Contents Index

The Royal Society of London, Somerset House
Date of Charter, 1662

From John Weale, The Pictorial Handbook of London (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), pp. 537-53.

The learned societies of London are numerous and important, and their influence is diffused imperceptibly, yet certainly throughout the land. There is no portion of the empire which can be properly said to be unconcerned in the proceedings of bodies of men, who, in their constant search after truth, and diligent investigation into the laws of nature, are continually advancing our knowledge and our resources, and contributing to our comfort and welfare, in numberless details of everyday life. A higher office is also theirs, namely, that of dissipating prejudice and ignorance, and opposing a mass of sound knowledge, and of careful theory, to the erroneous and rashly-formed opinions of the vulgar. The association of learned men for such objects was begun in other countries before it reached our own; and some of the rules which regulated the ancient Academia dei Lyncei at Rome, of which Galileo was a member, are still the guiding rules of all similar associations. The members of that eminent society {538} were exhorted to pass over in silence all political controversies, and quarrels of every kind, and wordy disputed, which give occasion to deceit, unfriendliness, and hatred, and to seek after peace, and freedom from molestation in their studies. They were required to by eager in their pursuit of real knowledge, in their study of nature and mathematics, and at the same time not to neglect the ornaments of elegant literature and philosophy, which, like a graceful garment, pious love of wisdom, and the praise of the most good and most high God, to give their minds first to observation and reflection, and afterwards to writing and publishing. Their meetings were not to be for recitation and declamation, but for transacting necessary business; and they were especially warned to let the fruits of wisdom be love, and to be so united to each other by strict ties that no interruption should occur in this sincere bond of faith and love, emanating from the source of virtue and philosophy. The spirit which regulated this academy, during its brief existence of 23 years, is that which forms the strength of our own learned societies, and without which none can long or honourably pursue its course. This Italian Academy, which was only one out of many in that country, was founded by the Marchese Frederico Cosi in 1609 and expired at the death of its founder in 1632. The French established, in 1635, the Academie Française, chiefly for the development of the national language; but to England belongs the honour of being the first, next to Italy, to establish a society for the prosecution of experimental philosophy. This took place in about the year 1645, when several learned men in London, taking no part in the political agitations of the time, agreed to meet together once a week to discourse on mathematical and philosophical subjects. A few years later, when two or three of these individuals were appointed to offices in the University of Oxford, they gathered around them a similar party in that city. Thus in two places there arose the germs of that noble and valuable institution, the Royal Society.

The men that formed the Royal Society, says Bishop Burnet, were Sir Robert Moray, Lord Brouncker, a profound mathematician, and Dr. Ward. Ward was a man of deep search, went deep into mathematical studies, and was a very dexterous man, if not too dexterous, for his sincerity was much questioned. Many physicians and other ingenious men went into the society for natural philosophy. But he who laboured most, at the greatest charge, and with the most success at experiments, was the Hon. Robert Boyle. He was a very devout Christian, humble, and modest almost to a fault, of a spotless and exemplary life in all respects.

It was not till after the Restoration in 1660 that the members of this body formed themselves into a regular society, and framed a set of rules for their natural guidance. These were confirmed by Royal Charter in 1662, and the infant society was looked upon with in- {539} terest and favor by the king as well as cordially welcomed but the scientific world in general. The meetings were at this time held at Gresham College, in Bishopsgate street, and continued to be carried on there with great success, until the plague broke out and dispersed the assemble; and subsequently, the great fire destroyed so much of the city that the authorities were obliged to take possession of the rooms the society had hitherto occupied. Apartments were then offered for their temporary use in Arundel House, and these were gladly accepted and entered upon. At the same time Mr. Howard presented them with a valuable library, consisting of several thousand printed volumes, and numerous manuscripts which had been purchased by his grandfather, Thomas, Earl of Arundel, during his embassy at Vienna.

At this time (1667) the number of members amounted to 200, and their rate of subscription was 1s. per week each. But many of them were unable to pay even this small sum, so that frequent meetings and deliberations were held as to the state of the society's funds. It is painful to read that among the members excused from payment, on account of the state of their finances, was Mr. Isaac Newton, whose investigations had already begun to enlighten the world, through the medium of this society. The generosity of the council, says Mr. Weld (the present assistant secretary and historian to the society), was not without its reward, as 'the poor Cambridge student,' grateful of the consideration shown him, was, probably, incited to labor more zealously for science, and for the Royal Society, to whom he communicated all his noble discoveries. The great philosopher, praying to be excused from the payment of 1s. per week, contrasts greatly with his subsequent wealth1. Newton had been proposed for election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, on Dec. 21, 1671, by the Bishop of Sarum (Seth Ward), on which occasion he modestly wrote, I am very sensible of the honour done to me, by the Bishop of Sarum, in proposing me as a candidate, and which I hope will be further conferred upon me by my election into the society; and if so, I shall endeavour to testify my gratitude by communicating what my poor and solitary endeavors can effect toward promoting their philosophical designs. He was elected on the 11th of January following, when he was 29 years of age. The existence of the Philosophical Transactions, in which the proceedings and discoveries of the society are registered, dates from March 6, 1664-5.

Various efforts were made by the society to found a college of their own, in furtherance of which their benefactor, Mr. Howard, gave them a piece of ground near Arundel House, and a design for the building. Sir Christopher Wren and Mr. Hooke also sent plans. The latter was curator of the institution, with a salary of 80l. per {540} annum. But neither of the designs was acted upon, nor was advantage taken of another scheme, that of obtaining the grant of Chelsea college for the purposes of the society. In the first case the want of funds appears to have been the obstacle; in the second, the inconvenient distance from town, and the dilapidated state of the building. Under these circumstances the proposals of the Mercers' Company that the society should return to Gresham College, called also the Royal exchange, was willingly acceded to. The grant of Chelsea College was, however, the means of improving the society's funds; for, when found to be unfit for their purpose, it was purchased back for the king's use for 1300l., which sum, together with pecuniary help from other quarters, enabled the council to purchase an annual income, and to establish their affairs on a more secure basis.

From time to time their progress was rapid and successful, the different committees working in their several departments. Their activity had been shown several years before by the division of labour agreed upon between them, which was as follows: -- 1. Mechanical, to consider and improve all mechanical inventions. 2. Astronomical and optical. 3. Anatomical. 4. Chemical. 5. Georgical. 6. For histories of trade. 7. For collecting all the phenomena of nature hitherto observed, and all experiments made and recorded. 8. For correspondence.

It was naturally to be expected that in the infancy of experimental science, much that was trivial as well as much that was important, should be brought before the society. The members were not yet in a condition to estimate rightly either the one or the other. On the one hand, being fearful of rejecting what might lead to some discovery, they countenanced investigations and witnessed experiments which, in the broader light of science, appear perfectly ridiculous; on the other hand, being doubtful as to the most important theories and discoveries, they were not fully alive to the grand advances they were making by means of the indefatigable Newton, though they always upheld and honored him to the best of their power. The first communication of his appeared in the 80th number of the Philosophical Transactions, containing his discoveries on the nature of light, refractions, and colours. These were assailed by various individuals, but were incapable of being shaken. The experiments had all been made in 1666, when he was only 23 years of age, and were now first brought to light in 1672.

The real advance of the society was not so apparent to the world In general as the weaker points to which we have alluded. Those were readily seized, and were converted into weapons of attack. A Warwick physician (Stubbe) and a Somersetshire clergyman (Crosse) had fiercely accused the society of and attempt to undermine the universities, to bring in popery, and to introduce absurd novelties; and at a later period Sir John Hill actually devoted a quarto volume to the attempt to pour contempt and ridicule on the illustrious body. Attacks of this nature, together with straitened {541} means, were some impediment, but no real evil, to the society, for they induced greater care as to what was submitted to the public eye.

It was on April 28, 1686, that the manuscript of Newton's Principia was placed in the hands of the society, being dedicated to that body. Halley, the astronomer, was at that time the clerk or amanuensis to the society, and thus acknowledged their true feelings on the matter: -- Sir, -- Your incomparable treatise, intitled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, was, by Dr. Vincent, presented to the Royal Society on the 28th instant; and they were so very sensible of the great honour you have done them by your dedication, that they immediately ordered you their most hearty thanks, and that the council should be summoned to consider about printing thereof. But by reason of the president's attendance upon the king, and the absence of our vice-president, whom the good weather hath drawn out of town, there has not since been any authentic council to resolve what to do in the matter; so that on Wednesday last the society, in their meeting, judging that so excellent a work ought not to have its publication longer delayed, resolved to print it at their own charge, in a large quarto, of a fair letter, and that this their resolution should be signified to you, and your opinion thereon be desired, so that it might be gone about with all speed. Notwithstanding this generous intention, the society appears to have been too much embarrassed at the time to print the book, and the disinterested Halley took it upon himself. Thus the council subsequently ordered that Mr. Newton's book be printed, and that Mr. Halley undertake the business of looking after it, and printing it at his own charge, which he has engaged to do. The Principia was published about the middle of 1687, with some Latin hexameters prefixed in praise of the illustrious author, from the pen of his noble-minded friend, Halley. The price of a copy of the first edition did not exceed 12s. the manuscript of this immortal work, entirely in Newton's own hand, is considered the greatest treasure in the Royal Society. Newton's reputation was fully established by the publication of this volume, and from that time honours and riches began to pour in upon him. In the following year he was returned to Parliament as one of the representatives of his university. In 1695 he was appointed Warden, and in 1699 Master of the Mint, and in the latter year he was also elected a foreign member of the French Academy. In 1703 he became President of the Royal Society, and was annually re-elected during the remaining 25 years of his life.

In 1705 he was knighted by Queen Anne, who always treated him with marked esteem, and on the accession of George I. he was still honoured and respected at court, and admitted to the personal friendship of the Princess of Wales, who was also a corresponded of Leibnitz. From the period of his being elected president, up to a few weeks before his death, he presided at almost every meeting of {542} the fellows of the Royal Society. In the year of his election he presented his treatise on Optics to the society; this was first published in English, and then so ably translated into Latin by Dr. Clarke, that Newton presented him with 500l. on the occasion. In the following year occurred his unhappy quarrel with Flamsteed, the astronomer-royal, who had been established at the Observatory at Greenwich ever since the erection of that building in 1675, and was about to publish his observations, being encouraged thereto by Prince George of Denmark, a fellow of the Royal Society. These observations were submitted to a committee of the Royal Society, and warmly approved; but their publication was long delayed by the misunderstanding between their author and the president, and when they did at length appear, they were published in a form so little to Flamsteed's taste that he collected all the copies he could and burnt them, printing, at his own cost, another and more correct transcript of his observations. This quarrel is spoken of by Weld as a melancholy instance that even the giants in intellect are not free from the failings of their less gifted brethren. In the same year the society opened a communication with a small philosophical association at Edinburgh, as it had previously done with one in Dublin. In 1709 the society lost one of its oldest fellows, Sir Godfrey Copley, whose name is generally known by the Copley medal, awarded to the authors of brilliant discoveries, and originating in a bequest of 100l. for the advancement of natural science.

The society had received various intimations from the Mercers' Company that they were not long to remain in possession of Gresham College, and it was under the presidency of Sir Isaac Newton that a change was effected, and that they became at last located in a house of their own. This w as not done without opposition in some quarters, and the failure of repeated attempts to obtain form the queen a grant of ground at Westminster, or from the trustees of the Cotton Library leave to meet in their apartments; Burnet relates that Lord Halifax moved the House of Lords to petition the queen that the Royal Society, who had a very good library at Gresham College, would remove and hold their meetings there as soon as it was made convenient for them. But upon the failure of all these attempts the society at length purchased a house in Crane Court, which, as their president informed them, was to be sold, and being in the {543} middle of the town, and out of noise, might be a proper place to be purchased but the society for their meetings. Here they held their first meeting on the 8th of November, 1710, and soon after their library and museum were established there likewise. In the month following their removal to Crane Court, the society gained fresh importance by being appointed by the Queen visitors and directors of the Observatory at Greenwich; but this appointment caused Flamsteed the keenest vexation. His dislike to Newton had increased with his infirmities, so that he wrote with great bitterness and injustice -- Sir Isaac Newton still continues his designs upon my, under pretense of taking care of the Observatory, and hinders me all he can; but, I thank God for it, hitherto without success.

By favour of Queen Anne, who greatly countenanced and encouraged the society, instructions were prepared for ministers and governors going abroad, who were enjoined to promote the interests of the society in foreign lands; and on the decease of one of the fellows, Robert Keck, Esq., in 1719, a bequest of 500l. was expressly assigned for the purpose of carrying on foreign correspondence by means of a paid officer. Other bequests about this time increased the property of the society, which was now so considerable, that the council, in 1724, memorialized George I. for a license to purchase and hold lands, &c., in mortmain. The king referred the matter to the solicitor general, whose opinion being favorable, the license was granted. In the year following the society, at their own expense, sent barometers and thermometers, to the number of eighteen, to several of their correspondents abroad, who were willing to assist them by making observations. In this way a great impulse was given to the study of meteorology.

But the society was now called to bear the loss of its brightest ornament. On the 20th of March, 1726-7, Sir Isaac Newton died, at the advanced age of eighty-five. According to Hearne, he had promised to be the benefactor of the Royal Society, and he had ample means of doing so, for his personal estate was worth 32,000l., but he left no other legacy to the society than his own fame which far surpasses all pecuniary wealth. Among the relics of this great philosopher, still in the keeping of the Royal Society, are the first perfect reflecting telescope ever invented, which bears on its stand the following inscription, The first Reflecting Tellescope invented by Sir Isaac Newton, and made with his own hands in the year 1671. Also, one of the solar dials made by him when a boy. This dial was taken down from the south wall of the Manor House at Woolsthorpe in 1844, and presented to the society by the Rev. Charles Turner, F.R.S. The name of Newton, with the exception of the first two letter, which have been obliterated by time, appears to have been inscribed upon the dial in rude capital letters.

{544} The gnomon of this dial has been lost. The dial is preserved in a strong oaken box, with a plate-glass cover, and on the under surface of the lid is a sketch of the house, showing the position of the dial2. The society is also in possession of three portraits of Newton in oil, one painted by Jervas, another by Marchand, and the third by Vanderbank. Likewise the original mask of Sir Isaac's face, from the cast taken after death, which belonged to Roubilliac. Also a lock of silver-white hair of the philosopher, which is now enclosed in a small mahogany box with a glass cover.

The Royal Society is in possession of a most interesting volume, in which the autographs of Newton, and all the other presidents, are entered. This is the charter book, richly bound in crimson velvet, with gold clasps and corners, having on one side a gold plate bearing the shield of the society, on the other a corresponding plate, showing the crest. The leaves of this book are of the finest vellum, and the first two pages are adorned with the arms of England, and those of the society, superbly emblazoned. Then follow the second and third charters and the statutes, extending over sixty-six pages. Eleven blank leaves {545} then intervene, after which the autograph portion commences with the signatures, Charles R., Founder; James, Fellow; and George Rupert, Fellow, inclosed within an ornamented scroll border, with the royal shield. The next page contains the signatures of various foreign ambassadors, and the succeeding ones those of the fellows, among which the eye is arrested by names glorious to our country, and illustrious throughout the world. This charter book is of continually-increasing value; for here are entered, as years pass on, the names of all distinguished persons of our own, and many of foreign countries. The autographs of kings and queens of England, as well as those of many other nations, have here been duly entered, and our present Queen has signed her name on a richly-illuminated page, which also contains the signatures of Prince Albert, and the Kings of Prussia and Saxony.

Sir Isaac Newton was succeeded by Sir Hans Sloane, a physician, and a most diligent naturalist, whose splendid collections afterwards formed the nucleus of the British Museum. Sir Hans Sloane obtained the favourable regard of the King (George II.), and of his Queen, to the society; he was also the means of introducing the practice of inoculation, the Queen taking courage from his opinion to try it on her own children. By order of government the society took the oversight of new inventions, which were exhibited before them and registered previous to being patented. The society was now continually receiving specimens of valuable information from various other bodies with whom it held continual correspondence. It had been the desire of Sir Isaac Newton to encourage the formation of scientific societies in the provinces. His successor trod in his steps, and we find that archaeology, as well as science, was warmly encouraged. In 1734 valuable collections of plants, animals, and minerals were received from America, while the Apothecaries' Company at Chelsea sent annual contributions of dried plants.

With all these attractions the meetings were well attended; but the members were again sadly in arrears with their subscriptions, no less a sum than 1844l. 16s. being due. Great exertions were made by the council, and at last they succeeded in restoring the society to a state of prosperity. In 1741 sir Hans Sloane resigned his office on account of ill health, and was succeeded by Martin Folkes. But it is not our purpose to give a list of the presidents generally. Great improvement was effected in chronometers under the encouragement of this society; the subject of ventilation, especially in prisons, began to attract their enlightened study, while, at the same time, Bradley, who had succeeded Halley and Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory, was making important additions to astronomical science, in acknowledgment of which the Copley medal was awarded to him. In 1757 it was awarded to Lord Charles Cavendish for an improved form of thermometer, and in 1758 to Dolland, the discoverer of achromatic lenses. The transit of Venus, which Halley had foretold for 1761, {546} caused the society to take active measures in sending out observers to St. Helena and the Cape of Good Hope, and during these interesting proceedings George III. Ascended the throne. The observations were not, however, satisfactory, and astronomers looked with anxiety for the next occasion, in 1769, for taking them with greater accuracy. The King entered warmly into the subject, and ordered 4000l. to be placed at their disposal. Lieutenant Cook and Mr. Green were sent to the Pacific, Messrs. Dymond and Wales to Hudson's Bay, and Mr. Call to Madras. Mr. (afterwards Sir Joseph) Banks, a gentleman of large fortune, asked leave to accompany Cook, and took with him Dr. Solander, a Swedish botanist, two draughtsmen, and four servants. The observations on this occasion were much more successful than in 1761. Soon afterwards the society took up the subject of arctic voyages of discovery, which were also warmly encouraged by the King.

Amidst all this activity, there was also unfortunately a subject of discord. It will scarcely be believed that this respected the relative properties of knobbed and pointed lightning-conductors. An application was made on the part of the government for information from the Royal Society, as to the best form of lightning-conductor for the protection of a powder-magazine at Purfleet. A committee was appointed to consider the matter, consisting of Cavendish, Watson, Franklin, Robertson, and Wilson. The first four recommended pointed conductors; the last-named persisted in recommending the blunt form of conductor. This apparently trivial circumstance afterwards led to a serious quarrel in the society, which lasted three years; for, unfortunately, after the pointed conductors were erected, the Purfleet magazine received some slight damage from lightning. A second government application now led to a second meeting of the most eminent electricians, who a second time decided against Mr. Wilson. His theory had in the meantime become mixed up with party politics, so that the populace, and even a portion of the upper classes, took up his quarrel, and considered that those who opposed him were biassed by Franklin, the inventor of pointed conductors, a name now obnoxious, as everything connected to America was sure to be, when England was in the height of her quarrel with her American dependents. These contentions disturbed the peace of the society, and some affirm that they led to the resignation of the president, Sir John Pringle, in 1777. He was succeeded in the presidency by Sir Joseph Banks, (already named as having accompanied Cook to the Pacific), who occupied that honourable position for the long period of 41 years, during which the society enjoyed a large amount of fame and prosperity. Science progressed in a remarkable degree, as may be gathered from the eloquent language of Cuvier, who thus speaks of the period in question: -- During this epoch, so memorable in the history of the human mind, the scientific men of England occupy a glorious position in the intellectual pur- {547} suits common to all civilized people. They have confronted the ice of either pole; they have not left a spot of land in the whole ocean unvisited; they have increased tenfold the catalogs of the kingdom of nature; they have peopled the heavens with planets and satellites before unknown; they have counted, as it were, the stars of the milky way; and if chemistry has in modern times assumed altogether a new aspect, the facts which they have furnished have essentially contributed to the change: hydrogen, oxygen, and carbonic acid have been discovered by them; to them, also, do we owe the decomposition of water; new and singular models, in great number, have resulted from their analysis; the nature of the fixed alkalies was unknown until demonstrated by them. At their bidding the steam-engine and the science of mechanics have wrought miracles, and have placed their country above all others in almost every kind of manufacture; and if, as no reasonable man can doubt, such success is due much more to the general spirit of activity which pervades the nation, than to the influence of any individual, whatever his position, or however exalted his merits, it must nevertheless be admitted that Sir Joseph Banks never abused his trust, or exerted his influence but for the good of mankind.

But this good and great man was not without enemies. There were many who misunderstood and envied him, and who pretended to think the Royal Society degraded by the election of a mere amateur, as they were pleased to call him, to the chair which Newton had filled. Sir Joseph Banks was not a mathematician, but he was a clever and assiduous naturalist, and it was but just that natural history should be honoured in his person, as mathematics had been in that of the immortal Newton. Stormy meetings on the subject ended on the 8th of January, 1784, in the passing of a resolution that this Society do approve of Sir Joseph Banks as their President and will support him. A few dissentient members resigned, and from that period to the end of his life Sir Joseph Banks appears to have enjoyed the full confidence of the society, although he could not always preserve general peace and unanimity.

A further proof of the royal favour was now afforded in the offer of apartments in Somerset House, and although these were in some respects less convenient than those of their own humble dwelling in Crane Court, and although, in order to occupy them, it became necessary to part with the museum, which could not be accommodated within the allotted space, yet so highly was the offer esteemed, that the council decided on embracing the proposal, and rejoiced in the more dignified position thus given their society. Whether the accession of honour was really so great as to deserve the sacrifice of the museum (which, when close at hand, must have been of great service to the members in their studies) is a question we are called upon to decide, but the whole of the collections were actually bestowed upon the British Museum, where, among the thousands {548} of objects of interest, they have no longer an individual existence, and no one can say, this or that is due to the labours of the Royal Society. At the instigation of the Royal Society, and at the expense of its members, a medal was struck in memory of the lamented Captain Cook, whose massacre in 1779 caused deep regret throughout the country. In 1781 the society acquired new renown by Sir W. Herschel's discovery of a new planet which he named Georgium Sidus, that all might know it was first observed in the reign of George III., a sovereign to whom science was so much indebted, but which name was afterwards changed, at the proposal of bode, to Uranus. The Copley medal was awarded to Sir William at the anniversary of 1781. Two years later, dissension again arose in the society, the President giving great offense by endeavouring to check the too easy admission of Fellows. He laid down two principles: first, that any person who had successfully cultivated science, especially by original investigations, should be admitted, whatever might be his rank or fortune; secondly, that men of wealth or station, disposed to promote, adorn, and patronize science, should, with due caution and deliberation, be allowed to enter. When candidates were proposed who could not be placed in either of these classes, the influence of the President was exerted to prevent their election. Great discontent often arose on these occasions, but it was not openly displayed till 1783, when it burst forth with great vehemence. Dr. Hutton, Professor of Mathematics at Woolwich, was also foreign secretary of the society, but in the opinion of the President and others, his duties at Woolwich interfered with his duties to them, so that at last they passed a resolution that the foreign secretary be required to live in London. Dr. Hutton immediately resigned, and his party took violent umbrage. The bitterness which resulted from this quarrel was fostered by the angry debates of Dr. Horsley and others, who wished to take this opportunity of overthrowing the President. This intemperate partisan threatened the secession of the mathematical party of his measures were not carried, exclaiming, The President will then be left with his train of feeble amateurs, and that bauble3 (the mace) upon the table, the ghost of that society in which philosophy once reigned, and Newton presided as her minister. But it began to be suspected that it did more than anything else to restore even by his own party, that it did more than anything else to restore order. The year 1784 was a memorable one for the society, on account of the discovery (made simultaneously, as it would appear, by {549} Cavendish and Watt) of the composition of water. In the following year, Sir W. Herschel began to construct his 40-ft. telescope, the cost of which, amounting to 4000l., was generously borne by the King. In 1788 the first instance of the subdivision of scientific labour in the metropolis occurred in the establishment of the Linnaean Society. An Italian professor, named Volta, began, in 1793, to communicate to the world, though the medium of the Royal Society, his discoveries in electricity, and won at their hands the Copley medal. Soon after the society received a valuable present of Oriental manuscripts from Sir William Jones, and also a gift of 1000l. from Count Rumford, for the bestowment of a gold and silver medal on the author of the best discovery or improvement on the subject of light or heat. The first medals were given to the Count himself, as no other discoveries had been made of equal importance to his own. In 1800 the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street originated with the Fellows of the Royal, and in 1807 the Geological Society. The subject of standard weights and measures occupied the attention of the Royal Society for a long period. A Pendulum Committee was likewise appointed, and proper persons were sent out with the north-west and the Polar expeditions to make scientific observations.

In 1801 the discoveries of Sir Humphry Davy began to draw attention to that distinguished philosopher; and from that period to 1829 there is scarcely a volume of the Transactions that is not enriched by a communication from him. In 1806 his paper on chemical agencies attracted the admiration of all Europe, won Napoleon's {550} prize of 3000 fr., and was crowned by the Institute of France, though we were at open war with that country. In 1816 the safety lamp was presented and explained to the society. The coal-owners acknowledged this invention by subscribing 2500l. for a service of plate, which they presented to Davy.

At the death of George III., in 1820, the society lost a valuable friend. The same year also took from them their respected President, Sir Joseph Banks, whose death was generally and sincerely regretted. Dr. Wollaston took his office for a few months, but could only be prevailed on to sustain it until the anniversary meeting, when it was bestowed on Sir Humphry Davy. The brilliant career of this distinguished man was nearly over when he was chosen to this highly honourable post; the following are a few of the principal events which occurred under his presidency: -- geological discoveries by Dr. Buckland; philosophical communications by Sir John Herschel, and researches during the arctic expedition by Captain (now Colonel) Sabine, won for each the award of the Copley medal; trigonometrical operations were carried on for connecting the meridians of Paris and Greenwich; a plan for calculating and printing mathematical tables by machinery was submitted by Mr. Babbage, but, after years of labour and cost, was suspended by the withdrawal of government aid; a valuable invention for the protection of ships from lightning was made by Mr. (now Sir William) Snow Harris, and warmly approved by Sir Humphry Davy and the council, who urged its immediate adoption. Two gold medals of the value of 50 guineas each were awarded by George IV., as honorary premiums for important discoveries (they are continued by her present Majesty).

In 1827 Sir Humphry Davy, on account of declining health, resigned the Presidency, and was succeeded by Mr. Davies Gilbert.

The year previous to this event the society obtained increased accommodation at Somerset House by the grant of rooms formerly used for the business of the Lottery Office, which was still further extended some years later by the addition of the rooms of the Privy Seal Office. In 1828 Dr. Wollaston established the Donation Fund, vesting 2000l., the dividends from which, at his decease, were to be liberally expended in promoting experimental research. Other benefactors soon followed his example, raising the fund to 3410l. In 1829 the Earl of Bridgewater left 8000l., in order that a person or persons selected by the President, might write, print, and publish 1000 copies of a work on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in creation. The President, with the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London, appointed eight gentlemen to write separate treatises. Thus arose the celebrated Bridgewater treatises, which, with their authors, are very generally known. The science of meteorology was at this time earnestly studies, and a water barometer, contrived by the late Professor Daniel, was placed in the hall of the society's apartments. {551} That eminent man died suddenly in 1845, in the presence of the council at their meeting. In 1830 William IV., on ascending the throne, was addressed in the customary manner, and became patron of the society, declaring that he would be proud to take every opportunity of promoting the interests of an institution whose great object is the cultivation of science, and the discovery of truth. During this year the President resigned his chair, and was succeeded by the Duke of Sussex. The opening address of his Royal Highness was one of much beauty and interest, and he thus defined the duties of the President: -- The ostensible duties, in fact, of your President are chiefly ministerial: he is your organ to ask and receive your decisions upon the various questions which are submitted to you; and he is your public voice to announce them. Though he presides at the meetings of your Council, he possesses but one voice among many; incurring an equal responsibility in common with every one of its members. He is your official representative in the administration of the affairs of the British Museum; he presides in your name, by virtue of your election of him at the board of visitors of the Royal Observatory as appointed by his Majesty's warrant; he is your medium of communication with the public bodies, and with the members of the government upon the various subjects important to the interests of science, which are either submitted to your consideration or which are recommended by you through your council for the consideration of others. For many of these functions, adds his Royal Highness, I feel myself to be somewhat prepared by my habits of life, as well as by my public occupations; and for some of them, if I may be permitted to say so, by that very rank in which Providence has placed by as a member of the Royal Family of this country; for though it would be most repugnant to my principles and wishes, that the weight of my station should in any way influence the success of an application which it was either improper to ask or inexpedient to grant, I should feel it to be equally due to the dignity of this society and to my own, that the expression of your opinions and of your wishes should experience both the respect and the prompt attention to which it is so justly entitled. The Duke of Sussex held office as President until 1838, which he tendered his resignation, having been prevented for some time previously, by the state of his eyesight, from fulfilling the duties of his office. The Marquis of Northampton was then elected in his room, and continued to occupy the chair of the Royal Society until the year 1849, when the present president, the Earl of Rosse, was elected.

The Council of the Royal Society consists of 21 members, including the President, of whom 10 must retire annually. There are several vice-presidents, one of whom acts as treasurer; and 3 secretaries, one of whom is foreign secretary. In addition to the Council there are 7 scientific committees, each having its own department. Thus, {553} there are the committees of Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Zoology, Botany, and Mineralogy. The library amounts to about 42,000 volumes, and is kept at the society's apartments in Somerset House. The meetings are held every Thursday, at half-past 8, p.m., with the exception of a short interval at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, on Ascension Day, on the week of an anniversary meeting, and that for the election of fellows. The meeting for the election of the officers of this society takes place on St. Andrew's Day, November 30. Every Fellow is known by the initials F.R.S.

The subscription to the Royal Society is 4l. annually, with an admission fee of 10l. The annual subscription can be compounded for by the payment of 60l. A candidate for a fellowship must have his certificate signed by 6 fellows, 3 of whom must be personally acquainted with him. His name will be announced on the 1st of March, and his certificate suspended in the meeting-room until the first Thursday in June, when the election usually takes place. Of the total number of applicants for this honour, 15 are selected by the Council, and recommended for election; but every Fellow may use his own discretion in the matter, and may bestow his vote on some other applicant, so that the total number he votes for does not exceed 15. A majority of two-thirds is necessary in every case, and the election goes for nothing if the new Fellow omits to present himself for formal admission on or before the fourth Monday afterwards.

[illustration from {552}]

The accompanying engraving of the meeting-room has been made by permission of the council. This room contains a series of highly-interesting portraits of some of the most distinguished members of the society. There are also a few busts, including that of the founder, Charles II.


1. Flamsteed, in his private journal, states that Newton was obliged to read [i.e. teach] mathematics for a salary at Cambridge.

2.The accompanying engravings of these two interesting relics were made from sketches taken from the objects themselves, by permission of the council of the Royal Society.

3.The mace of the Royal Society was presented by Charles II. in 1663. It is of silver, richly gilt, and weighs 190 oz. avoirdupois. Embossed figures adorn it of a rose, harp, thistle, and fleur de lys, emblematic of England, Ireland, Scotland, and France. Great celebrity has been attached to this mace, under the idea that it is the identical bauble turned out of the House of Commons when Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Long Parliament. But not only is there no historical ground for this belief, but by diligent search Mr. Weld has discovered the original warrant, ordering a mace to be made for the Royal Society. This fact destroys an illusion which was given an almost sacred character in the society's mace.