History

The origins of the Royal Society lie in an 'invisible college' of natural philosophers who began meeting in the mid-1640s to discuss the new philosophy of promoting knowledge of the natural world through observation and experiment, which we now call science.

Its official foundation date is 28 November 1660, when a group of 12 met at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren, then the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found 'a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning'. This group included Wren himself, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray, and William, Viscount Brouncker.

Coat of ArmsThe Royal Society's motto 'Nullius in verba' roughly translates as 'take nobody's word for it'. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.

The Society was to meet weekly to witness experiments and discuss what we would now call scientific topics. The first Curator of Experiments was Robert Hooke. It was Moray who first told the King, Charles II, of this venture and secured his approval and encouragement. At first apparently nameless, the name The Royal Society first appears in print in 1661, and in the second Royal Charter of 1663 the Society is referred to as 'The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge'.

The Society found accommodation at Gresham College and rapidly began to acquire a library (the first book was presented in 1661) and a repository or museum of specimens of scientific interest. After the Fire of 1666 it moved for some years to Arundel House, London home of the Dukes of Norfolk. It was not until 1710, under the Presidency of Isaac Newton, that the Society acquired its own home, two houses in Crane Court, off the Strand.

In 1662 the Society was permitted by Royal Charter to publish and the first two books it produced were John Evelyn's Sylva and Micrographia by Robert Hooke. In 1665, the first issue of Philosophical Transactions was edited by Henry Oldenburg, the Society's Secretary. The Society took over publication some years later and Philosophical Transactions is now the oldest scientific journal in continuous publication.

From the beginning, Fellows of the Society had to be elected, although the criteria for election were vague and the vast majority of the Fellowship were not professional scientists. In 1731 a new rule established that each candidate for election had to be proposed in writing and this written certificate signed by those who supported his candidature. These certificates survive and give a glimpse of both the reasons why Fellows were elected and the contacts between Fellows.

CharlesDetail from the First Royal Charter, which was granted by King Charles II in 1662.

The Society moved again in 1780 to premises at Somerset House provided by the Crown, an arrangement made by Sir Joseph Banks who had become President in 1778 and was to remain so until his death in 1820. Banks was in favour of maintaining a mixture among the Fellowship of working scientists and wealthy amateurs who might become their patrons. This view grew less popular in the first half of the 19th century and in 1847 the Society decided that in future Fellows would be elected solely on the merit of their scientific work.

This new professional approach meant that the Society was no longer just a learned society but also de facto an academy of scientists. The Government recognised this in 1850 by giving a grant to the Society of £1,000 to assist scientists in their research and to buy equipment. Therefore a Government Grant system was established and a close relationship began, which nonetheless still allowed the Society to maintain its autonomy, essential for scientific research. In 1857 the Society moved once more, to Burlington House in Piccadilly, with its staff of two.

Over the next century the work and staff of the Society grew rapidly and soon outgrew this site. Therefore in 1967 the Society moved again to its present location on Carlton House Terrace with a staff which has now grown to over 140, all working to further the Royal Society's roles as independent scientific academy, learned society and funding body .

In 2010, the Society acquired Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire. The building has been transformed into The Royal Society at Chicheley Hall, home of the Kavli Royal Society International Centre which will provide a prestigious residential centre outside London for holding internationally significant scientific conferences and offering opportunities for concentrated academic reflection.

 

Highlights from our history

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