Page images
[ocr errors]








HE reign of Charles was inglorious in almost every instance; yet it was distinguished by the establish ment of a society, which has been perhaps more respectable in its character, and more useful in its exertions. than any similar institution in Europe. The humble origin of the Royal Society has been already noticed; but it belongs to this part of our undertaking to enter more fully into the detail.

To assert that the great proficiency in natural science, which has been the glory of the British nation, is to be wholly attributed to the exertions of this association, would be bold and hazardous; but it is certain that little had been previously made in that interesting branch of human knowledge. Except the solitary speculations of Bacon, little had hitherto been effected; but the recommendation of that great man, to refer every thing in physics to the severe test of direct experiment, cleared the path of science, and opened the way to real disco


• See our History of Knowledge, &c. under the Usurpation.




Alchemy had been a favourite study in the two preceding reigns. The theatre, which is, in general, "a brief chronicle of the times," and the best record of manners and national character, of national folly at least, attests this fact. Johnson's Alchemist is read and acted, though the object of ridicule, which is the foundation of the piece, is no longer interesting.

It is however matter of surprise, that industry, even without the aid of science, should have effected nothing, Not one useful discovery is recorded as rewarding the labours of the English alchemists, though their brethren on the continent contributed in no small degree to the improvement of practical chemistry.

Even mathematical science, for which the English philosophers have since been so justly celebrated, was, antecedent to the period of which we are treating, in no very flourishing state; but the age which produced the Royal Society was also distinguished by some excellent mathematicians; and Oughtred, Ward, and Wallis, led the way to Barrow, Newton, and Halley. Thus, though classical learning, theology, and metaphysics, had been cultivated with success in the preceding ages, the reign of Charles II. may be regarded as the dawn of English philosophy.

The commencement of the Royal Society is referred by its historian Sprat to "some space after the end of the civil wars;" but more correct information affixes the date to the year 1645. At that time some ingenious and inquisitive men, among whom was the celebrated mathematician Dr. John Wallis, and the no less celebrated Dr. (afterwards bishop) Wilkins, agreed to meet weekly on a certain day, to converse on subjects of natural and experimental philosophy. The meetings were sometimes held at the apartments of Dr. Jonathan Goddard, a physician of some eminence, in Wood-street, on account of his having an operator in his house for the purpose of grinding glasses for telescopes; sometimes at

a house

a house in Cheapside, and sometimes at Gresham-college. From these meetings, the great topics which at that period divided and distracted society, politics and theology, were excluded; and the sciences which chiefly engaged the attention of the society, were geometry, astronomy, anatomy, physic, chemistry, navigation, magnetism, and mechanics. This society was sometimes distinguished by the name of the Invisible or Philosophical College.

The society in this infant state experienced something of the unsettled nature of the times; and about the year 1648 it was nearly dissolved by the removal of Dr. Wilkins, who was appointed warden of Wadham-college; of Dr. Wallis, who was nominated Savilian professor of geometry; and of Dr. Goddard, who was made warden. of Merton-college. Those who remained in London continued to meet as before, and the Oxford members joined them when they visited the metropolis. The meetings, however, were continued with more spirit, and probably, more regularity at Oxford, "in Dr. Wilkins' lodg ings (to use the words of Sprat) in Wadham-college, which was then the resort for virtuous aud learned men.' The university, as the same author informs us, had several men of eminence at that time attached to it in various offices and stations; and it was resorted to by others, whom the distresses of the times drove to take refuge from the din of arms, and the detestable contests of darty and politics, in the quiet shades of that celebrated seminary. Their first object was, as it had been in London, to enjoy society in peace, to contribute to each other's mutual entertainment and instruction, and to avoid those unpleasant topics which spread only discord and calamity wherever they were agitated. The principal persons who formed this small but illustrious assembly, were Dr. Seth Ward, afterwards lord-bishop of Exeter, Mr. Boyle, sir William Petty, Dr. Wilkins, Mr. Matthew Wren, Dr. Wallis, Dr. Goddard, Dr. Wallis, Dr. Christopher Wren, and Mr. Rooke.

[blocks in formation]

These meetings, however, were still little more than social or conversation parties. They had no rules or fixed method of proceeding; yet experimental science engaged more deeply their attention than speculation and conjecture. The folly of both of these was too apparent in the metaphysical writers of the day, for wise men, such as constituted this little society to engage themselves in. They were more commonly employed in experiments of chemistry and mechanics. Their instruments, however, were few; and their discoveries in chemistry seem to have been of little importance.

In the year 1658, the society was dispersed from various causes, and its members were called to the exercise of different functions in different parts of the kingdom. The majority of them, however, had resorted to the metropolis; and here their meetings were resumed at Gresham-college, an institution at present shamefully abused, by being made a sinecure for idle and indeed merely nominal professors. They generally met at the Wednesday's and Thursday's lectures of Dr. Wren and Mr. Rooke, for such were the men who, at that period, occupied those stations. Here they were joined by several other eminent persous, among whom were the lords Brouncker and Brereton, sir Paul Neile, Mr. John Evelyn, Mr. Henshaw, Mr. Slingsby, Dr. Timothy Clark, Dr. Ent, Mr. Balle, Mr. Lill, and Dr. Croue. The calamities of the times again dispersed our philosophers; and even the place of their meeting was, in the year 1659, perverted into a barrack for soldiers.

The meetings were resumed when the public affairs assumed a more quiet aspect after the restoration, and they were joined by a great number of persons eminent in every branch of science. The accession of new members obliged them now to think of adopting some regular mode of conducting their debates; and, in a private conversation, on the 28th of November,

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »