The Royal Society

And the Invention of Modern Science


By Adrian Tinniswood

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An engaging new history of the Royal Society of London, the club that created modern scientific thought

Founded in 1660 to advance knowledge through experimentally verified facts, The Royal Society of London is now one of the preeminent scientific institutions of the world. It published the world’s first science journal, and has counted scientific luminaries from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking among its members. However, the road to truth was often bumpy. In its early years-while bickering, hounding its members for dues, and failing to create its own museum-members also performed sheep to human blood transfusions, and experimented with unicorn horns. In his characteristically accessible and lively style, Adrian Tinniswood charts the Society’s evolution from poisoning puppies to the discovery of DNA, and reminds us of the increasing relevance of its motto for the modern world: Nullius in Verba-Take no one’s word for it.


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“Ocular inspection”


In fact, you wouldn’t have to imagine it. All you would have to do is believe the evidence of your own eyes. “Isn’t it obvious? Every morning the sun rises in the east. It tracks across the sky and then it sets in the west,” you might say. “You can see it happening. The very phrase ‘sunrise’ makes it clear that it is the sun which moves.”

And if someone were to suggest to you that it was really the earth that flew through space, and that it spun on its own axis as it did so, you’d be justified in asking how we managed to stand upright. If we were hurtling through the solar system at great speed, why wouldn’t there be a perpetual great wind blowing? Why wouldn’t we be hurled off into space?

But what if it wasn’t only common sense telling you the sun moved around the stationary earth, but that, in a rare display of unity, both Catholic and Protestant theologians were clear on the matter? Imagine the Catholic Church telling us that “the view that the sun stands motionless at the centre of the universe is foolish, philosophically false, and utterly heretical,” not least because it contradicted holy scripture: when Joshua asked God for help in his battle against the Amorites, “the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.” Or Martin Luther poking fun at fools who claimed the earth went around “instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved.” Or John Calvin saying people were deranged, possessed by the devil, if they really thought the sun was still and it was “the earth which shifts and turns.”1

If you turned to that other great bastion of authority, the writings of the ancients, you’d receive the same message. Aristotle and Ptolemy, who after all knew rather more about these things than we do, understood perfectly that the universe was geocentric, with the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars moving around a fixed spherical earth in a series of concentric celestial spheres. Wouldn’t you be foolish to think otherwise?

This is the world into which the Royal Society of London was born. A world in which most people, if they thought of cosmology at all, still accepted the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic vision of the universe. True, a few more advanced thinkers were aware that the traditional view was being challenged. They knew of theorists like Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer whose De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, 1543) was one of the first works to articulate a heliocentric worldview. (The very first was a work, now lost, by the ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who, according to Archimedes, suggested in the third century BC that the earth revolved around the sun.) They knew of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, and his theory that the planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun. But they also knew of Tycho Brahe, who tried to reconcile Ptolemaic and Copernican explanations of the universe by suggesting that, although the five other planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—did indeed move around the sun, the sun itself moved around the earth. And they had heard of Giordano Bruno, the Italian natural philosopher who, in February 1600, was burned at the stake for defending the Copernican system and maintaining that there were infinite worlds.

In 1633, while most of the founders of the Royal Society were still children (several weren’t yet born), Galileo Galilei was hauled before the Inquisition. On pain of death, he recanted his belief that the earth moved, but he was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

In medicine, the humoral pathology of the ancient Greek physicians Galen and Hippocrates was still current in the seventeenth century. Medical men believed that good health relied on maintaining a balance among the four humors thought to be mixed together in the veins of the human body: blood was associated with the liver, and phlegm with the brain and lungs; black bile, or melancholer, was secreted by the spleen, and yellow bile, or choler, by the gall bladder. A marked humoral imbalance was regarded as the cause of most complaints and even dictated character. According to The Sick-man’s Rare Jewel, a popular medical treatise of 1674, “those in whom phlegm hath the dominion… are of a slow capacity, dull, slothful, drowsy, they do dream of rains, snows, floods, swimming and such like.”2 Those of a choleric disposition “are of a quick and nimble wit, stout, hardy and sharp, vindicating of injuries received, liberal even to prodigality, and somewhat desirous of glory, their sleep is light, and that from which they are quickly awaked, their dreams are fiery, burning, quick and full of fury.”3 Most of the population held to these principles of pathology right through to the late seventeenth century, believing in the humors and the ebb and flow of blood from the liver. Galen of Pergamon, a Greek who lived and worked in Rome in the second century AD, had declared that this was how the body worked—even though, as far as we know, he never dissected an adult human being.

In the universities, classical authority underpinned scholarship. Undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts at Oxford had to spend four years “in the study of arts and in diligent attendance, according to the exigence of the statutes, upon the public lectures within the university.”4 This meant grammar, rhetoric, logic, moral philosophy, geometry, and Greek, with a heavy emphasis throughout on Aristotle. In petitioning for his degree, a student stated that his qualifications would “suffice for his admission to lecture on every book of Aristotle’s logic.” Lectures, which were in Latin, lasted a civilized forty-five minutes, and students were fined for nonattendance. Conversation at dinner and supper was also in Latin. Tutors directed students’ studies, read with them each morning, and pointed them in the direction of the right texts: the theologians Bartholomäus Keckermann and Robert Sanderson on logic; Cicero, Pliny, Caesar, and Livy for rhetoric and history; the New Testament in its original Greek; Franciscus Pavonius’s Summa Ethicae for moral philosophy. A master’s degree meant another three years of Aristotle together with Greek, Hebrew, classical history, natural philosophy, geometry, and astronomy. The few texts in the curriculum not written by long-dead authors were commentaries. And they were commentaries on those same long-dead authors.

Outside the universities, and perhaps inside their walls as well, there remained a popular belief in the existence of centaurs, unicorns, and giants; commentators could uphold in all seriousness the notion that serpents were generated from the brains of the dead, that the chameleon lived on air and the ostrich ate iron, that the elixir of youth was a reality, and that basilisks hatched from eggs laid by cocks. Most of the founding members of the Royal Society were born during the reign of James I (1603–1625), a king who firmly believed in magic and witchcraft. The world was a dark, confused place in which any deviation from accepted canons was a dangerous road to travel.

Yet there were challenges to orthodoxy. During a stay in Venice in May 1609, Galileo, then a professor of mathematics at Padua, heard a rumor of a Dutch invention “by the aid of which visible objects, although at a great distance from the eye of the observer, were seen distinctly as if near.”5 Back in Padua, he set about making his own telescopes (he had made four by January 1610, the last and most powerful of which had a magnification of 30x), and when he trained them on the heavens, he was astonished by what he saw. The moon’s surface was not smooth, as the Greeks had thought, but covered in mountains and valleys; Jupiter was a round disc with four moons; and, most startling of all, there was a multitude of stars that, invisible as they were to the naked eye, no one had seen before. “Upon whatever part of [the Milky Way] you direct the telescope,” wrote Galileo, “straightway a vast crowd of stars presents itself to view; many of them are tolerably large and extremely bright, but the number of small ones is quite beyond determination.”6

Initial reactions to Galileo’s discoveries were mixed: traditional Aristotelians refused point-blank to believe it was possible to see anything in the heavens not mentioned by Aristotle, while governments decided the stars could be left to themselves, seizing instead on the military potential of the telescope. But the ability to observe the previously unobservable universe opened up new worlds—quite literally transforming astronomy and offering unrivaled opportunities for research and wonder, as the English diplomat Sir Henry Wotton was quick to appreciate. In March 1610, Wotton, then James I’s ambassador in Venice, dispatched home a copy of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), a pamphlet containing work based on his early observations with his new instruments. Wotton included a cover letter:

I send herewith unto his Majesty the strangest piece of news (as I may justly call it) that he hath ever yet received from any part of the world; which is the annexed book (come abroad this very day) of the Mathematical Professor at Padua, who by the help of an optical instrument (which both enlargeth and approximateth the object)… hath discovered four new planets rolling about the sphere of Jupiter [Jupiter’s moons], besides many other unknown fixed stars; likewise the true cause of the Via Lactea [Milky Way], so long searched; and lastly that the moon is not spherical, but endued with many prominences, and, which is of all the strangest, illuminated with the solar light by reflection from the body of the earth.… So as upon the whole subject he hath first overthrown all former astronomy.7

Eighteen years later, William Harvey, the physician to James I and Charles I, published De motu cordis (On the Motion of the Heart), the product of a decade of research and teaching about the theory that blood circulated around the body instead of ebbing and flowing from the liver. Harvey’s critics pointed to Galen to disprove him, arguing that if the blood circulated, all of humoral pathology would be brought into question. If the humors were mixed together, it would be impossible to modify them individually. Others simply asserted that Galen provided them with a working hypothesis, and that was quite enough for them, thank you.

For his part, Harvey—himself a conventional Aristotelian in many ways—couldn’t explain why blood circulated—but he was sure that it did, and this was the crucial point. Instead of accepting that classical authorities were right and therefore he must be wrong, as his predecessors had done, he urged the primacy of “ocular inspection.” Don’t accept things at face value: see for yourself.

He wasn’t alone. At the beginning of the seventeenth century the courtier and philosopher Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban, had argued for the rejection of traditional Aristotelian learning, suggesting that instead of using unproven hypotheses to test the validity of empirical observations, one should begin with those observations:

There are and can exist but two ways of investigating and discovering truth. The one hurries on rapidly from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms; and from them as principles and their supposed indisputable truth derives and discovers the intermediate axioms. This is the way now in use. The other constructs its axioms from the senses and particulars, by ascending continually and gradually, till it finally arrives at the most general axioms, which is the true but unattempted way.8

Bacon’s proposal, that learning could be advanced by experiment rather than by refining and interpreting the established authorities, was to prove enormously influential for the young Royal Society. All the founding members were followers of the Baconian method, proponents of experimental learning. Like William Harvey, they stressed the need for “ocular inspection.”

Bacon died in 1626. According to tradition, his commitment to experimentation proved to be the death of him. Thomas Hobbes told the antiquary John Aubrey that while Bacon was taking the air in his coach he had a notion to test whether snow would preserve flesh in the same way that salt does. So he stopped his coach and went into the house of a poor woman in Highgate, where he bought a hen from her and asked her to eviscerate it and stuff the body cavity with snow; he even showed her how to do it. It was apparently too much for him: “The snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill that he could not return to his lodging,” Aubrey wrote.9 He died two or three days later.

But even in death, Bacon had a contribution to make to the origins of the Royal Society. In his posthumously published New Atlantis (1627), an unfinished fantasy in which a party of lost travelers comes upon a utopian island in the South Seas, the philosopher-courtier described Solomon’s House, an order of wise men who devised experiments and sought out reports of those that had been conducted in foreign countries. The order boasted extensive chemical laboratories, astronomical observatories, pharmaceutical and medical facilities, “a mathematical-house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy,” gardens, and a repository containing “patterns and samples of all manner of the more rare and excellent inventions.” Solomon’s House members carried out research in optics, microscopy, magnetics, even genetic engineering, working together to discover “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” This early formulation of the idea of a scientific research institute, a college of like-minded Fellows who came together to dedicate themselves to promoting experimental philosophy, was to bear fruit thirty-three years later in a room at Gresham College in London. It was there that the Royal Society was born.10



“For the promoting of experimental philosophy”

AT THREE O’CLOCK ON WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 1660, the Gresham professor of astronomy, Christopher Wren, finished his weekly lecture in the college reading hall and, still wearing his hood and gown, walked across the courtyard and into the lodgings of his colleague Lawrence Rooke, a professor of geometry.

Besides these two academics, ten other men crowded into Rooke’s chambers. They were a motley bunch, a mixture of university teachers and interested amateurs, royalists and republicans, young and old. Rooke had been at Gresham College on Bishopsgate since 1652, when he took up the chair of astronomy there; he switched to geometry in 1657, apparently because the professor of geometry’s lodgings were nicer and had a balcony. Young Christopher Wren got the astronomy chair and Rooke’s old lodgings in the same year: he was only twenty-five. A third Gresham professor was there, too: Jonathan Goddard, who held the “chair of physic.” Other academics included John Wilkins, who, until he was ousted in the aftermath of the Restoration, had been a leading Cromwellian university administrator, warden of Wadham College Oxford, and then master of Trinity College Cambridge; and William Petty, a physician, statistician, and onetime professor of music at Gresham. Petty had risen to fame in Oxford back in 1650. When deputizing at a dissection for the Regius Professor of Medicine, because the latter “could not endure the sight of a bloody body,” he had been present at the miraculous resuscitation of a servant, Anne Greene, who had been hanged in Oxford Castle for murdering her illegitimate child. Greene had been carried to Petty’s lodgings for dissection, and while he prepared his instruments, a spectator—dissections being rather public affairs in the seventeenth century—noticed she was still breathing and stamped on her chest, thus unwittingly performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation and enabling Petty to revive her. She was soon well enough to go home, taking her coffin with her as a memento of her miraculous preservation.1

After the academics, the second-largest group at Rooke’s consisted of four professional courtiers: Sir Paul Neile, an amateur astronomer; Sir Robert Moray and Alexander Bruce, two old soldiers and supporters of the Stuart cause in exile, who had returned to England when Charles II was restored to the throne; and William, Viscount Brouncker, who had kept his head down during the 1650s but emerged as an eager royalist when it was safe to do so. Unlike the other three, Brouncker had an established scientific reputation—he was a mathematician.

Finally, three men were present who belonged to neither court nor college. William Balle, who had lodgings in the Temple, was an amateur astronomer; in the 1650s, along with Neile and Wren, he had become interested in Saturn and its changing outline (telescopes were advanced enough to show that the planet changed its shape, but not yet good enough to show the reason—it was surrounded by rings that presented themselves in different alignments at different times to observers on earth). Abraham Hill, at twenty-five the youngest member of the group (Moray, at fifty-one or fifty-two, was the oldest), was a London merchant whose parents had just died, leaving him a considerable legacy: his presence at Rooke’s lodgings was probably due to the fact that with his new fortune he had rented chambers of his own at Gresham College. The third and last of this group was Robert Boyle, the brilliant, neurasthenic son of the Earl of Cork who just that year had published New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects. The book described how, together with his assistant, twenty-five-year-old Robert Hooke, he had constructed a vacuum chamber and demonstrated the effects of the withdrawal of air on flame, light, and life itself. Boyle was something of a maverick—reclusive, fiercely Protestant in a country that was violently divided on the issue, usually unwilling to join any club that might have him as a member.

These friends, and friends of friends, spoke on that day, as they usually did when they met, of scientific matters and new discoveries. They shared ideas and theories and discussed experimental philosophy. These discussions led to the first talk of forming a more formal association:

And because they had these frequent occasions of meeting with one another, it was proposed, that some course might be thought of to improve this meeting to a more regular way of debating things; and that, according to the manner in other countries, where there were voluntary associations of men into academies for the advancement of various parts of learning, they might do something answerable here for the promoting of experimental philosophy.2

So they agreed to hold regular weekly meetings on Wednesdays at three o’clock. During the term they would meet in Rooke’s lodgings; William Balle offered his rooms in the Temple for weeks when Gresham was not in session. Everyone would pay ten shillings as a one-off admission fee and a weekly subscription of one shilling, whether they came to a meeting or not. John Wilkins was appointed as chair, with Rooke as treasurer. The Gresham professor of rhetoric, a physician named William Croone, was made registrar, or secretary, even though he wasn’t actually present. And with a view to expanding their membership, the twelve put together a list of forty prospective recruits, “such persons, as were known to those present, and judged by them willing and fit to be joined with them in their design.”3

The Royal Society was born.*

If the date of the Society’s birthday is pretty clear, its parentage is still a matter for heated debate, and historians of science—who, like the seventeenth-century figures they write about, are driven to seek for precedence and priority—argue over its ancestry. Did the Society grow out of an “invisible college,” a loose grouping of experimental philosophers mentioned by Robert Boyle in 1646 and 1647? Was it an offshoot of the “Great Club” based at Wadham College, which was described by Seth Ward, Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, in 1652?* Or did it emerge from an accidental coming-together of academics and like-minded philosophers who drifted into London and began to congregate at Gresham College in the last years of the Commonwealth?

The answer is yes to all three. The Oxford mathematician John Wallis, who was on the list of prospective members drawn up after that inaugural meeting, remembered how, in 1645, when the Civil Wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians were still raging, a group of enthusiasts would sometimes meet in Jonathan Goddard’s London lodgings, and sometimes at the Mitre in Wood Street, in the heart of the city. Besides Goddard and Wallis, the group included John Wilkins, who had published a string of popular scientific works: The Discovery of a New World (1638), which speculated on the possibility that the moon was habitable; A Discourse Concerning a New Planet (1640), which argued for the cosmological vision propounded by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo; and Mercury, or The Secret and Swift Messenger (1640), on the use of codes and ciphers. Most of the other members of this group were medical men; prominent among them was Charles Scarburgh, who had a successful and fashionable medical practice but pursued his interests in mathematics and optics as well. According to his near-contemporary Walter Pope, Scarburgh “lived magnificently, his table being always accessible to all learned men, but more particularly to the distressed Royalists, and yet more particularly to the scholars ejected out of either of the universities for adhering to the King’s cause.”4 As a teenager, Christopher Wren lodged with him; later Wren gave the older man credit for fostering his interest in the mathematical sciences.

Wallis, who admittedly was writing twenty-five years after the events he described, was certain that these London gatherings were the ancestors of the Royal Society. Members paid a weekly contribution toward the charges incurred in preparing experiments, he claimed, and adhered to a set of rules. Talk of religion and politics was forbidden. The group confined itself to “physic, anatomy, geometry, astronomy, navigation, statics, mechanics and natural experiments.”5 They discussed the circulation of the blood (William Harvey was a friend of Scarburgh’s and may have been present at some of the meetings), the Copernican hypothesis and the nature of comets, the acceleration of bodies through the air, and improvements in optics. These meetings, Wallis went on to say, moved later to the Bull Head Tavern in Cheapside and Gresham College. “And our numbers increased,” he reported.6

The weekly meetings Wallis described petered out in about 1648. It is no coincidence that it was in April of that year that John Wilkins, who seems to have been a prime mover in all the precursors to the Royal Society, moved to Oxford, where he was appointed warden of Wadham College in the sweeping reforms that saw hundreds of Royalists expelled from the university, and the heads of most colleges replaced by men who were sympathetic to the Parliamentary cause. Wilkins quickly established an open and tolerant regime at Wadham, with “nothing of bigotry, unmannerliness, or censoriousness, which then were in the zenith amongst some of the heads and fellows of colleges in Oxford,” according to Walter Pope.7 He encouraged experimental philosophy, and very soon Robert Boyle, John Wallis, Jonathan Goddard, and others had moved to Oxford to attend the scientific meetings that Wilkins established as a continuation of the invisible college in London. They were joined by several Cambridge men, including Lawrence Rooke and Rooke’s mentor, Seth Ward, a friend of Scarburgh’s who had been deprived of his fellowship at Cambridge for opposing the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643.* Ward was appointed Savilian Professor of Astronomy under Oxford’s slightly more tolerant regime. The constellation of talent, and Wilkins’s nonpartisan regime, began to attract gifted undergraduates from both sides of the political divide. Christopher Wren, whose Royalist uncle was currently imprisoned in the Tower for his opposition to Parliament, arrived at Wadham in 1649 and became part of the circle.

In 1652 Seth Ward described a “Great Club” of about thirty members who had set themselves the task of recording “such things as are already discovered,” and then making a list of what still needed to be discovered and devising relevant experiments. About eight people had also joined together, he wrote to a friend, “for the furnishing [of] a laboratory and for making chemical experiments which we do constantly every one of us.” Ward was himself building an observatory on the roof of the gatehouse at Wadham and procuring telescopes “and other instruments for observation.”8

The following year, Samuel Hartlib, a Polish émigré who maintained an extensive correspondence network and took a lively interest in anything to do with the new philosophy, heard that Wilkins had established “a college for experiments and mechanics at Oxford,” and he contributed £200 of his own money toward it.9 When the diarist John Evelyn visited Oxford in 1654, he was invited to dinner by “that most obliging and universally-curious” Wilkins and saw some of the results of the “experiments and mechanics”:

He… showed me the transparent apiaries, which he had built like castles and palaces, and so ordered them one upon another, as to take the honey without destroying the bees. These were adorned with a variety of dials, little statues, vanes, &c.… He had also contrived a hollow statue, which gave a voice and uttered words by a long concealed pipe that went to its mouth, whilst one speaks through it at a good distance. He had, above in his lodgings and gallery, variety of shadows, dials, perspectives, and many other artificial, mathematical, and magical curiosities, a way-wiser [an instrument for measuring distances traveled], a thermometer, a monstrous magnet, conic, and other sections, a balance on a demi-circle, most of them of his own, and that prodigious young scholar Mr. Christopher Wren.10


  • "Tinniswood captures superbly the intellectual and political ferment leading up to the society's foundation and the achievements of its early years."—Financial Times
  • "As a work of scientific history, this book contains many gems...It is hard not to take pride, by the end, in the eccentric and inspiring story of a great British institution that is still going strong."—Telegraph
  • "[An] admirable short history."—Sunday Telegraph
  • "[A] compact, informative book."—Sunday Times
  • "Engaging...Lovers of science and history alike will enjoy The Royal Society-this slim volume packs a wealth of entertaining information about these enterprising men and their research."—Shelf Awareness
  • "A simple, delightful book on the Royal Society of London, its members, and accomplishments...Tinniswood's writing is scientifically clear, organized, and crisp, making this short book a wealth of information as well as a pleasant read."—Kirkus

On Sale
Jun 4, 2019
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Adrian Tinniswood

About the Author

Adrian Tinniswood is senior research fellow in history at the University of Buckingham and the author of many books on British history, including Behind the Throne and the New York Times bestseller The Long Weekend. He was awarded an OBE for services to heritage by the Queen and lives in Bath, England.

Learn more about this author