Science in England


IT was natural that England, having led the way from agriculture to industry, should favor those sciences that offered practical possibilities, leaving theoretical studies to the French; and it was to be expected that her philosophers in this period—Burke, Malthus, Godwin, Bentham, Paine—should be men of the world, facing the living problems of morality, religion, population, revolution, and government, and abandoning to German professors the airy flights into logic, metaphysics, and the “phenomenology of mind.”

“The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge,” as organized in 1660, had announced its “designs of founding a Colledge for the promotion of Physico-Mathematical Experimentall Learning.” But it had not become a college in the sense of an organization of teachers for the secondary education of youth; it had developed into a restricted club of fifty-five gentlemen scientists, periodically meeting for consultation, gathering a library of science and philosophy, providing a special audience for addresses and experiments, awarding medals for contributions to science, and occasionally publishing its Philosophical Transactions. “Philosophy” still included the sciences, which were budding from it one by one as they replaced logic and theory with quantitative formulations and verifiable experiments. The Royal Society arranged, usually with governmental subsidies, various scientific undertakings or expeditions. In 1780 the government assigned to it elegant quarters in Somerset House, where it remained till 1857, when it moved to its present home in Burlington House, on Piccadilly. Its president from 1778 to 1820, Sir Joseph Banks, spent much of his fortune in the promotion of science and the patronage of scientists.

Only less famous than the Royal Society, and more designed for education, was the Royal Institution of London, established in 1800 by Count Rumford, “for directing, by regular courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of the new discoveries in science to the improvements of arts and manufactures.” It provided, in Albemarle Street, a spacious auditorium where John Dalton and Sir Humphry Davy gave lectures in chemistry, Thomas Young on the nature and propagation of light, Coleridge on literature, Sir Edwin Landseer on art… More specific were the Linnaean Society, incorporated in 1802 for botany, the Geographical Society (1807), and soon thereafter societies for zoology, horticulture, animal chemistry, and astronomy. Manchester and Birmingham, happy to apply science to their industries, established their own “philosophical” societies, and Bristol set up a “Pneumatic Institute” for the study of gases. Academies were formed to expound science to general audiences; to one of these Michael Faraday, aged twenty-five (1816), gave a course of lectures that shared for half a century in stimulating electrical research. Generally, in scientific education, the business community was ahead of the universities, and many epochal advances in science were made by independent individuals self-supported or financed by friends.

Surrendering mathematics to the French, British science concentrated on astronomy, geology, geography, physics, and chemistry. Astronomy was placed under royal protection and subsidies, as vital to navigation and control of the seas. Greenwich Observatory, with the finest equipment that the money of Parliament could buy, was generally recognized as at the top of its class. James Hutton, two years before his death, published in 1795 Theory of the Earth, a classic in geology: it summarized our planet’s public life as a uniform cyclical process by which rains erode the surface of the land, rivers rise with erosions or bear them to the sea, the waters and moisture of the earth evaporate into clouds, these condense into rain… At the other end of this age (1815) William Smith—nicknamed “Strata Smith”—won fame with the fifteen immense sheets of his Geological Map of England and Wales. They showed that strata regularly slant eastward in a slight ascending grade until they end at the earth’s surface; and they advanced paleontology by identifying strata according to their organic deposits. For revealing such subterranean secrets the British government, in 1831, awarded him a life annuity of £100. He died in 1839.

British navigators continued to explain the nooks and crannies of lands and seas. In the years 1791–94 George Vancouver charted the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest of America; there he circumnavigated the enchanting island that bears his name.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!