Did the Royal Society matter in the eighteenth century? Edited by Richard Sorrenson. (Special issue of the The British Journal for the History of Science, 32, 2, 113.) 124 pp., illus., app. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
This collection answers the title question with a qualified yes. The five contributors offer a range of answers addressing to whom the Royal Society of London mattered and why. Nonetheless, the theme emerges that the Society’s role has been under-appreciated and misunderstood by previous historians of science.
Larry Stewart’s article, in singular contrast to the general theme, focuses on other London institutions promoting natural knowledge. While social exclusivity caused the Society to languish, men interested in linking mathematics and experimental philosophy to trade and commerce sought other venues. As elaborated in The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750 (Cambridge, 1992), Stewart contends that the public lectures of James Hodgson and others in London coffee-houses created new social spaces in which scientific discourse thrived and transformed. Despite resistance, mathematicians and experimental philosophers intermingled with mariners and merchants in exchanging ideas rather than commodities.
Though conceding its peripheral status, Andrea Rusnock analyzes the form, function, and importance of Society correspondence as encouraged by Secretary James Jurin in the 1720s. Within the constraints of social conventions, Jurin rebuilt correspondence networks (largely comprised of medical men and other professionals). Jurin’s limited success in standardizing the gathering of meteorological data aside, the Royal Society was more active and influential than its detractors purport. Rusnock concludes that the networks provided a precursor to the more democratic scientific correspondence of the nineteenth century.
John Gascoigne similarly stresses the importance of a single individual, Joseph Banks. Reiterating the second chapter of Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, the British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, 1998), Gascoigne examines Banks’s dominance as President of the Royal Society. Despite a traditional British distrust and hostility towards centralized bureaucracy, aristocratic social connections allowed Banks to forge informal ties between the Society and government. During his tenure (1778-1820), the Society became increasingly involved matters promoting British national interest and prestige (e.g., navigation, geography, exploration, astronomy, and weights and measures).
As science and government increasingly intertwined, the Royal Society, as David Philip Miller argues, tried to maintain its disinterested, philosophical reputation. Because the Society purposefully distanced itself from projects directly fostering private trade or profit, practical men had to present their work as promoting the public good. Miller illustrates that engineers and provincial industrialists were judged by such criteria. For instance, John Smeaton’s research on improving water wheels was deemed suitably ‘scientific’ and not geared toward private gain. Members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, including Matthew Boulton and James Watt, also presented themselves as disinterested philosophers to gain entrance to the Society. Miller further speculates that Lunar Society members joined en masse in the 1780s to gain favorable FRS status (and ‘disinterested’ FRS witnesses) for anticipated court battles over patents.
In the final article, Richard Sorrenson examines the important role of instrument makers within the Royal Society. In contrast to the ‘invisible technicians’ of the previous century, Sorrenson contends that the contributions of these ‘rude mechanicals’ were highly respected during the eighteenth century. Emphasizing the work of George Graham in natural philosophy, mixed mathematics, scientific instrument design, Sorrenson concludes that his numerous publications in the Philosophical Transactions offer a clear instance of a highly regarded instrument maker who was very visible.
Did the Royal Society matter in the eighteenth century? Yes. This collection provides an excellent introduction to the roles played by the Society. It is recommended reading for those who want to know more about the Royal Society after Newton’s death.
Robinson M. Yost