigrew had a child by Charles II in 1648, when Boyle was 21 (Jardine, 2002).Google Scholar
  15. 21).
    It was also proposed that members of the College of Physicians and of the science faculties of the two universities be admitted as supernumeraries. Birch , I, pp. 5–6. In editing Birch, Rupert Hall lists the fellows in the 1663–87 period, that is, after the second charter of 1663 (22 April). He also gives the members before the second charter who were not reelected. One of the original members, Lawrence Rooke, died in 1662, as did John Gauden. Hunter (1994).Google Scholar
  16. 22).
    Sprat, p. 68.Google Scholar
  17. 25).
    Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso of 1676 parodied the experimental philosophers of the Royal Society. Hooke’s Diary for 2 June describes his attendance at the play: “With Godfrey and Tompion at Play. Met Oliver there. Damned Dogs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed.” He comments again the next day. See Chapman (1996).Google Scholar
  18. 26).
    Hobbes, Dialogus Physicus, 1661, 1668, p. 236–7. See Shapin and Schaffer (1985), Chapter IV. Boyle, in turn, attacked Hobbes in his “Animadversions on Mr. Hobbes Problemata de Vacuo” of 1674.Google Scholar
  19. 27).
    R. Palmer, quoted in Maddison (1969), p. 137. Stubbe to Boyle, 4 June 1670. Maddison, p. 138; See also Appendix B in Sprat, on Stubbe’s attacks.Google Scholar
  20. 28).
    Stubbe’s strongest attack on the Society and Sprat’s history of it came in A Censure upon Certain Passages contained in the History of the Royal Society. The definitive work on Stubbe is Jacob (1983). In particular, his Chapter 5 focuses on the Royal Society. Conflicting views on some of the issues raised there have been given by Hunter among others: Hunter (1994), p. 16, n. 3 and Hunter (1990). In this work we can only hint at the complexities which are revealed in studies such as these. The bibliography and references offer some guide to the literature.Google Scholar
  21. 30).
    The King himself was known to ridicule the Society. Pepys’ records that he “mightily laughed at Gresham College, for spending time weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat.” Pepys’ diary, 1 February 1663/4. For other critics, see Record of the Royal Society (1940), pp. 40–44.Google Scholar
  22. 32).
    Glanvill, Scepsis Scientifica, 1665, John Owen, ed., London, 1885, p. lav. Quoted in Sprat, p. xii. Bacon’s New Atlantis was published three years after his death, in 1627.Google Scholar
  23. 33).
    Sprat , p. 35–6.Google Scholar
  24. 34).
    Sprat cautioned that “whoever has fix’d on his Cause, before he has experimented; can hardly avoid fitting his Experiment, and his Observations, to his own Cause, which he had before imagined, rather than the Cause to the truth of the Experiment in it self,” p. 108. Furthermore, referring to the founders of the Society, “as their purpose was, to heap up a mixt Mass of Experiments, without digesting them into any perfect model ... and whatever they have recorded, they have done it, not as compleat Scheames of opinions, but as bar, unfurnis’d Histories.” Sprat , p. 115. Nonetheless, Sprat did acknowledge that after a “severe examination of the particulars,” the new method must not rest there; rather “It must advance those Principles, to the finding out of new effects, ... from experimenting to Demonstrating and from demonstrating to Experimenting again.” Sprat, p. 31. Others in the Society were more concerned about unguided experimentation including the mathematician William Niele. See Hunter and Wood (1996), p. 52–3.Google Scholar
  25. 35).
    This passage reflects Margaret Jacobs’ reading of the evidence from the period of the Restoration (Jacob, 1976). For a different skeptical view, see Henry (1992), pp. 190–202.Google Scholar

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