Oxford Science, London Science

Oxford Science

The profile of Oxford experimental science in the seventeenth century was assisted by the first appearance of books that we would now call ‘popular science’. The father of this genre was John Wilkins, and he was in turn prompted to revise one of his works by the first piece of English science-fiction, Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone. But more applied work soon followed. John Greaves, the second Savilian Professor of Astronomy, toured the near east in the late 1630s and measured the great pyramids with mathematical instruments brought from Oxford, a precursor to Aubrey’s ‘mathematical antiquarianism’.  Soon the Oxonians were forming scientific clubs for experimentation. The Botanic Gardens appointed its first curator in 1642. Aubrey’s Trinity College in the 1640s fostered a loose community of experimentalists. Then at Wadham in the 1650s John Wilkins orchestrated the most celebrated collective, including such men as Seth Ward, John Willis, Robert Hooke, and Christopher Wren. Aubrey passionately defended the priority of these clubs to the Royal Society, for instance in the matter of blood transfusion.

After the Restoration, Oxford experimental science continued strong, in complement to the burgeoning London initiatives. It would continue to do so. The chemist Robert Boyle, who had made Oxford his home, started an aggressive publication campaign using the Oxford presses, retailing not only his experimental results but his religious convictions, an important piece of pious public relations for the new scientists. Subsequent Oxford publications demonstrate the continued vitality of Oxford science. The New College fellow Ralph Bohun, whose work was censored by the university authorities to soften its praise for the new Royal Society, developed meteorology. Robert Plot produced Oxford’s own county history. The Professor of Botany, Robert Morison, published expensive illustrated volumes on botany. The indefatigable Savilian Professor of Geometry, John Wallis, turned out many works on mathematics, music, grammar, and – a new idea – the history of English mathematics.

London Science

London had of course had a long tradition of experimental initiatives, stretching back to the Elizabethan establishment of Gresham College. In the 1640s, the intelligencer Samuel Hartlib proposed a new kind of information exchange, the ‘Office of Addresse’. On the recommendation of Wilkins, Christopher Wren was appointed Gresham Professor of Astronomy in 1657, and Gresham College would soon become the major site of English science. Following one of Wren’s lectures, on 28 November 1660, twelve of the virtuosi resolved to found a society ‘for the promoting of physico-mathematical experimental learning’. Soon a format for meetings was decided, members elected, and the society was eventually chartered in 1662 with a President, a Council, a Treasurer, and two Secretaries. The Royal Society also established a repository and a library, and contributions to meetings were carefully archived. It also had its own imprimatur for publishing books.

Yet the early Royal Society was both intellectually eclectic and somewhat precarious. It relied on members’ subscriptions, which did not always appear. London literary society also mocked the virtuosi, and when the Royal Society’s greatest experimentalist Robert Hooke attended Thomas Shadwell’s satirical play The Virtuoso in 1677, he saw himself mocked on the stage. Despite such attacks, the Royal Society struggled on, its international reputation aided by the creation of a scientific journal, The Philosophical Transactions. Early numbers of this journal contained papers on various topics, including letters on astronomical, mathematical, and natural matters, but also on antiquarian topics, including an early paper by Edmond Halley on when Julius Caesar first set foot on the British shore. The Royal Society also published under its imprimatur some illustrated classics of early English science, most notably Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. Samuel Pepys was so excited by the book he stayed up until 2 a.m. reading it.

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