The Society After the Principia: 1688–1703

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


The Society continued to experience a malaise into the 1960s, with, as we have seen, a growing divide between the Newtonians and natural historians. At the anniversary meeting in November 1688 when elections ought to have taken place, there was no quorum; rescheduled in April, there were again too few votes. 1) For a decade in the 1660s, Hooke’s experiments had formed the centerpiece of Society meetings, and then for nearly a score of years thereafter there often would have been little substance at meetings without the discussions he provided. But as the new decade opened, with his physical and intellectual vigor beginning to decline, Hooke was no longer able to carry the Society on his own. His experimental contributions had been waning for some time, even though his architecture and building activities were also winding down, and increasingly his comments at meetings were retrospective. By 1690 or 1691 his torch as the intellectual leader of the Society had begun to pass to Halley, even though there was hardly a meeting at which he did not speak, and even though Halley was often gone. 2) But as Halley slowly began to assume the role that Hooke had played for nearly three decades, he did so in a characteristic Halley manner. He was much more a mathematician than Hooke, and frequently his comments were on mathematical questions. 3) But Hooke would continue to be an important presence for another decade, and he attended nearly every meeting even into 1701.4)


Society Meeting Lunar Eclipse Lunar Theory Intellectual Leader Council Minute 
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  1. 6).
    Westfall (1980), pp. 627–630, Conduitt said that Newton was Sloane’s second choice, after Christopher Wren, who had been president once before.Google Scholar
  2. 7).
    With apologies to Mordechai Feingold. No transactions at all were published in the years 1688–90. But between 1692 and 1705, the average was nearly 9 per year. In fact, the problems with the Transactions were inseparable from that of finding a stationer or printer who would take on the job of publishing them, especially after their interruption during Hooke’s tenure as secretary. See, above all. Adrian Johns’ Miscellaneous Methods (Johns, 2000). But the suspension of publications in 1688–90 was not unrelated to the worsening political situation. In 1691 the editor noted that the suspension was due to “the unsettled posture of Publick Affairs.” In 1698 the Society began the practice of dating the Transactions from January 1 rather than March 25.Google Scholar
  3. 8).
    Almost a year earlier, on 9 January 1688/9, a meeting day, Hooke had raised the issue with those present at Jonathan’s after the meeting; he records “Agreed by all.” Gunther, X, p. 89. In his Diary entry for 27 November 1689 Hooke wrote that “I propounded Collections. Hill found tricks: voted against me.” (Ibid, p. 167).Google Scholar
  4. 9).
    Council Minutes, 27 November 1689 and 22 October 1690.Google Scholar
  5. 10).
    Journal Book, 25 January 1692/3.Google Scholar
  6. 13).
    In the end Halley sailed below 52° South latitude where he had a close call sailing among icebergs in a heavy fog, in February 1698 (Armitage, 1966, p. 143). The Paramour was 64 ft long.Google Scholar
  7. 16).
    Which involved the curve described by the intersection of a cylinder and a sphere. Wallis’s and David Gregory’s solutions were published in the Transactions for January 1692/3 (17, pp. 584–6) and 1693/4 (18, pp. 25–29).Google Scholar
  8. 19).
    See, for example, Kollerstrom (2000), As is usual with Newton’s mathematical works, the ultimate source is Whiteside (1967, Vol. VI). He speaks of Newton’s “relentless, courageous efforts,” and his “fudging it in a sophisticated but logically unfounded manner.” He also quotes Machin describing the lunar theory as “all sagacity,” and Newton himself as saying that “his head never ached but with his studies on the moon.”Google Scholar
  9. 20).
    Journal Book, 19 October 1692. Halley’s interests were as wide as Hooke’s, and his experience of the world much greater. His studies of the chronology of the classical world included applications of his astronomical knowledge and calculational ability to date events in the Greco-Roman world. For example, he argued in the Philosophical Transactions for March 1691 (v. 17, No. 192, p. 495) that Julius Caesar had landed in Britain on 26 Aug, 55 B.C. (Gunther’s A.D. is a typo). Hooke commented in his Diary only “Hally of Caesar’s landing.” (Gunther, 1935, vol. X, p. 181. Halley’s comments on eclipses and the “Saros cycle” of 223 months on 2 November 1692 were related to this work on chronology. It is difficult to know whether Halley was consciously trying to shed his reputation as a skeptic or unbeliever, with future positions in mind, or whether he was undergoing a conversion. Or for that matter, whether Whiston and others were right in their judgment on him. It is said, however, that he failed in his attempt to obtain the Savilian professorship in astronomy at Oxford in 1691 because of his questionable beliefs.Google Scholar
  10. 21).
    Journal Book, 2 and 23 November, and 7 and 21 December, 1692. See, for example, Armitage (1966), pp. 46–48. An entertaining account of Halley’s interest in the problem of the moon is in Steel (2001), pp. 89–93. Hooke’s Diary entry for 7 December noted that “Hally spake of a way of his to solve the Moons motions, being an improvement of Horrocks.” Halley was interested in eclipses, especially lunar eclipses, for two reasons. First as a test of Newton’s lunar theory, and second, as a way of determining the longitude. He also tried to use the Moon’s position for the same purpose (see above). Lunar eclipses have several advantages over their solar counterparts, especially the fact that the timing of the several “contacts” is the same for all observers viewing the eclipse. Comparing the calculated time at Greenwich, say, with the local time yields the longitude. Halley had first discussed eclipse prediction using the Saros cycle when on 16 October 1689 he showed that, starting from the total lunar eclipse of 8 September 1671 (Old Style), he was able to predict the eclipse of 19 September 1689, 223 lunations later. In his Diary for that date, Hooke writes: “at 12.391/2 mane [a.m.] began Eclypse of the Moon. Immersion at 1.36. Emersion at 3.18; the end at 4.19. Sat up to 5 mane.” (Gunther, 1935, Vol. X, 149). Evidently he did not view it with Halley, although he was in town since Hooke had coffee with him at Jonathan’s the previous day. Nineteen eclipse years of 346.6 days span a duration of 18.03 years. The consequence is that nearly identical eclipses repeat every 18 years and 10–11 days, though displaced slightly in latitude and by about 115° in longitude. The history of lunar theory is a fascinating one that would take us far beyond the purpose of this chapter on the Royal Society. Briefly, however, Newton’s attempts to derive an accurate representation of the moon’s motion from gravitational theory was a failure. The result was that he adopted the sixty year old “theory” — or rather, kinematic model — of Jeremy Horrocks. This description of the moon’s motion was the basis for Newton’s “Theory of the Moon,” published in 1702 in David Gregory’s Astronomiae elementa. Halley’s insight was that he could improve Newton’s parameterization by using the Saros cycle whose length of 18+ years allowed accurate calibration. Good sources on the lunar theory are Cohen (1975) and Kollerstrom (2000).Google Scholar
  11. 22).
    Journal Book, meetings of 19 July and 2 August 1699.Google Scholar
  12. 24).
    Westfall (1980), chapter 14, but especially p. 712ff.Google Scholar

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