OSB archive
OSB archive

Oxford and the Royal Society’s origins

Pete Wilton

They built telescopes and transparent beehives, observed the microscopic world of cells and the motions of the planets, developed new methods of calculation and invented everything from watches to talking statues.

They were a small group of mid-17th Century natural philosophers based at Oxford University who would play a key role in both the scientific revolution and the founding of the Royal Society - which this year celebrates its 350th birthday.

This group emerged at one of the most turbulent times in English history, when the horrors of civil war were swiftly followed by the turmoil of first the Commonwealth, then the Restoration.

At Oxford, academics were regularly ejected from their posts for their political views and replacements were sent to reform the University to match the current government’s agenda. But these political purges were incomplete and incompetent affairs that, by accident, turned Oxford into a melting pot of different opinions, ideas and personalities.

Wilkins, Wren, & Wadham
One of the most influential of these personalities was John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College from 1648-1659. Wilkins was sent to Oxford by parliament to help eliminate its royalist leanings but he turned out to be a tolerant, charming man less interested in politics than in new scientific ideas and inventions.

Wilkins turned Wadham into a haven for ‘experimental philosophy’, setting up a club there that would attract some of the great minds of the age: members from Oxford University included Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Seth Ward, Robert Wood, and John Wallis. He created Wadham’s formal gardens where members tested out clockwork flying machines, seed drills and beehives (Wren's design was particularly innovative), and installed both scientific instruments and amusements, such as a statue that ‘talked’ via a tube that threw his voice.

It’s striking just how modern Wilkins’s approach seems today, as he brought together those studying different disciplines and encouraged them to work collaboratively: forging friendships, intellectual connections, and a spirit of enquiry that would animate the newly-formed Royal Society in 1660 and endure for decades to come.

The most famous experimentalists to join Wilkins’s circle were undoubtedly Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke.

Wren’s later career as an architect has come to overshadow his achievements as a scientist and engineer: perhaps it doesn’t fit posterity’s image of the bewigged 17th Century gent that Wren was as at home inventing new musical instruments, dissecting fish, or creating machines for recording microscope images as he was designing Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre.

Joining Wadham as an undergraduate in 1650, Wren would become friends with Wilkins and, later, Hooke. Wren’s main interest, to begin with, was mathematics but he was soon caught up in Wilkins’s enthusiasm for astronomy, building an 80-foot telescope with him so that they could observe the Moon.

After a fellowship at All Souls College, Wren would hold the position of Savilian professor of astronomy (1661-1673) during this time contributing to the early Royal Society meetings on topics as varied as optical lenses, friction brakes and insect physiology. In due course he would serve as Vice-President, and then the fourth President of the Royal Society.

‘England’s Leonardo’
Robert Hooke, dubbed ‘England's Leonardo’ by Oxford’s Allan Chapman, had an unparalleled gift for creating and perfecting mechanical devices.

He demonstrated this aptitude as a chorister at Christ Church, assisting first Thomas Willis and then Robert Boyle with their chemistry apparatus and experiments - he was responsible for Boyle’s first working vacuum pump.

Hooke fed off the problems and ideas of other members of the Wadham club: creating a clockwork machine to help Seth Ward record astronomical observations, also measuring the weight of air, and inventing a spring-regulated watch. He would go on to be curator of experiments at, and a secretary of, the Royal Society, performing numerous scientific investigations, coining the biological term ‘cell’, and, in publishing his masterwork Micrographia - on the natural world seen through a microscope - founding a new scientific discipline.

So what was it about 1600s Oxford that attracted so many early scientists?

Part of the attraction, according to Cambridge historian Simon Schaffer, was the infrastructure: Oxford offered a profusion of printers and stationers who could help budding scientists publicise their work - at a time when publications were becoming an essential part of both disseminating and learning the new knowledge about the natural world.

Oxford was also a good place to acquire machines no self-respecting natural philosopher could be without - such as measuring instruments, sundials and telescopes - due to both the work of local artisans and its proximity to London’s workshops.

The city also boasted some of the oldest coffee shops in Britain: places where those interested in science would meet, indulge in caffeine-fuelled debates, and even sometimes perform ad hoc experiments.

Planets & ciphers
Wren and Hooke may be the most famous members of the Oxford circle but it included other extremely influential figures: notably John Wallis and Seth Ward.

Wallis was appointed Savillian professor of geometry in 1649, and incorporated MA from Exeter College, whilst Ward arrived as Savillian professor of astronomy in 1650 and was a fellow-commoner at Wadham.

In over 50 years at Oxford Wallis established a reputation as one of the world’s leading mathematicians. In a series of seminal publications he introduced the sign for infinity and developed methods for dealing with indivisible or infinitesimal quantities - work that would have a profound influence on Newton’s contribution to calculus. He also wrote a history of algebra in which he stressed the achievements of Newton and English mathematicians over their continental rivals.

Wallis was a renowned cryptographer and was also intimately involved with the founding and early meetings of the Royal Society: contributing over 60 papers to Philosophical Transactions.

Ward’s career was almost as stellar - he produced a study on comets and influential works on the paths of the planets as well as a simplified version of Kepler’s second law of planetary motion. He then collaborated with Wilkins to defend the merits of a scientific education for clergymen, and investigated the development of a ‘universal language’ to communicate philosophical ideas.

Ward’s flair for organisation cut short his scientific career - he became President of Trinity College in 1659, and later an ecclesiastical administrator as Bishop of Exeter, then Salisbury - actively participating in early meetings of the Royal Society but then gradually leaving his scientific studies behind.

Influence & legacy
Alongside Wallis and Ward we could have highlighted the mathematician, economic thinker and advocate of decimalisation Robert Wood, as well as non-University members such as the chemist Robert Boyle.

But what does this whistle-stop tour really tell us about Oxford’s contribution to 17th Century science and the Royal Society?

As Simon Schaffer points out, the Oxford circle was one of many informal science clubs that emerged around this time in Britain, France and Italy: the power of print meant that, from its very inception, science was an international business that respected neither city walls nor national boundaries.

However, with a core membership that never exceeded 10 or 12 people, the Oxford group exerted a disproportionate influence on the course of scientific history: nurturing or inspiring some of the nation’s most talented scientists and engineers, and paving the way for Britain to become a scientific super power.

Special thanks to: Oxford DNB, In Our Time, Moralist, MHS