The Royal Society of London is claimed to be the oldest learned society still in existence. Although a voluntary body, it serves as the national academy of the sciences in the United Kingdom. It is a member organisation of the Science Council.
The origins of the Royal Society lie in a group of men who began meeting around 1645 to discuss the new philosophy. The common theme among the scientists who began the Society was acquiring knowledge by experimental investigation. The first group of such men included Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, John Wallis, John Evelyn, Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren and William Petty.
Boyle, in his letters written in 1646 and 1647, refers to our invisible college or the philosophical college. Here is a description of the beginnings of the Society from John Wallis:-
- About the year 1645, while I lived in London (at a time when, by our civil wars, academical studies were much interrupted in both our Universities), ... I had the opportunity of being acquainted with divers worthy persons, inquisitive natural philosophy, and other parts of human learning; and particularly of what hath been called the New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy. We did by agreements, divers of us, meet weekly in London on a certain day and hour, under a certain penalty, and a weekly contribution for the charge of experiments, with certain rules agreed amongst us, to treat and discourse of such affairs...
- About the year 1648-49, some of our company being removed to Oxford (first Dr Wilkins, then I, and soon after Dr Goddard) our company divided. Those in London continued to meet there as before (and we with them, when we had occasion to be there, and those of us at Oxford ... and divers others, continued such meetings in Oxford, and brought those Studies into fashion there...
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 England, 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, and 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.
In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift ridicules it under the image of the Academy of the flying island of Laputa.
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.
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 £1000 to assist scientists in their research and to buy equipment. Therefore a Government Grant system was established and a close relationship began while still allowing the Society to maintain its autonomy, essential for scientific research. In 1858 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 120, all working to encourage public awareness and understanding of science and to promote innovative scientific research.