Dick Evans continues his ground-breaking explorations into the past, looking at the growth of societies and groups promoting public interest and awareness in science and technology.
It was the advent of the industrial revolution that powered growth in public interest in science during the late eighteenth century, just as much as it powered the mills and factories springing up across the land. Interest in such matters during the previous century had stemmed from the more cerebral thinking of the Enlightenment, and this was reflected in the formation and proceedings of the Royal Society (1660), whose deliberations were focused on the pure and theoretical aspects of the major scientific discoveries being made by people such as Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Similar separate and independent bodies were created in Scotland and Ireland: the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1783) and the Royal Irish Academy (1785).
During the eighteenth century public interest moved progressively towards the more applied, vocational and technical aspects of scientific discoveries and the basic principles associated with industrial processes. In 1754 the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was established, which ultimately became the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). Founded by William Shipley, the Society quickly received support from aristocrats, manufacturers and people from wider professional groups. They sponsored grants and premiums for improvement in agriculture, industry and the trades. Even here, though, an emphasis on pure aspects of science and technology persisted. The academic view taken by the new society reflected the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Society continued to be the premier body representing science subjects. Its work was complemented by that of many other newly-established learned societies, including the Linnaean Society (1788), dedicated to “the cultivation of the Science of Natural History in all its branches”, the Medical Society of Edinburgh (1734), the Medical Society of London (1773) and the Physical Society of Edinburgh (1771). Other specialist bodies were subsequently established in the nineteenth century, including the Chemical Society (1841), the Geological Society (1807), the Royal Astronomical Society (1820) and the Zoological Society (1826).
In 1800 the Royal Institution was created by the American-born but strongly loyalist Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), who spent much of his life as an employee of the Bavarian government where he received his title, ‘Count of the Holy Roman Empire,’ thereafter becoming known as Count Rumford. The new organisation initially reflected Rumford’s interest in heat, providing lectures on the application of science in the domestic setting, covering such practical concerns as ovens, ventilation and heating systems. After Rumford returned to Germany, Humphry Davy assumed the role of head of the Institution laboratory and changed the lecture format and content to focus on the teaching of science. Davy was succeeded by Michael Faraday who introduced a wide range of scientifically based lectures including the famous Christmas lectures, which continue to this day.
Happily interest in science was not restricted by social class. Membership of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society (1717) was largely comprised of weavers and was initially fixed at 64 (the square of 8). They met weekly to solve mathematical problems and perform experiments on pneumatic pumps, electrical devices, reflecting microscopes and telescopes. The Society created an extensive library from which members could borrow books and equipment. Notable members included Joseph Middleton and John Dollond, who went on to create the famous optical instruments company. The Society expanded by taking over other mathematical and historical societies but because of the rise of mechanics institutes, the decline of handloom weaving and trade recessions, was eventually absorbed by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1845. Other similar societies existed in Lancashire and Yorkshire and again the membership was largely comprised of weavers. Why, one wonders, were weavers so keen on mathematics?
Themes associated with Technical Education – its history and wider issues are fully explored on my website www.technicaleducationmatters.org