To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730
The Royal Society had its origins in an informal group of scientists, or ‘natural philosophers’, which originated in Oxford in the 1650s. This group included some of the most promising scientists of the age, including Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and John Wilkins. Despite differences in background, outlook and interests, they were united by a common passion for natural philosophy. The title of this exhibition, taken from a letter written by one of the two founder Secretaries of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, reminds us that the original aim of the Society went far beyond what we would today call ‘pure’ science and embraced many disciplines.
Huygens' aerial telescope, as depicted in: Robert Smith. A compleat system of opticks in four books: viz. a popular, a mathematical, a mechanical, and a philosophical treatise. To which are added remarks upon the whole. Cambridge: printed for the author, and sold there by Cornelius Crownfield, and at London by Stephen Austen, and Robert Dodsley, 1738 [Rare Books Collection QC353.Sm64]The early years of the Royal Society from its foundation in 1660 were unpropitious. Despite the innovation of a proper institutional structure, it had no funding from the state, resulting in a hand-to-mouth existence; the newly restored King Charles II (despite having granted it a Royal Charter in 1662) did not bother to conceal his ridicule of an organisation which seemed to be a magnet for eccentrics and obsessives, and whose research remit seemed too wide. Furthermore, plans to transform the Society into an educational institution with a comprehensive museum collection never came to anything. Yet within a few years it had become an internationally recognised centre of scientific research, and its approval was highly sought after.
This happened because a number of the Fellows of the Society were extraordinary men whose research made a decisive contribution to changing the way in which seventeenth century people saw the natural world. For those who were tired of the often bloody political and religious controversies of the previous twenty years, the Royal Society offered a place where natural philosophy was the only concern, and where the theories which mattered were those that could be reached by empirical demonstration and observation. The only direction which the Charter gave the Society was to perform ‘solid Experiments, to reform or improve Philosophy.’
The aim of this exhibition is to show the early work of the Society in all its glory. It starts with a brief exploration of how the Royal Society saw and presented itself and how it was perceived by outsiders. It then moves on to examine some of the important personalities within the Society during this period and their enquiries, whether in mathematics, physics, chemistry, botany, astronomy, linguistics, philosophy or voyages of discovery.
In this exhibition
- A society of virtuosi
- Boyle and Hooke
- Wilkins and Locke
- Newton and his champions I
- Newton and his champions II
- The wider world
- Biologists at the Royal Society
- Scrutinizing the skies
- Select bibliography