THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF LONDON 1800-1835: A STUDY IN THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF SCIENTIFIC ORGANIZATION

DAVID PHILIP MILLER, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

The Royal Society of London was the subject of a celebrated reform movement in the 1820s which is seen rightly as a turning point in the organization of British science. However, the origins, aims and effects of the reform movement have been misinterpreted and ill-understood. In particular a simplistic model of conflict between amateurs and professionals has been employed and little attention has been paid to the programmatic scientific concerns of the reformers. This study examines the social and scientific interests underlying the politics of scientific organization. In order to understand what reformers were rebelling against, the character of the Royal Society under the Presidency of Sir Joseph Banks is delineated. It is argued that, by dint of its institutional relationships and the social composition of its Council, the Royal Society can be seen as the nexus of a "Banksian Learned Empire". This Learned Empire was an expression of the cultural hegemony of the landed classes in British society and was biased as a whole toward the natural history sciences and the study of antiquities. It was pervaded also by the ideology of practical scientific improvement prevalent in the late Hanoverian period. The origins of the reform movement are traced to four main groups whose members were socially and intellectually marginal to the Banksian Learned Empire. These were: a network centered on Cambridge University devoted to the reform of British mathematics; London's "Mathematical Practitioners" who had a long-standing feud with Banks's administration; a group of scientific servicemen in the army and navy; and a body of gentlemen geologists who struggled to establish the Geological Society of London (f.1807) as an independent, disciplinary scientific society. These groups coalesced in the Geological Society and in the Astronomical Society of London (f.1820). The first three groups also brought varied skills to the aid of a revival of the physical sciences which promoted exact measurement, the use of advanced mathematics in physical investigations and co-ordinated large-scale research programs. The importance of these scientific concerns to their ambitions for institutional reform is emphasized. A detailed narrative of the political struggles in the Royal Society and related institutions during the Presidencies of Humphry Davy (1820-27) and Davies Gilbert (1827-30) in terms of the foregoing analysis is then provided. The Presidential elections of 1820, 1827 and 1830, the activities of reform committees and the effort to reform the Nautical Almanac and the Board of Longitude are seen as incidents in an ongoing battle between the heirs of the Banksian Learned Empire and the advocates of reform. Despite the defeat of the reformers' candidate, John Herschel, by the Duke of Sussex in the 1830 election, the underlying trend of decay of the Learned Empire meant that by 1835 reformers were in effective control of a Royal Society whose closest institutional relationships were now with the Astronomical and Geological Societies and the newly-founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. In this sense, and also by virtue of its new bias toward the exact sciences, the Royal Society underwent a de facto reform a decade before the constitutional reforms of the late 1840s.

Subject Area

Science history

Recommended Citation

MILLER, DAVID PHILIP, "THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF LONDON 1800-1835: A STUDY IN THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF SCIENTIFIC ORGANIZATION" (1981). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8127050.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8127050

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