History of the Royal Society

Where does the Royal Society come from? 

In the mid-17th century, informal gatherings of London- and Oxford-based intellectuals coalesced to form a chartered organisation. Its name would be The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. 

What were the early days of the Royal Society like?   

From its first meeting, on 28 November 1660, following a lecture by the Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London, Christopher Wren, the new Fellowship would concern itself with natural philosophy – what we would now term science. Wren considered that it should act to transform knowledge, profit, and health and the conveniences of life. The Royal Society would gather information by correspondence, but its Fellows would also observe the natural world, conduct experiments, discuss their outcomes, and eventually publish the results. 

Natural philosophers of this period were products of their society. They were drawn from the professional and aristocratic classes and were exclusively male. They were not professional scientists; but lawyers, merchants, physicians, aristocrats, and landowners, who were brought together by a common interest at the Royal Society’s weekly meetings. By 1662, the Society had appointed a Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, to manage its correspondence, and a Curator of Experiments, Robert Hooke, to oversee demonstrations. They became influential figures in the early years of the Society: Oldenburg by establishing the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665, and Hooke by becoming its leading experimentalist, most memorably in the minute observations collected in his book Micrographia, published in the same year. 

Among the early Fellows were Robert Boyle, John Evelyn, John Locke, and by 1672, Isaac Newton, whose Principia Mathematica (1687) was published under the Royal Society’s imprimatur. Fellows from across Europe and the New World were also elected, including Johann Hevelius, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Gottfried Leibniz, and John Winthrop.   

What does its motto ‘Nullius in verba’ mean?

The Royal Society's motto 'Nullius in verba' was adopted in its First Charter in 1662. is taken to mean '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.

When were the first Royal Society medals and lectures created? 

By the 18th century, the Society was not only publishing science, but rewarding its practitioners. The Copley Medal, the earliest prize for scientific excellence, was first awarded in 1731, to the electrical researcher Stephen Gray. It was later won by Benjamin Franklin, John Smeaton, Joseph Priestley, William Herschel, and Alessandro Volta. Prize lectures were also established, including the Croonian and Bakerian.  

When did the Royal Society start administering grants?  

In 1828, William Hyde Wollaston donated money to establish a grant-making fund: the Society was no longer limited to honouring discoverers after the event but could encourage their research in the most practical possible way. The approach was endorsed by a Government Grant of £1,000 in 1851, to be administered by the Royal Society in underwriting the costs of original investigations. 

When did science become a profession? 

The 19th century saw other changes in how the Royal Society operated, and in the nature of its activities. Refereeing of scientific papers commenced from 1832, replacing previous gentlemanly communication of research. The nature of the Fellowship itself was modified towards more professional practitioners, as a result of rule changes enacted in 1847. And by the 1870s, the Society had become responsible for the annual scientific exhibitions known as conversazioni, formerly managed by its Presidents. The organisation had become a public face for science, even if that public remained a limited one.  

How did the Royal Society advise Parliament through its history?  

Throughout the Victorian period, although independent of government, the Royal Society had been consulted in matters of public interest and had acted in the administration of national institutions: either directly, for example in the management of the Meteorological Office (1865-1905) and Kew Observatory (1871-1899) or by their establishment, including the National Physical Laboratory (1900). In specific instances, the Society reported on a variety of scientific matters to Parliament or to colonial administrations: from progress on Babbage’s calculating engine (1823-1831), to investigations into sleeping sickness (1896-1903) and malaria (1898-1903).   

How did the Royal Society change at the start of the 20th century? 

The pace of scientific development in the 20th century encompassed the new physics of relativity and quantum mechanics, the technology of two world wars, and advances in the understanding of genetics and the science of life. Social mores changed too, and with them the Royal Society, which although it had given research grants to women scientists throughout the century, and had intermittently published their work, only relented to their admission to the Fellowship from 1945. Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson led the way.   

By then, the foundations of the modern Royal Society had been laid. The Fellowship would be drawn from high achieving professional scientists. The organisation would go on to refine its key functions, notably in grant-making, policy reporting, public engagement in science, publishing, and international affairs. The original weekly gatherings of Fellows were transformed into scientific discussion meetings on topics of international importance in the sciences. In these, and in all activities, the Royal Society is guided by its founding principles, its Fellows, and its motto: Nullius in verba.  

To discover more on the history of the Royal Society, visit its collections of archives, printed books, portraits and scientific objects.