The Royal Society of London

The Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, 1660-present

The Royal Society of London had its beginnings in the English Civil War, which engulfed much of Great Britain in the middle of the 17th century. In 1640, two years before the onset of civil war, several individuals calling themselves "natural philosophers" began holding regular meetings in private homes and taverns. These meetings continued in erratic fashion during the troubled civil war period, often centered on Gresham College, to which many of them were connected. By 1658, life under Cromwell's Commonwealth had compelled the natural philosophers to suspend their meetings.

Events began to move swiftly in 1660, with the end of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the Stuart monarchs. Meetings resumed, a Society of Philosophers was founded, and in December, they obtained the patronage of King Charles II. Thus the Royal Society of London was born. Among the first Fellows of the Royal Society were Christopher Wren, John Wallis, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. The years immediately following 1660 were productive ones: the Society found formal accommodations at Gresham College, began a library, and in 1665 published its first volume of the Philosophical Transactions.

Unfortunately, this growth was severely curtailed in 1666 with the Great Fire of London. While the fire did not damage the Society's rooms at Gresham College, it did destroy most of the old city that lay within the Roman walls. To accelerate the city's recovery, the Lord Mayor of London compelled the Society remove itself from Gresham College so that space could be made available for the Mayor's offices, as well as for city merchants. Meetings were held at various private homes before finding more permanent space at Arundel House, the residence of the Duke of Norfolk. On a side note, Hooke developed and submitted a rebuilding plan to the king, and Wren was instrumental in designing and supervising the reconstruction of the city.

One might expect that after recovering from the Great Fire, the Royal Society would begin a period of growth. However, the opposite was true. During the next 25 years, the Society diminished both in stature and membership. What was once an institution with 200 dues-paying Fellows had decreased to 113 by the end of 1694, many of whom were derelict in their contributions. Consequently, the Society was deep in debt, and its scientific work was only able to continue when Robert Boyle lent his own personal equipment for Society use.

Some recovery of previous status had been effected by the close of the 17th century, but it was in 1703 with the election of Isaac Newton as Society President that circumstances began to improve significantly for the Royal Society. A more organized system of fee collection was introduced, and many more individuals were elected as Fellows. By 1729, membership had recovered to 254, and in 1740 it reached 301. Some notable Fellows of the Royal Society of this period were John Flamsteed, Edmond Halley, Hans Sloane, and Brook Taylor.

One of the most notable features of the Royal Society was its continuity. Many other academic institutions suffered from political instability and were renamed and reorganized several times. While its first years were somewhat unstable, from the mid-18th century onward, the Royal Society of London functioned as an established part of British academic life. Although its residence changed many more times in the years to come (ultimately settling on its present location of Carlton House Terrace), its relative stability remained unique in 18th century Europe.


Print Resources:

Internet Resources: