Oct 11 2010

Early reports of the Royal Society

In an earlier post I wrote about Thomas Sprat’sHistory of the Royal Society of London, for the improving of Natural Knowledge“. Published in 1667, under the direction of the Royal Society which had first met in 1660, receiving their royal charter in 1662. In that post I deferred discussion of a selection of the early reports of the Society that were embedded in the History, for reasons of space.

The reports by title are these:

  • Answers returned by Sir Philberto Vernatti (Resident of Batavia in Java Major)
  • A Method for making a History of the Weather by Mr Hook
  • Directions for the Observations of the Eclipses of the Moon by Mr Rooke
  • A Proposal for Making Wine by Dr. Goddard
  • A Relation of the Pico Teneriffe
  • Experiments of the Weight of Bodies increased in the Fire by Lord Brouncker
  • Experiments of a Stone called Oculus Mundi by Dr Goddard
  • An account of a Dog dissected by Mr Hook
  • Experiments of the Recoiling of Guns by Lord Brouncker
  • The History of the Making of Salt-Peter and The History of Making Gunpowder by Mr Henshaw
  • An Apparatus to the History of the Common Practices of Dy[e]ing by Sir William Petty
  • The History of the Generation and ordering of Green Oysters Commonly called Colchester-Oysters

Interspersed amongst them Sprat adds in various brief comments on other work of the Society along with what amounts to a personal eulogy to Christopher Wren, who seems to have been involved in pretty much everything although Sprat seems to have been generous in attributing to Wren work which was largely done by other people.

Looking first at the authors: of Sir Philberto Vernatti I can find little, he appears to have been Governor of Batavia (now Jakarta) for the Dutch East India Company whilst most references I’ve found to him arise from this report to the Royal Society; Mr Hook was the first curator of experiments for the Royal Society and paid an important role in keeping the Society with interesting things to see, he was an outstanding scientist in his own right; Lord Brouncker was the first President of the Royal Society; Mr Rooke appears to have been Lawrence Rooke, who died in 1662; Dr Goddard is Dr Jonathan Goddard the early Society met in his lodgings at Gresham College, physician to Charles I and present at the death of Cromwell; Mr Henshaw is Thomas Henshaw an early Biological Sciences Secretary to the Royal Society; Sir William Petty was amongst other things an economist and a Parliamentarian in the Civil War. On the whole these reports look like they have been selected on political grounds, they are from the movers and shakers of the Society.

The contributions vary considerably in length and content, Dr Goddard’s proposal on making wine amounts to: “Do it in the West Indies using sugar cane”, similarly Mr Hooks account of dissecting a dog is very brief (it’s also pretty horrifying).

The reports on dyeing, oysters and the making of Salt-peter and gunpowder are quite detailed reviews of the current “state-of-the-art” in important trades, involving both references to previous literature and reports of current practice which read very much as if the authors had gone and observed the processes described. The answers returned by men in distant places: Sir Philoberto Vernatti in Batavia, Java and the report on the scaling of Pico Teneriffe are also very much directed to trade: does this wood grow well there? These are quite lengthy and range over quite a range of topics. From this it’s clear that the Royal Society wanted to be seen as contributing to the national wealth.

The reports by Hooke (on recording the weather), Rooke, Brouncker and Goddard (on Oculus mundi) are those which most closely resemble modern scientific papers. They report methods for conducting measurements, or the results of those measurements, unlike modern papers they do not draw strong conclusions from those measurements. In a sense they are following the scheme laid out by Sprat in which empirical measurement is important and theorising comes later. Oculus Mundi is a form of opal now known as hydrophane which goes transparent when it absorbs water, the OED reports that Sir Kenelme Digby had brought some of this material to the Society in 1661.

In sum it looks like the early Society was very busy. Much of what they wrote was very practical and aside from a comment on making insects from cheese and sack it largely looks quite sensible. In these reports I can see the origins of the primary scientific literature that I access as part of my work.


  1. Almási Zsolt

    Thanks for the post! It made me wonder how much this report with its emphasis on practical problems and national wealth is in harmony with one of its "begetters", i.e. Francis Bacon's insitence that the justification of "learning" lies in its being able to "relief men's estate" and "the glory of God"–both being noble and practical aims.
    thanks again!

  2. SomeBeans

    @Almási I think its very useful to see the document as a prospectus for the furthering of the Society's interests – and outlining the practical applications of the programme is important in this context.

    It's interesting that the early work of the Fellows that maintains to this day (Newton, Hooke and so forth) is of the more "blue skies" variety.

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