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The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge
The Royal Society Coat of Arms.svg
Coat of arms of the Royal Society. Unlike the coat of arms of the other corporations in Britain that use a closed helmet, the Royal Society uses a barred helmet, reserved for members of the nobility.
Motto Nullius in verba
(Take nobody's word for it)
Formation 28 November 1660 (1660-11-28)
Headquarters London, England
Coordinates 51°30′21.53″N 0°07′56.86″W / 51.5059806°N 0.1324611°W / 51.5059806; -0.1324611Coordinates: 51°30′21.53″N 0°07′56.86″W / 51.5059806°N 0.1324611°W / 51.5059806; -0.1324611
  • ~ 1600 Fellows
  • ~ 140 Foreign Members
  • 6 Royal Fellows
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge,[1] commonly known as the Royal Society, is a learned society. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as "The Royal Society".[1] It is the oldest national scientific institution in the world.[2] The society is the United Kingdom's and Commonwealth of Nations' Academy of Sciences and fulfils a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, fostering international and global co-operation, education and public engagement.

The society is governed by its Council, which is chaired by the Society's President, according to a set of statutes and standing orders. The members of Council and the President are elected from and by its Fellows, the basic members of the society, who are themselves elected by existing Fellows. As of 2016, there are about 1,600 fellows, allowed to use the postnominal title FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society), with up to 52 new fellows appointed each year. There are also royal fellows, honorary fellows and foreign members, the last of which are allowed to use the postnominal title ForMemRS (Foreign Member of the Royal Society). The Royal Society President is Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who took up the post on 30 November 2015.[3]

Since 1967, the society has been based at 6–9 Carlton House Terrace, a Grade I listed building in central London which was previously used by the Embassy of Germany, London.


Founding and early years

The Invisible College has been described as a precursor group to the Royal Society of London, consisting of a number of natural philosophers around Robert Boyle. The concept of "invisible college" is mentioned in German Rosicrucian pamphlets in the early 17th century. Ben Jonson in England referenced the idea, related in meaning to Francis Bacon's House of Solomon, in a masque The Fortunate Isles and Their Union from 1624/5.[4] The term accrued currency for the exchanges of correspondence within the Republic of Letters.[5]

In letters in 1646 and 1647, Boyle refers to "our invisible college" or "our philosophical college". The society's common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation.[6] Three dated letters are the basic documentary evidence: Boyle sent them to Isaac Marcombes (Boyle's former tutor and a Huguenot, who was then in Geneva), Francis Tallents who at that point was a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge,[7] and London-based Samuel Hartlib.[8]

John Evelyn, who helped to found the Royal Society

The Royal Society started from groups of physicians and natural philosophers, meeting at a variety of locations, including Gresham College in London. They were influenced by the "new science", as promoted by Francis Bacon in his New Atlantis, from approximately 1645 onwards.[9] A group known as "The Philosophical Society of Oxford" was run under a set of rules still retained by the Bodleian Library.[10] After the English Restoration, there were regular meetings at Gresham College.[11] It is widely held that these groups were the inspiration for the foundation of the Royal Society.[10]

Another view of the founding, held at the time, was that it was due to the influence of French scientists and the Montmor Academy in 1657, reports of which were sent back to England by English scientists attending. This view was held by Jean-Baptiste du Hamel, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle and Melchisédech Thévenot at the time and has some grounding in that Henry Oldenburg, the society's first secretary, had attended the Montmor Academy meeting.[12] Robert Hooke, however, disputed this, writing that:

[Cassini] makes, then, Mr Oldenburg to have been the instrument, who inspired the English with a desire to imitate the French, in having Philosophical Clubs, or Meetings; and that this was the occasion of founding the Royal Society, and making the French the first. I will not say, that Mr Oldenburg did rather inspire the French to follow the English, or, at least, did help them, and hinder us. But 'tis well known who were the principal men that began and promoted that design, both in this city and in Oxford; and that a long while before Mr Oldenburg came into England. And not only these Philosophic Meetings were before Mr Oldenburg came from Paris; but the Society itself was begun before he came hither; and those who then knew Mr Oldenburg, understood well enough how little he himself knew of philosophic matter.[13]

Mace granted by Charles II

On 28 November 1660, the 1660 committee of 12 announced the formation of a "College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning", which would meet weekly to discuss science and run experiments. At the second meeting, Sir Robert Moray announced that the King approved of the gatherings, and a royal charter was signed on 15 July 1662 which created the "Royal Society of London", with Lord Brouncker serving as the first president. A second royal charter was signed on 23 April 1663, with the king noted as the founder and with the name of "the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge"; Robert Hooke was appointed as Curator of Experiments in November. This initial royal favour has continued and, since then, every monarch has been the patron of the society.[14]

The society's early meetings included experiments performed first by Hooke and then by Denis Papin, who was appointed in 1684. These experiments varied in their subject area, and were both important in some cases and trivial in others.[15] The society also published an English translation of Essays of Natural Experiments Made in the Accademia del Cimento, under the Protection of the Most Serene Prince Leopold of Tuscany in 1684, an Italian book documenting experiments at the Accademia del Cimento.[16] Although meeting at Gresham College, the Society temporarily moved to Arundel House in 1666 after the Great Fire of London, which did not harm Gresham but did lead to its appropriation by the Lord Mayor. The Society returned to Gresham in 1673.[17]

There had been an attempt in 1667 to establish a permanent "college" for the society. Michael Hunter argues that this was influenced by "Solomon's House" in Bacon's New Atlantis and, to a lesser extent, by J. V. Andreae's Christianopolis, dedicated research institutes, rather than the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, since the founders only intended for the society to act as a location for research and discussion. The first proposal was given by John Evelyn to Robert Boyle in a letter dated 3 September 1659; he suggested a grander scheme, with apartments for members and a central research institute. Similar schemes were expounded by Bengt Skytte and later Abraham Cowley, who wrote in his Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy in 1661 of a "'Philosophical College", with houses, a library and a chapel. The society's ideas were simpler and only included residences for a handful of staff, but Hunter maintains an influence from Cowley and Skytte's ideas.[18] Henry Oldenburg and Thomas Sprat put forward plans in 1667 and Oldenburg's co-secretary, John Wilkins, moved in a council meeting on 30 September 1667 to appoint a committee "for raising contributions among the members of the society, in order to build a college".[19] These plans were progressing by November 1667, but never came to anything, given the lack of contributions from members and the "unrealised—perhaps unrealistic"—aspirations of the society.[20]

18th century

Sir Isaac Newton FRS, President of Royal Society, 1703–1727.
Lord Hardwicke, leader of the "Hardwicke Circle" that dominated society politics during the 1750s and '60s

During the 18th century, the gusto that had characterised the early years of the society faded; with a small number of scientific "greats" compared to other periods, little of note was done. In the second half, it became customary for His Majesty's Government to refer highly important scientific questions to the council of the society for advice, something that, despite the non-partisan nature of the society, spilled into politics in 1777 over lightning conductors. The pointed lightning conductor had been invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, while Benjamin Wilson invented blunted ones. During the argument that occurred when deciding which to use, opponents of Franklin's invention accused supporters of being American allies rather than being British, and the debate eventually led to the resignation of the society's president, Sir John Pringle. During the same time period, it became customary to appoint society fellows to serve on government committees where science was concerned, something that still continues.[21]

The 18th century featured remedies to many of the society's early problems. The number of fellows had increased from 110 to approximately 300 by 1739, the reputation of the society had increased under the presidency of Sir Isaac Newton from 1703 until his death in 1727,[22] and editions of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were appearing regularly.[23] During his time as president, Newton arguably abused his authority; in a dispute between himself and Gottfried Leibniz over the invention of infinitesimal calculus, he used his position to appoint an "impartial" committee to decide it, eventually publishing a report written by himself in the committee's name.[22] In 1705, the society was informed that it could no longer rent Gresham College and began a search for new premises. After unsuccessfully applying to Queen Anne for new premises, and asking the trustees of Cotton House if they could meet there, the council bought two houses in Crane Court, Fleet Street, on 26 October 1710.[24] This included offices, accommodation and a collection of curiosities. Although the overall fellowship contained few noted scientists, most of the council were highly regarded, and included at various times John Hadley, William Jones and Hans Sloane.[25] Because of the laxness of fellows in paying their subscriptions, the society ran into financial difficulty during this time; by 1740, the society had a deficit of £240. This continued into 1741, at which point the treasurer began dealing harshly with fellows who had not paid.[26] The business of the society at this time continued to include the demonstration of experiments and the reading of formal and important scientific papers, along with the demonstration of new scientific devices and queries about scientific matters from both Britain and Europe.[27]

Some modern research has asserted that the claims of the society's degradation during the 18th century are false. Richard Sorrenson writes that "far from having 'fared ingloriously', the society experienced a period of significant productivity and growth throughout the eighteenth century", pointing out that many of the sources critical accounts are based on are in fact written by those with an agenda.[28] While Charles Babbage wrote that the practice of pure mathematics in Britain was weak, laying the blame at the doorstep of the society, the practice of mixed mathematics was strong and although there were not many eminent members of the society, some did contribute vast amounts – James Bradley, for example, established the nutation of the Earth's axis with 20 years of detailed, meticulous astronomy.[29]

Politically within the society, the mid-18th century featured a "Whig supremacy" as the so-called "Hardwicke Circle" of Whig-leaning scientists held the society's main Offices. Named after Lord Hardwicke, the group's members included Daniel Wray and Thomas Birch and was most prominent in the 1750s and '60s. The circle had Birch elected secretary and, following the resignation of Martin Folkes, the circle helped oversee a smooth transition to the presidency of Earl Macclesfield, whom Hardwicke helped elect.[30] Under Macclesfield, the circle reached its "zenith", with members such as Lord Willoughby and Birch serving as vice-president and secretary respectively. The circle also influenced goings-on in other learned societies, such as the Society of Antiquaries of London. After Macclesfield's retirement, the circle had Lord Morton elected in 1764 and Sir John Pringle elected in 1772.[31] By this point, the previous Whig "majority" had been reduced to a "faction", with Birch and Willoughby no longer involved, and the circle declined in the same time frame as the political party did in British politics under George III, falling apart in the 1780s.[32]

In 1780, the society moved again, this time to Somerset House. The property was offered to the society by His Majesty's Government and, as soon as Sir Joseph Banks became president in November 1778, he began planning the move. Somerset House, while larger than Crane Court, was not satisfying to the fellows; the room to store the library was too small, the accommodation was insufficient and there was not enough room to store the museum at all. As a result, the museum was handed to the British Museum in 1781 and the library was extended to two rooms, one of which was used for council meetings.[33]

19th century to the present

Burlington House, where the Society was based between 1873 and 1967

The early 19th century has been seen as a time of decline for the society; of 662 fellows in 1830, only 104 had contributed to the Philosophical Transactions. The same year, Charles Babbage published Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes, which was deeply critical of the Society. The scientific Fellows of the Society were spurred into action by this, and eventually James South established a Charters Committee "with a view to obtaining a supplementary Charter from the Crown", aimed primarily at looking at ways to restrict membership. The Committee recommended that the election of Fellows take place on one day every year, that the Fellows be selected on consideration of their scientific achievements and that the number of fellows elected a year be limited to 15. This limit was increased to 17 in 1930 and 20 in 1937;[21] it is currently 52.[34] This had a number of effects on the Society: first, the Society's membership became almost entirely scientific, with few political Fellows or patrons. Second, the number of Fellows was significantly reduced—between 1700 and 1850, the number of Fellows rose from approximately 100 to approximately 750. From then until 1941, the total number of Fellows was always between 400 and 500.[35]

The period did lead to some reform of internal Society statutes, such as in 1823 and 1831. The most important change there was the requirement that the Treasurer publish an annual report, along with a copy of the total income and expenditure of the Society. These were to be sent to Fellows at least 14 days before the general meeting, with the intent being to ensure the election of competent Officers by making it readily apparent what existing Officers were doing. This was accompanied by a full list of Fellows standing for Council positions, where previously the names had only been announced a couple of days before. As with the other reforms, this helped ensure that Fellows had a chance to vet and properly consider candidates.[36] The Society's financial troubles were finally resolved in 1850, when a government grant-in-aid of £1,000 a year was accepted. This was increased to £4,000 in 1876, with the Society officially acting merely as the trustee for these funds, doling them out to individual scientists.[37] This grant has now grown to over £47 million, some £37 million of which is to support around 370 fellowships and professorships.[38][39]

By 1852, the congestion at Somerset House had increased thanks to the growing number of Fellows. Therefore, the Library Committee asked the Council to petition Her Majesty's Government to find new facilities, with the advice being to bring all the scientific societies, such as the Linnean and Geological societies, under one roof. In August 1866, the government announced their intention to refurbish Burlington House and move the Royal Academy and other societies there. The Academy moved in 1867, while other societies joined when their facilities were built. The Royal Society moved there in 1873, taking up residence in the East Wing.[40] The top floor was used as accommodation for the Assistant Secretary, while the library was scattered over every room and the old caretaker's apartment was converted into offices. One flaw was that there was not enough space for the office staff, which was then approximately eighty. When, for example, the Society organised the British contribution to the International Geophysical Year in 1954, additional facilities had to be found for the staff outside Burlington House.[41]

On 22 March 1945, the first female Fellows were elected to the Royal Society. This followed a statutory amendment in 1944 that read "Nothing herein contained shall render women ineligible as candidates", and was contained in Chapter 1 of Statute 1. Because of the difficulty of co-ordinating all the Fellows during the Second World War, a ballot on making the change was conducted via the post, with 336 Fellows supporting the change and 37 opposing.[42] Following approval by the Council, Marjory Stephenson, Kathleen Lonsdale and Edith Bülbring were elected as Fellows.[42]

Coat of arms

The coat of arms of the Royal Society

The Coat of arms of the Royal Society is "in a dexter corner of a shield argent our three Lions of England, and for crest a helm adorned with a crown studded with florets, surmounted by an eagle of proper colour holding in one foot a shield charged with our lions: supporters two white hounds gorged with crowns", with the motto of "nullius in verba". John Evelyn, interested in the early structure of the society, had sketched out at least six possible designs, but in August 1662 Charles II told the society that it was allowed to use the arms of England as part of its coat and the society "now resolv'd that the armes of the Society should be, a field Argent, with a canton of the armes of England; the supporters two talbots Argent; Crest, an eagle Or holding a shield with the like armes of England, viz. 3 lions. The words Nullius in verba". This was approved by Charles, who asked Garter King of Arms to create a diploma for it, and when the second charter was signed on 22 April 1663 the arms were granted to the president, council and fellows of the society along with their successors.[43]

The helmet of the arms was not specified in the charter, but the engraver sketched out a peer's helmet on the final design, which is used. This is contrary to the heraldic rules, as a society or corporation normally has an esquire's helmet; it is thought that either the engraver was ignorant of this rule, which was not strictly adhered to until around 1615, or that he used the peer's helmet as a compliment to Lord Brouncker, a peer and the first President of the Royal Society.[44]


The society's motto, Nullius in verba, is Latin for "Take nobody's word for it". It was adopted to signify the fellows' determination to establish facts via experiments and comes from Horace's Epistles, where he compares himself to a gladiator who, having retired, is free from control.[45]

Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS)

Isaac Newton was one of the earliest Fellows of the Royal Society, elected in 1672
J.J. Thomson was elected to Fellow of the Royal Society, elected in 1884.

The society's core members are the fellows: scientists and engineers from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth selected based on having made "a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science".[46] Fellows are elected for life and gain the right to use the postnominal Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). The rights and responsibilities of fellows also include a duty to financially contribute to the society, the right to stand for council posts and the right to elect new fellows.[47] Up to 52 fellows are elected each year and in 2014 there were about 1,450 living members in total.[34] Election to the fellowship is decided by ten sectional committees (each covering a subject area or set of subjects areas) which consist of existing fellows.

The society also elects royal fellows, honorary fellows and foreign members. Royal fellows are those members of the British Royal Family, representing the British monarchy's role in promoting and supporting the society, who are recommended by the society's council and elected via postal vote. There are currently five royal fellows: The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, The Duke of Kent, the Princess Royal, and The Duke of Cambridge.[48] Honorary fellows are people who are ineligible to be elected as fellows but nevertheless have "rendered signal service to the cause of science, or whose election would significantly benefit the Society by their great experience in other walks of life". Six honorary fellows have been elected to date, including Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve.[49] Foreign members are scientists from non-Commonwealth nations "who are eminent for their scientific discoveries and attainments". Eight are elected each year by the society and also hold their membership for life. Foreign members are permitted to use the post-nominal ForMemRS (Foreign Member of the Royal Society) and currently number about 140.[50]

Stephen Hawking was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974

The appointment of fellows was first authorised in the second charter, issued on 22 April 1663, which allowed the president and council, in the two months following the signing, to appoint as fellows any individuals they saw fit. This saw the appointment of 94 fellows on 20 May and 4 on 22 June; these 98 are known as the "Original Fellows". After the expiration of this two-month period any appointments were to be made by the president, council and existing fellows.[51] Many early fellows were not scientists or particularly eminent intellectuals; it was clear that the early society could not rely on financial assistance from the king, and scientifically trained fellows were few and far between. It was therefore necessary to secure the favour of wealthy or important individuals for the society's survival.[52] While the entrance fee of £4 and the subscription rate of one shilling a week should have produced £600 a year for the society, many fellows paid neither regularly nor on time.[53] Two-thirds of the fellows in 1663 were non-scientists; this rose to 71.6% in 1800 before dropping to 47.4% in 1860 as the financial security of the society became more certain.[54] In May 1846, a committee recommended limiting the annual intake of members to 15 and insisting on scientific eminence; this was implemented, with the result being that the society now consists exclusively of scientific fellows.[55]

Structure and governance

The society is governed by its council, which is chaired by the society's president, according to a set of statutes and standing orders. The members of council, the president and the other officers are elected from and by its fellowship.


The council is a body of 21 fellows, including the officers (the president, the treasurer, two secretaries—one from the physical sciences, one from life sciences—and the foreign secretary),[56] one fellow to represent each sectional committee and seven other fellows.[57] The council is tasked with directing the society's overall policy, managing all business related to the society, amending, making or repealing the society's standing orders and acting as trustees for the society's possessions and estates. Members are elected annually via a postal ballot, and current standing orders mean that at least ten seats must change hands each year.[58] The council may establish (and is assisted by) a variety of committees,[58] which can include not only fellows but also outside scientists.[57] Under the charter, the president, two secretaries and the treasurer are collectively the officers of the society.[59] The current officers [60] are:


Venkatraman Ramakrishnan has been President of the Society since 2015

The President of the Royal Society is head of both the society and the council. The details for the presidency were set out in the second charter and initially had no limit on how long a president could serve for; under current society statute, the term is five years.[61]

The current president is Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who took over from Paul Nurse on 30 November 2015.[62] Historically, the duties of the president have been both formal and social. The Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 left the president as one of the few individuals capable of certifying that a particular experiment on an animal was justified. In addition, the president is to act as the government's chief (albeit informal) advisor on scientific matters. Yet another task is that of entertaining distinguished foreign guests and scientists.[63]

Permanent staff

The society is assisted by a number of full-time paid staff. The original charter provided for "two or more Operators of Experiments, and two or more clerks"; as the number of books in the society's collection grew, it also became necessary to employ a curator. The staff grew as the financial position of the society improved, mainly consisting of outsiders, along with a small number of scientists who were required to resign their fellowship on employment.[64] The current senior members of staff are:[65]

  • Executive Director: Julie Maxton
  • Director of Science Policy: Claire Craig
  • Publishing Director: Stuart Taylor
  • Chief Strategy Officer: Lesley Miles
  • Chief Financial Officer: Mary Daly
  • Director of International Affairs: Rapela Zaman
  • Director of Communications: Bill Hartnett
  • Director of Grants: Paul McDonald
  • Director of Development: Jennifer Cormack
  • Head of Library and Information Services: Keith Moore

Functions and activities

The Royal Society Collections at the University of London History Day, 2016.

The Society has a variety of functions and activities. It supports modern science by disbursing nearly £42 million to fund approximately 600 research fellowships for both early and late career scientists, along with innovation, mobility and research capacity grants.[66] Its Awards, prize lectures and medals all come with prize money intended to finance research,[67] and it provides subsidised communications and media skills courses for research scientists.[68] Much of this activity is supported by a grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, most of which is channelled to the University Research Fellowships (URF).[38] In 2008, the Society opened the Royal Society Enterprise Fund, intended to invest in new scientific companies and be self-sustaining, funded (after an initial set of donations on the 350th anniversary of the Society) by the returns from its investments.[69]

Through its Science Policy Centre, the Society acts as an advisor to the European Commission and the United Nations on matters of science. It publishes several reports a year, and serves as the Academy of Sciences of the United Kingdom.[70] Since the middle of the 18th century, government problems involving science were irregularly referred to the Society, and by 1800 it was done regularly.[71]

Carlton House Terrace

The current premises of the Royal Society, 6–9 Carlton House Terrace, London (first four properties only)

The premises at 6–9 Carlton House Terrace is a Grade I listed building and the current headquarters of the Royal Society, which had moved there from Burlington House in 1967.[72] The ground floor and basement are used for ceremonies, social and publicity events, the first floor hosts facilities for Fellows and Officers of the Society, and the second and third floors are divided between offices and accommodation for the President, Executive Secretary and Fellows.[73]

The first Carlton House was named after Baron Carleton, and was sold to Lord Chesterfield in 1732, who held it on trust for Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick held his court there until his death in 1751, after which it was occupied by his widow until her death in 1772. In 1783, the then-Prince of Wales George bought the house, instructing his architect Henry Holland to completely remodel it.

When George became King, he authorised the demolition of Carlton House, with the request that the replacement be a residential area. John Nash eventually completed a design that saw Carlton House turned into two blocks of houses, with a space in between them.[74] The building is still owned by the Crown Estates and leased by the Society; it underwent a major renovation from 2001 to 2004 at the cost of £9.8 million, and was reopened by the Prince of Wales on 7 July 2004.[14]

Carlton House Terrace underwent a series of renovations between 1999 and November 2003 to improve and standardise the property. New waiting, exhibition and reception rooms were created in the house at No.7, using the Magna Boschi marble found in No.8, and greenish grey Statuario Venato marble was used in other areas to standardise the design.[73] An effort was also made to make the layout of the buildings easier, consolidating all the offices on one floor, Fellows' Rooms on another and all the accommodation on a third.[75]

Kavli Royal Society International Centre

In 2009 Chicheley Hall, a Grade I listed building located near Milton Keynes, was bought by the Royal Society for £6.5 million, funded in part by the Kavli Foundation.[76] The Royal Society spent several million on renovations adapting it to become the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, a venue for residential science seminars. The centre held its first scientific meeting on 1 June 2010 and was formally opened on 21 June 2010.


Title page of the first edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published in 1665

The society introduced the world's first journal exclusively devoted to science in 1665, Philosophical Transactions, and in so doing originated the peer review process now widespread in scientific journals. Its founding editor was Henry Oldenburg, the society's first secretary.[77][78]

Through Royal Society Publishing, the society publishes the following journals:[79]

Philosophical Transactions is the oldest and longest-running scientific journal in the world, having first been published in March 1665 by the first secretary of the society, Henry Oldenburg. It now publishes themed issues on specific topics and, since 1886,[80] has been divided into two parts; A, which deals with mathematics and the physical sciences,[81] and B, which deals with the biological sciences.[82] Proceedings of the Royal Society consists of freely submitted research articles and is similarly divided into two parts.[83] Biology Letters publishes short research articles and opinion pieces on all areas of biology and was launched in 2005.[84] Journal of the Royal Society Interface publishes cross-disciplinary research at the boundary between the physical and life sciences,[85] while Interface Focus,[86] publishes themed issue in the same areas. Notes and Records is the Society's journal on the history of science.[87] Biographical Memoirs is published annually and contains extended obituaries of deceased Fellows.[88] Open Biology is an open access journal covering biology at the molecular and cellular level. Royal Society Open Science is an open access journal publishing high-quality original research across the entire range of science on the basis of objective peer-review.[89] All the society's journals are peer-reviewed.


The Royal Society presents numerous awards, lectures and medals to recognise scientific achievement.[67] The oldest is the Croonian Lecture, created in 1701 at the request of the widow of William Croone, one of the founding members of the Royal Society. The Croonian Lecture is still awarded on an annual basis, and is considered the most important Royal Society prize for the biological sciences.[90] Although the Croonian Lecture was created in 1701, it was first awarded in 1738, seven years after the Copley Medal. The Copley Medal is the oldest Royal Society medal still in use and is awarded for "outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science".[91]

See also



  1. ^ a b The formal title as adopted in the royal charter.
  2. ^ Hunter, Michael. "Royal Society". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 24 February 2018. 
  3. ^ "The Fellowship," The Royal Society 2016. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  4. ^ Yates, Frances (1984). Collected Essays Vol. III. pp. p. 253. CS1 maint: Extra text (link)
  5. ^ David A. Kronick, The Commerce of Letters: Networks and "Invisible Colleges" in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Europe, The Library Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 28-43; JSTOR 4309484
  6. ^ JOC/EFR: The Royal Society, August 2004 retrieved online: 2009-05-14
  7. ^ "Tallents, Francis (TLNS636F)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  8. ^ Margery Purver, The Royal Society: Concept and Creation (1967), Part II Chapter 3, The Invisible College.
  9. ^ Syfret (1948) p. 75
  10. ^ a b Syfret (1948) p. 78
  11. ^ "London Royal Society". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  12. ^ Syfret (1948) p. 79
  13. ^ Syfret (1948) p. 80
  14. ^ a b "Prince of Wales opens Royal Society's refurbished building". The Royal Society. 7 July 2004. Retrieved 7 December 2009. 
  15. ^ Henderson (1941) p. 29
  16. ^ Henderson (1941) p. 28
  17. ^ Martin (1967) p. 13
  18. ^ Hunter (1984) p. 160
  19. ^ Hunter (1984) p. 161
  20. ^ Hunter (1984) p. 179
  21. ^ a b Henderson (1941) p.30
  22. ^ a b "Newton biography". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 28 December 2009. 
  23. ^ Lyons (April 1939) p.34
  24. ^ Martin (1967) p.14
  25. ^ Lyons (April 1939) p.35
  26. ^ Lyons (April 1939) p.38
  27. ^ Lyons (April 1939) p.40
  28. ^ Sorrenson (1996) p.29
  29. ^ Sorrenson (1996) p.31
  30. ^ Miller (1998) p.78
  31. ^ Miller (1998) p.79
  32. ^ Miller (1998) p.85
  33. ^ Martin (1967) p.16
  34. ^ a b "Fellows – Fellowship – The Royal Society". The Royal Society. Retrieved 24 March 2014. 
  35. ^ Henderson (1941) p.31
  36. ^ Lyons (November 1939) p.92
  37. ^ Hall (1981) p.628
  38. ^ a b "Parliamentary Grant". The Royal Society. Retrieved 28 October 2014. 
  39. ^ "Parliamentary Grant Delivery Plan 2011–15 (PDF)" (PDF). The Royal Society. Retrieved 28 October 2014. 
  40. ^ Martin (1967) p.17
  41. ^ Martin (1967) p.18
  42. ^ a b "Admission of Women into the Fellowship of the Royal Society". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. The Royal Society. 4 (1): 39. 1946. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1946.0006. 
  43. ^ J.D.G.D. (1938) p.37
  44. ^ J.D.G.D. (1938) p.38
  45. ^ "History". The Royal Society. Retrieved 29 October 2015. 
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External links

14 Annotations

Clement  •  Link

"The Royal Society of London is claimed to be the oldest learned society still in existence. It was founded in 1660."

This is an exciting introduction to a body of some influence in the years to come. Charles II was a supporter and interested party for some time, before eventually losing interest.

Nix  •  Link

Early history of the Royal Society:

The history of science since 1660 is closely intertwined with the story of the Royal Society.

The origins of the Royal Society lie in an "invisible college" of natural philosophers who began meeting in the mid-1640s to discuss the ideas of Francis Bacon. Its official foundation date is 28 November 1660, when 12 of them met at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren, 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.

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 Royal Society’s website

Jenny Doughty  •  Link

A wonderful link here, about some musical experiments conducted by the Royal Society. I shall also post this in the 'music' section, as our man Pepys is mentioned in that context in this link. I'll also paste the article in case the link disappears.

Mr Birchensha's Ear
by Benjamin Wardhaugh

It is the afternoon of Wednesday, 10th August, 1664. We're in London, at a meeting of the Royal Society. The Society is about four years old, as is the reign of Charles II: Oliver Cromwell has been dead for nearly six years. The meeting includes Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren: it does not include Isaac Newton, who is still an undergraduate in Cambridge, nor Samuel Pepys, whose diary is well underway but who will not join the Royal Society until next February.

William, Viscount Brouncker, presides, armed with a judge's mallet to keep order. The latter doesn't seem to be needed very often: the Fellows disagree frequently and violently over the fundamentals of how the world works, but order is maintained pretty well at the meetings.

The secretary is Henry Oldenburg. He has a Europe-wide network of correspondents, and publishes everything he can in his privately-funded journal, the Philosophical Transactions, which some say is the heart of the society. The meetings themselves are frequently more like a weekly entertainment for the fellows, many of whom are dilettante aristocrats. Robert Hooke, the overworked, underpaid Curator of Experiments, talks them through four or five or more spectacular demonstrations each week. He is a funny hunched little man, and I imagine him keeping up a stage magician's patter as he works the equipment. Recently he has been slacking, since he is working on a book. Micrographia, published in 1665, will become one of the most celebrated scientific books of the century.

Oldenburg is reading out a letter to the society from John Beale. Beale is a wondrous eccentric, and it's rather a shame he has fallen out of history. His rambling prose, innocent of a full stop for seemingly pages at a time, his frequent digressions and his slightly alarming fixation with the improvement of cider, probably irritate the Fellows as much as they do his (few) modern readers. But he comes up with some novelty worth hearing often enough to be tolerated. This is not the sort of thing they find greatly entertaining, though. In a few decades time they will drop glass balls filled with mercury from the top of St Paul's dome to investigate gravity. Another time they will put Robert Hooke in the vacuum pump. A letter about cider is rather tame.

Mercifully the reading is cut short. A visitor has arrived, who they have been awaiting since the spring. Beale is postponed until another meeting, and the newcomer called in.

* * *
John Birchensha, composer, music theorist and teacher of lute, voice and composition, was the only professional musician to be invited to a meeting of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century. By this time he was about fifty: born in Ireland, he spent the inter regnum years in England writing books about the end of the world (scheduled for around 1660). After the Restoration (in 1660) he achieved the considerable feat of rehabilitating himself as a music teacher and theorist, tirelessly networking with important royalists. His system of composing by rules was a welcome home-grown alternative to similar continental systems: the Pepys archive contains songs written under Birchensha's tuition, as well as a mechanical 'composition box' devised by the Italian Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Pepys eventually sacked Birchensha for overcharging, but he went on to teach the Duke of Buckingham, and his star was still rising when he got in touch with the Royal Society early in 1664.

The idea of a musical science interested the Fellows. Three months before our interruption in media res, anticipating his arrival, they began an intriguing series of musical experiments.

* * *
6th July, 1664. Robert Hooke has excelled himself. After weeks of demands from the Fellows he has devised an experiment on sound: a brass wire so long that it vibrates only once every second. So long, in fact, that they have to perform the experiment out of doors. Passers-by jeer at the useless toy: the pointlessness of the Royal Society's activities is already threatening to become proverbial. (Eventually Shadwell wrote a comedy in which 'the Virtuoso' weighed air, swam on dry land and read by the light of a decaying fish. Poor Hooke went to see it and 'people almost pointed'.) One hundred and thirty-six feet long, Hooke tells them. One thirty-second of an inch thick. Stretched horizontal by a weight of five pounds six ounces. Pendulum in hand to time the vibrations, he plucks the middle of the wire. The Fellows can see the vibration speeding from one end to the other, so that the centre of the wire flicks from side to side every second.

It is a spectacular demonstration, the sort of thing that satisfies everybody. Actually it is copied from a similar experiment done in the 1630s by a French monk, Marin Mersenne, but no-one mentions the fact.

When the Fellows have had enough of that he shortens the wire to seventy-two feet, and shows them that the vibrations are twice as fast. Someone asks for a wire twice as long, and Hooke promises to provide one next week. Finally he shortens it to one foot: the vibrations are invisible now, but you can hear them. Some of the more musical Fellows sing the note. Someone says it is G. Since a wire 136 times shorter vibrates 136 times faster, that makes G a vibration of 136 strokes per second. Knowledge in the making.

In fact, the frequency is badly wrong (G has a frequency of 196 Hz), probably because Hooke was careless about the length of the pendulum that measured the time. In private he is meticulously precise, but maybe the details don't matter so much for Society showpieces.

The next week Hooke repeats the experiment, with the promised longer wire. They also use the wire for a different experiment, striking it at one end to see if a person listening to the wire at the other end can detect any delay before the sound reaches him. He can't, even with the longer wire.

The experiments go on throughout the summer, confirming scientifically some well-known correlations between musical pitch and the length and tension of a string. Finally, on the 10th August, the musician himself appears.

* * *
Birchensha is ushered in: he's quite amiable, if a little dour, and very aware that the Fellows are his betters and his potential patrons (they are the Royal Society, after all, which makes them potentially very useful to anyone with an idea to push). The atmosphere at the society makes him nervous. Hooke beckons him over: they've set up an instrument called a monochord. He tries to appear at ease with the strange device. Monochords are rather archaic in musical circles, and the Royal Society's specimen is clearly the work of a scientist, not a musician. Still, he assumes a confident air.

Despite the name, the monochord at this period seems to have had two strings. It is something like a two-stringed guitar, about four feet long: one of the strings always stays the same length, but the other has a moveable piece of wood underneath it, a 'bridge', like a violin's, to vary the length of the string allowed to vibrate. If the string is stopped in the middle it is half as long as the other string and the two sound an octave apart; if it is made two-thirds as long, they sound a perfect fifth, and so on. It is possible to mark out an entire scale along the length of the instrument, and this was traditionally how different kinds of scale were described by music theorists.

The president explains something that had not been quite clear in their invitation: that they expect Birchensha to tune certain musical intervals on the monochord by ear, and Hooke will then measure the lengths of the strings. This will enable them to determine how closely the current practice of music corresponds to the ancient theory of harmony, in which musical intervals correspond to simple numerical ratios. Birchensha's role is to submit his musical ability to testing to produce data for the Society. The precise mathematical definitions of harmonies in his writings have made them think he can reproduce them by ear.

He tunes the monochord to make a perfect fourth, from G up to C. Easy. But before Hooke takes his measurement, someone (Hooke himself perhaps, sceptical of musicians' boasts since his time as a Christ Church choral scholar?) nudges the bridge slightly. Plucks the string: is it still a fourth? Birchensha looks worried. He moves the bridge again. And now? It emerges that for none of the musical intervals under consideration can Birchensha detect even a half-inch displacement of the bridge. Some of the Fellows snigger. Hooke doesn't look pleased: a failed experiment reflects badly on him, too. The musician is dismissed, more or less in disgrace, and Hooke tries to save the situation by promising to bring along next week a keyboard instrument, precisely tuned, to replace the defective Birchensha. They can tune the monochord against that and make their measurements. The meeting moves quickly on to other matters.

* * *
Reading the Society's minutes, it's very disappointing when the experiment fails. It would be very valuable for early-music performances if we had a scientific record of the musical tuning that sounded 'right' in 1664. But if the monochord was four feet long Birchensha failed to distinguish between intervals as much as half a semitone apart. He seems to have been a competent music teacher but was honestly out of his depth when faced with the Royal Society's demands.

The promised experiment with a keyboard instrument never took place. Possibly Hooke realised on reflection that its tuning relies, itself, on the judgment of some musician's ear, so that using it merely displaces the problem rather than removing it. At the next week's meeting an offer was relayed to the Society from Birchensha of a bass viol to replace their monochord. He suggested that gut strings would make it easier to distinguish differences in sound than wire strings. Birchensha tacitly acknowledged that his appearance had been a failure, but implied that the blame lay not with his musical ear but with the experimental equipment. The Society accepted the implication ' at least, it accepted the viol ' but Hooke, overworked, disappointed by Birchensha and embarrassed by his failure, was not asked to do any more musical experiments.

* * *
What was all this about? Why did the Royal Society think a music teacher had something to offer them in the first place, and why does his failure matter? A recurring belief in 17th century science was the notion that reliable knowledge is produced by the senses: the Royal Society's motto, Nullius in Verba, is roughly equivalent to 'take no-one's word for it'. In practice, only vision tends to produce the kind of exact numerical data we associate with science. Smell, touch, and taste only give qualitative information. Hearing is more complicated: the ancient association of musical intervals with mathematical ratios gave some promise of using ears to produce numerical data, but it wasn't at all obvious how that could be made to work.

Changes in musical practice during the Renaissance had rendered the ancient Greek theory, which identified musical intervals with exact numerical proportions, obsolete; and sixteenth-century attempts to patch the theory up didn't match reality very well either. At the same time, the invention of decimals and logarithms around 1600 had made it possible to describe less pure but more practical kinds of tuning.

This in turn implied a loss of confidence in the ear's ability to recognise exact ratios expressed in sound. For an old-fashioned theorist the mathematical proportions were inscribed on the human soul, and when they were manifested in sound the soul would recognise them and respond, like a wine glass that rings when a singer sings a particular note. But exact ratios were gone from mathematics, replaced by decimals, and they were increasingly being ignored by musicians. Decimals could also be used to express inaccuracies or approximations, and it was often being said that the ear would tolerate quite large deviations from exact tuning.

So problems existed with the relationship of hearing to knowledge, and with the capability of the ear to make exact judgments ' and with the relationship of tuning theory to both of those questions.

One of Hooke's many obsessions, and the force behind his work with microscopes, was the wish to expand the 'empire of the senses'. That is, to find ways to increase the domain of reliable knowledge by increasing the reach of our senses. Telescopes and microscopes apply this idea to vision: perhaps the ear could be improved using precise instruments like the monochord, which potentially allows you to convert aural experiences into numerical data and vice versa. But in order for that to work you need not just an ear but a musically-trained ear. One week the Fellows had tried to tune a whole tone (e.g. the interval from A up to B) by ear, and found that the measurement it corresponded to wasn't what they expected: hence the need for Mr Birchensha and his, supposedly, highly sensitive ear.

This chance to bring the ear into the lab was not what Birchensha had in mind when he sought patronage for his theories about composing and tuning. I imagine he was rather baffled by his appearance before the Royal Society. About a year later he gave a talk in which he claimed that one of his mathematical charts would enable its user to test the accuracy of any monochord: possibly an attempt to revenge himself on the instrument which had defeated his ear and his chance of patronage.

The ear does not appear again as a source of accurate knowledge in the minutes of the seventeenth-century Royal Society. In fact, a full-scale quantification of music had to wait until the nineteenth century when mechanical devices were invented to convert sounds into visual diagrams: because only the eye could make sufficiently accurate judgments. The failure of Birchensa's ear on the 10th of August 1664 was decisive.

And what happened to Mr Birchensha? Later the same day he played in a concert at the nearby post office hall, attended by Brouncker and others from the Royal Society. Pepys was also there, but 'found no pleasure at all in it'.

In the longer term, Birchensha's career never seems to have recovered from the incident at the Royal Society. He appears a few more times: writing about composition in the late 1660s and later soliciting subscriptions of '1 per copy for a book he promised to write. A year after the book's deadline had gone by he reappeared, unembarrassed, at the Royal Society, but this time he did no more than talk and was sent away with an 'encouragement', but no tangible assistance. And despite his scientific unhelpfulness he earned a peculiar distinction also conferred on Robert Hooke: an unflattering reference in a Shadwell comedy.

Finally, on 14th May 1681, a 'John Birchenshaw' was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

Pedro  •  Link

The Royal Society

Anyone interested in a discussion about the beginnings of the RS check the BBC site below from the programme In Our Time and listen to the archive.

One of the contributors is Lisa Jardine the writer of The Curious Life of Robert Hooke.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

"For many years, the Royal Society maintained a museum which, at one time, contained “the stones taken out of Lord Belcarre’s heart [ donated 11 April 1666 ] in a silver box,”… “a petrified fish [ 13 June 1666], the skin of an antelope which died in St. James’ Park [ 25 July 1666 ], a petrified foetus [ 28 Nov 1666 ]” and “a bottle full of stag’s tears [ 22 Aug 1666].” The trustees of Gresham college assigned the long gallery as a home for these and other “rarities”; but, when the society, in 1781, migrated to Somerset house, the entire collection was handed over to the British Museum. The charter of the last named is dated 1753, and its beginnings were the library of Sir Robert Cotton, which the nation had purchased in 1700, and the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, which were now purchased with the proceeds of a lottery, set on foot for this purpose. The collections of this “General Repository,” as the act of 1753 called the museum, were kept together until the middle of the nineteenth century, when, after long delay, the natural history objects were transferred to South Kensington and housed in a building which, in all respects, was worthy of the Board of Works of the time."

Terry Foreman  •  Link

The Royal Society and British Science: Episode 1

As part of the BBC's year of science programming, Melvyn Bragg looks at the history of the oldest scientific learned society of them all: the Royal Society.

Melvyn travels to Wadham College, Oxford, where under the shadow of the English Civil War, the young Christopher Wren and friends experimented in the garden of their inspirational college warden, John Wilkins.

Back in London, as Charles II is brought to the throne from exile, the new Society is formally founded one night in Gresham College. When London burns six years later, it is two of the key early Fellows of the Society who are charged with its rebuilding. And, as Melvyn finds out, in the secret observatory in The Monument to the fire, it is science which flavours their plans.

Sasha Clarkson  •  Link

Pepys was President of the Royal Society from 1684–1686, and thus was responsible for the publication of Newton's Principia.

Principia was written in Latin: its famous title page, with the inscription
"IMPRIMATUR S Pepys.." is shown in the link below, and was usually reproduced in subsequent English editions.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

Pepys, the sixth president of the Royal Society, was the first who was NOT a knight or an aristocrat.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

The Royal Society and British Science: Episode 1
In Our Time, In Our Time: The Royal Society and British Science Episode 1 of 4
Listen in pop-out player -- 45 minutes

As part of the BBC's year of science programming, Melvyn Bragg looks at the history of the oldest scientific learned society of them all: the Royal Society. Melvyn travels to Wadham College, Oxford, where under the shadow of the English Civil War, the young Christopher Wren and friends experimented in the garden of their inspirational college warden, John Wilkins. Back in London, as Charles II is brought to the throne from exile, the new Society is formally founded one night in Gresham College. When London burns six years later, it is two of the key early Fellows of the Society who are charged with its rebuilding. And, as Melvyn finds out, in the secret observatory in The Monument to the fire, it is science which flavours their plans.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

The "Invisible College" and Gresham College were very unique institutions, because of something called "The Stamford Oath" ...

"Political and religious divisions forestalled any centralized control of university education on the continent. By 1790, Germany had 34 universities, Italy 26; even Spain had 23.

"In England, by contrast, the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge from the 14th to the 19th centuries was the product of a deal. The powerful would protect the two universities, if the two universities protected the powerful.

"`The Stamford Oath,' created by Edward III, and enforced by the two institutions through their skillful deployment of alumni pleading their cause – was, as a result, not important for what it was, or even what it did. Rather, it was significant for what it represented: a mutually supportive alliance between the universities and the powerful English state."

So Charles II's Charters protected The Royal Society from attack for teaching.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.