An engraving of the Royal Society, 1889
An engraving of the Royal Society, 1889 © Bridgeman Images

On the afternoon of November 28 1660, a motley dozen gentlemen gathered at Gresham College, London, following a lecture by the professor of astronomy, Christopher Wren. They included academics from Oxford and Cambridge universities, courtiers associated with the newly restored King Charles II, and wealthy amateurs. The group agreed to recruit new members and meet every week to promote “experimental philosophy”. The Royal Society, now regarded as the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, was born.

This book by social historian Adrian Tinniswood captures superbly the intellectual and political ferment leading up to the society’s foundation and the achievements of its early years. He describes several discussion groups that had met during the earlier 17th century as forerunners, all inspired by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who rejected traditional Aristotelian learning and instead advocated experimental investigation to discover truths about nature. Bacon’s New Atlantis, published posthumously in 1627, described an establishment called Solomon’s House dedicated to carrying out and disseminating research — remarkably like what the Royal Society was to become 40 or so years later.

Things came together when the disruption of the English civil war and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth was over. Once established, the society developed fast. It soon picked up the king’s patronage; the diarist John Evelyn was already referring to the Royal Society in 1661. Fellows were elected by secret ballot — an innovation “far ahead of its time”, Tinniswood notes — and their numbers rose rapidly, with 115 admitted on just one day in 1663.

The mixed membership model continued. In the society’s early years almost half the fellows were noblemen, courtiers and politicians. Although the barrier between professional scientists and amateurs was more fluid then, some of the aristocratic fellows, such as James, Duke of York, and his cousin Prince Rupert, were more interested in being part of a fashionable club than in natural philosophy or medicine. The society welcomed them because of their influence at court and because their financial contributions subsidised its work.

One of the most important activities was publishing Philosophical Transactions, launched in 1665 and now the world’s longest running scientific journal. It contained groundbreaking papers from authors in Britain and across Europe — from the start the society had an open international attitude, publishing research and electing fellows from overseas. Early editions carried reports of Giovanni Cassini’s discovery of Saturn’s moons and young Isaac Newton’s “new theory about light and colour”. But occasionally it also published what people at the time called “wonders”, such as a paper by Robert Boyle about luminescence in meat.

Live experiments were carried out in the society’s premises at Gresham College, including horrific vivisections. In 1664, for example, Robert Hooke inserted a pipe into the trachea of a dog and pumped in air with bellows. “I was able to preserve it alive as long as I could desire, after I had wholly opened the thorax and cut off all the ribs, and opened the belly,” he wrote. In an outrageous experiment in 1667, a Cambridge graduate called Arthur Coga volunteered (on payment of one guinea) to have blood transfused into a vein in his arm from the artery of a live sheep; he survived.

All this provided rich material for sceptical satirists. Thomas Shadwell’s comic play The Virtuoso (1676) featured Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, “the finest speculative gentleman in the whole world”, whose experiments were rooted in the Royal Society’s work. Gimcrack transfused blood from a sheep to a madman “who became wholly ovine”, he read the Bible by the light given off by a putrescent leg of pork, and he kept an animal alive by blowing air into its lungs.

As Tinniswood shows, such public satire wounded the fellows’ self-esteem but did not significantly damage the society’s development as a serious scientific institution, which became a model for similar bodies elsewhere such as the National Academy of Sciences in the US and the Leopoldina in Germany.

After devoting the first half of his book to the Royal Society’s gestation, birth and first 50 years, Tinniswood canters very fast through the 18th century, lingers a little longer in the 19th century, and rushes again through the 20th century. Though historians of science and social history may still find worthwhile material in the second half, it is much less entertaining or informative than the first. All the treasures here lie in the 17th century.

The Royal Society: And the Invention of Modern Science, by Adrian Tinniswood, Head of Zeus, RRP£18.99, 256 pages

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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