Portrait of Thomas Gresham
by Sir Anthonis Mor (c. 1517 – 1577)
Apart from some small sums to various charities, Sir Thomas Gresham (c. 1519 – 1579)— merchant and founder of the Royal Exchange, who acted on behalf of King Edward VI (1547-1553) and Edward’s half-sisters, queens Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603)—bequeathed the bulk of his property to his widow and her heirs, with the stipulation that after her death his own house in Bishopsgate Street and the rents from the Royal Exchange should be vested in the Corporation of London and the Mercers Company, for the purpose of instituting a college in which seven professors should read lectures, one each day of the week, in astronomy, geometry, physic, law, divinity, rhetoric and music.
Thus, Gresham College, the first institution of higher learning in London, came to be established in 1597.
The early success of the College led to the incorporation of the Royal Society in 1663, which pursued its activities at the College in Bishopsgate before moving to its own premises in Crane Court in 1710.
Influenced by the “new science“, as promoted by Francis Bacon in his New Atlantis, a committee in 1660 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, a second royal charter being signed in 1663, with the king noted as the founder and with the name of “the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge”. This initial royal favour has continued and, since then, every monarch has been the patron of the society.
Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703), PRS (President of the Royal Society), MP (member of parliament), JP (justice of the peace), was born at the same time as a group of outstanding natural philosophers (today we would term them scientists) including Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, William Petty and Isaac Newton.
All these gentlemen were Fellows of the Royal Society, a Fellowship centered on conducting and discussing experiments and generating knowledge.
Pepys first attended a meeting of the Society in January 1661 with the instrument maker and inventor Ralph Greatorex, whereupon he found a “great company of persons of Honour”.
A fortnight after election Pepys attended a meeting of the Society “where, first Mr. Hooke read a second very curious Lecture about the late Comett, among other things … Then to the meeting … Here was very fine discourses – and experiments; but I do lacke philosophy enough to understand them, and so cannot remember them”.
Despite his inability to comprehend some of the concepts behind the experiments and discussions of the Society, Pepys’s enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge and the assistance he provided to the Society were admirable. In 1668 he gave the considerable sum of £40 to help construct a home for the Society. Pepys’s enviable book collection also reveals that he purchased all the chief scientific books published in London.
From the early 1600 onwards microscopes and telescopes began to reveal unknown worlds to a captivated public. As curator of experiments at the Royal Society, Robert Hooke gave weekly demonstrations and in 1665 published Micrographia, the world’s first popular work on microscopy. Pepys greatly admired Hooke, and a few weeks before his admission to the Society ordered a copy of Micrographia, finding it so captivating on receipt that he was kept awake till 2am reading it. He also ordered a fine microscope or ‘curious bauble’, and took to it with enthusiasm
He also prepared orders for the Clerks to keep minute books of meetings and to have these indexed, thereby winning the hearts of Royal Society archivists ever after.
Meanwhile, in his role as senior administrator to the Royal Navy, Pepys made great efforts to ensure naval recruits and officers received the best technical training available. His position as President of the Royal Society also strengthened links between the Royal Navy and the Royal Society which would further blossom with jointly organized expeditions such as Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage (1768-71).
Arguably the most important event in the Royal Society’s history took place in this period: the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which contains Newton’s universal laws of motion and gravitation. Edmond Halley FRS, as the editor of the Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, learned that Newton had solved the central problems of celestial mechanics and at Halley’s urging Newton agreed to arrange the manuscript for publication.
However, the Society could not meet the cost of publication as it was heavily financially involved in producing a lavishly illustrated natural history of fish, De historia piscium.
Pepys authorized the publication of Principia and the title page bears his name, forever linking him with Newton’s masterwork, for which Halley bore the cost of publication.
(Pepys also gave what eventually amounted to the considerable sum of £63 to the Society for the production of 60 of the 187 plates for the Historia Piscium.)
In Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica Newton defined space and time “not as they are well known to all”. Instead, he defined “true” time and space as “absolute” and explained:
Only I must observe, that the vulgar conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation they bear to perceptible objects. And it will be convenient to distinguish them into absolute and relative, true and apparent, mathematical and common. Instead of absolute places and motions, we use relative ones; and that without any inconvenience in common affairs;
but in philosophical discussions, we ought to step back from our senses, and consider things themselves, distinct from what are only perceptible measures of them.
Today three further Professorships have been added to the ones that were instituted at the founding of Gresham College in 1597: Commerce, established in 1985, Environment, established in 2014, and Information Technology, established in 2015.