What do you do with your free time? Knit, bake, play Angry Birds, found societies of learning and intellectualism? Oh, you don’t do that last thing? That’s because you’re not a member of the Gresham College group which, in November 1660, formed The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Today, the organisation is better known as the Royal Society, and it’s possibly the oldest learned society for science in existence.
The Society was born from a fairly loose group of physicians and natural philosophers that met in various places throughout London, including Gresham College. The group got going in the chaotic years of the Protectorate and became more official after the Restoration with a committee meeting on 28 November comprising 12 members: William Ball, Robert Boyle, William Brouncker, Alexander Bruce, Jonathan Goddard, Abraham Hill, Sir Robert Moray, Paul Neile, William Petty, Lawrence Rooke, John Wilkins, and Christopher Wren. Together, they decided to form a ‘College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning’. Basically, they planned to get together every week to discuss science and run experiments. Charles II heartily approved and granted a Royal Charter on 15 July 1662 establishing the Royal Society of London. A second charter was issued a year later in which the Society was given the full name it still bears today. And speaking of things that remain to this day: every monarch since Charles has been the patron of the Society.
Experiments were duly carried out, translations of scientific works completed, and there was even a controversy in the 18th century over, of all things, lightening rods. Those who supported Benjamin Franklin’s pointed rods over Benjamin Wilson’s blunted ones were accused of being American sympathisers. It’s also possible that Isaac Newton abused his position as President of the Society to appoint a committee that declared Newton had invented infinitesimal calculus before Gottfried Leibniz got there. But what fun is science without a little controversy, right?
The Society continued to experiment and figure out the best ways to run itself throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. In 1945 the first female Fellows were admitted: biochemist Marjory Stephenson and crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale. Nowadays, the Society supports modern science by financing about 700 research fellowships; awarding grants, prize lectures, and medals; and providing communications and media skills courses for research scientists. In 2008, it opened the Royal Society Enterprise Fund to invest in new scientific companies. The Society also acts as an advisor to the European Commission and the UN on scientific matters and it serves as the UK’s Academy of Sciences.
Not bad for a bunch of guys who wanted to get together and run some experiments!