Decline of Science in England by Charles Babbage

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29th April, 1830.


Of the causes which have induced me to print this volume I have little to say; my own opinion is, that it will ultimately do some service to science, and without that belief I would not have undertaken so thankless a task. That it is too true not to make enemies, is an opinion in which I concur with several of my friends, although I should hope that what I have written will not give just reason for the permanence of such feelings. On one point I shall speak decidedly, it is not connected in any degree with the calculating machine on which I have been engaged; the causes which have led to it have been long operating, and would have produced this result whether I had ever speculated on that subject, and whatever might have been the fate of my speculations.

If any one shall endeavour to account for the opinions stated in these pages by ascribing them to any imagined circumstance peculiar to myself, I think he will be mistaken. That science has long been neglected and declining in England, is not an opinion originating with me, but is shared by many, and has been expressed by higher authority than mine. I shall offer a few notices on this subject, which, from their scattered position, are unlikely to have met the reader’s attention, and which, when combined with the facts I have detailed in subsequent pages, will be admitted to deserve considerable attention. The following extract from the article Chemistry, in the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana, is from the pen of a gentleman equally qualified by his extensive reading, and from his acquaintance with foreign nations, to form an opinion entitled to respect. Differing from him widely as to the cause, I may be permitted to cite him as high authority for the fact.

“In concluding this most circumscribed outline of the History of Chemistry, we may perhaps be allowed to express a faint shade of regret, which, nevertheless, has frequently passed over our minds within the space of the last five or six years. Admiring, as we most sincerely do, the electro-magnetic discoveries of Professor Oersted and his followers, we still, as chemists, fear that our science has suffered some degree of neglect in consequence of them. At least, we remark that, during this period, good chemical analyses and researches have been rare in England; and yet, it must be confessed, there is an ample field for chemical discovery. How scanty is our knowledge of the suspected fluorine! Are we sure that we understand the nature of nitrogen? And yet these are amongst our elements. Much has been done by Wollaston, Berzelius, Guy-Lussac, Thenard, Thomson, Prout, and others, with regard to the doctrine of definite proportions; but there yet remains the Atomic Theory. Is it a representation of the laws of nature, or is it not?”—CHEMISTRY, ENCYC. METROP. p.596.

When the present volume was considerably advanced, the public were informed that the late Sir Humphry Davy had commenced a work, having the same title as the present, and that his sentiments were expressed in the language of feeling and of eloquence. It is to be hoped that it may be allowed by his friends to convey his opinions to posterity, and that the writings of the philosopher may enable his contemporaries to forget some of the deeds of the President of the Royal Society.

Whatever may be the fate of that highly interesting document, we may infer his opinions upon this subject from a sentiment expressed in his last work:–

“–But we may in vain search the aristocracy now for philosophers.”—-“There are very few persons who pursue science with true dignity; it is followed more as connected with objects of profit than those of fame.”–SIR H. DAVY’S CONSOLATIONS IN TRAVEL.

The last authority which I shall adduce is more valuable, from the varied acquirements of its author, and from the greater detail into which he enters. “We have drawn largely, both in the present Essay, and in our article on LIGHT, from the ANNALES DE CHEMIE, and we take this ONLY opportunity distinctly to acknowledge our obligations to that most admirably conducted work. Unlike the crude and undigested scientific matter which suffices, (we are ashamed to say it) for the monthly and quarterly amusement of our own countrymen, whatever is admitted into ITS pages, has at least been taken pains with, and, with few exceptions, has sterling merit. Indeed, among the original communications which abound in it, there are few which would misbecome the first academical collections; and if any thing could diminish our regret at the long suppression of those noble memoirs, which are destined to adorn future volumes of that of the Institute, it would be the masterly abstracts of them which from time to time appear in the ANNALES, either from the hands of the authors, or from the reports rendered by the committees appointed to examine them; which latter, indeed, are universally models of their kind, and have contributed, perhaps more than any thing, to the high scientific tone of the French SAVANS. What author, indeed, but will write his best, when he knows that his work, if it have merit, will immediately be reported on by a committee, who will enter into all its meaning; understand it, however profound: and, not content with MERELY understanding it, pursue the trains of thought to which it leads; place its discoveries and principles in new and unexpected lights; and bring the whole of their knowledge of collateral subjects to bear upon it. Nor ought we to omit our acknowledgement to the very valuable Journals of Poggendorff and Schweigger. Less exclusively national than their Gallic compeer, they present a picture of the actual progress of physical science throughout Europe. Indeed, we have been often astonished to see with what celerity every thing, even moderately valuable in the scientific publications of this country, finds its way into their pages. This ought to encourage our men of science. They have a larger audience, and a wider sympathy than they are perhaps aware of; and however disheartening the general diffusion of smatterings of a number of subjects, and the almost equally general indifference to profound knowledge in any, among their own countrymen, may be, they may rest assured that not a fact they may discover, nor a good experiment they may make, but is instantly repeated, verified, and commented upon, in Germany, and, we may add too, in Italy. We wish the obligation were mutual. Here, whole branches of continental discovery are unstudied, and indeed almost unknown, even by name. It is in vain to conceal the melancholy truth. We are fast dropping behind. In mathematics we have long since drawn the rein, and given over a hopeless race. In chemistry the case is not much letter. Who can tell us any thing of the Sulfo-salts? Who will explain to us the laws of Isomorphism? Nay, who among us has even verified Thenard’s experiments on the oxygenated acids,–Oersted’s and Berzelius’s on the radicals of the earths,–Balard’s and Serrulas’s on the combinations of Brome,–and a hundred other splendid trains of research in that fascinating science? Nor need we stop here. There are, indeed, few sciences which would not furnish matter for similar remark. The causes are at once obvious and deep-seated; but this is not the place to discuss them.”– MR. HERSCHEL’S TREATISE ON SOUND, printed in the ENCYCLOPAEDIA METROPOLITANA.

With such authorities, I need not apprehend much doubt as to the fact of the decline of science in England: how far I may have pointed out some of its causes, must be left to others to decide.

Many attacks have lately been made on the conduct of various scientific bodies, and of their officers, and severe criticism has been lavished upon some of their productions. Newspapers, Magazines, Reviews, and Pamphlets, have all been put in requisition for the purpose. Odium has been cast upon some of these for being anonymous. If a fact is to be established by testimony, anonymous assertion is of no value; if it can be proved, by evidence to which the public have access, it is of no consequence (for the cause of truth) who produces it. A matter of opinion derives weight from the name which is attached to it; but a chain of reasoning is equally conclusive, whoever may be its author.

Perhaps it would be better for science, that all criticism should be avowed. It would certainly have the effect of rendering it more matured, and less severe; but, on the other hand, it would have the evil of frequently repressing it altogether, because there exists amongst the lower ranks of science, a “GENUS IRRITABILE,” who are disposed to argue that every criticism is personal. It is clearly the interest of all who fear inquiries, to push this principle as far as possible, whilst those whose sole object is truth, can have no apprehensions from the severest scrutiny. There are few circumstances which so strongly distinguish the philosopher, as the calmness with which he can reply to criticisms he may think undeservedly severe. I have been led into these reflections, from the circumstance of its having been stated publicly, that I was the author of several of those anonymous writings, which were considered amongst the most severe; and the assertion was the more likely to be credited, from the fact of my having spoken a few words connected with one of those subjects at the last anniversary of the Royal Society. [I merely observed that the agreement made with the British Museum for exchanging the Arundel MSS. for their duplicates, (which had just been stated by the President,) was UNWISE; –because it was not to be expected that many duplicates should be found in a library like that of the Museum, weak in the physical and mathematical sciences: that it was IMPROVIDENT and UNBUSINESSLIKE;–because it neither fixed the TIME when the difference was to be paid, in case their duplicates should be insufficient; nor did it appear that there were any FUNDS out of which the money could be procured: and I added, that it would be more advantageous to sell the MSS., and purchase the books we wanted with the produce.] I had hoped in that diminutive world, the world of science, my character had been sufficiently known to have escaped being the subject of such a mistake; and, in taking this opportunity of correcting it, I will add that, in the present volume, I have thought it more candid to mention distinctly those whose line of conduct I have disapproved, or whose works I have criticised, than to leave to the reader inferences which he might make far more extensive than I have intended. I hope, therefore, that where I have depicted species, no person will be so unkind to others and unjust to me, as to suppose I have described individuals.

With respect to the cry against personality, which has been lately set up to prevent all inquiry into matters of scientific misgovernment, a few words will suffice.

I feel as strongly as any one, not merely the impropriety, but the injustice of introducing private character into such discussions. There is, however, a maxim too well established to need any comment of mine. The public character of every public servant is legitimate subject of discussion, and his fitness or unfitness for office may be fairly canvassed by any person. Those whose too sensitive feelings shrink from such an ordeal, have no right to accept the emoluments of office, for they know that it is the condition to which all must submit who are paid from the public purse.

The same principle is equally applicable to Companies, to Societies, and to Academies. Those from whose pocket the salary is drawn, and by whose appointment the officer was made, have always a right to discuss the merits of their officers, and their modes of exercising the duties they are paid to perform.

This principle is equally applicable to the conduct of a Secretary of State, or to that of a constable; to that of a Secretary of the Royal Society, or of an adviser to the Admiralty.

With respect to honorary officers, the case is in some measure different. But the President of a society, although not recompensed by any pecuniary remuneration, enjoys a station, when the body over which he presides possesses a high character, to which many will aspire, who will esteem themselves amply repaid for the time they devote to the office, by the consequence attached to it in public estimation. He, therefore, is answerable to the Society for his conduct in their chair.

There are several societies in which the secretaries, and other officers, have very laborious duties, and where they are unaided by a train of clerks, and yet no pecuniary remuneration is given to them. Science is much indebted to such men, by whose quiet and unostentatious labours the routine of its institutions is carried on. It would be unwise, as well as ungrateful, to judge severely of the inadvertencies, or even of the negligence of such persons: nothing but weighty causes should justify such a course.

Whilst, however, I contend for the principle of discussion and inquiry in its widest sense, because I consider it equally the safeguard of our scientific as of our political institutions, I shall use it, I hope, temperately; and having no personal feelings myself, but living in terms of intercourse with almost all, and of intimacy with several of those from whom I most widely differ, I shall not attempt to heap together all the causes of complaint; but, by selecting a few in different departments, endeavour to convince them that some alteration is essentially necessary for the promotion of that very object which we both by such different roads pursue.

I have found it necessary, in the course of this volume, to speak of the departed; for the misgovernment of the Royal Society has not been wholly the result of even the present race. It is said, and I think with justice, in the life of Young, inserted amongst Dr. Johnson’s, that the famous maxim, “DE MORTUIS NIL NISI BONUM,” “appears to savour more of female weakness than of manly reason.” The foibles and the follies of those who are gone, may, without injury to society, repose in oblivion. But, whoever would claim the admiration of mankind for their good actions, must prove his impartiality by fearlessly condemning their evil deeds. Adopt the maxim, and praise to the dead becomes worthless, from its universality; and history, a greater fable than it has been hitherto deemed.

Perhaps I ought to apologize for the large space I have devoted to the Royal Society. Certainly its present state gives it no claim to that attention; and I do it partly from respect for its former services, and partly from the hope that, if such an Institution can be of use to science in the present day, the attention of its members may be excited to take steps for its restoration. Perhaps I may be blamed for having published extracts from the minutes of its proceedings without the permission of its Council. To have asked permission of the present Council would have been useless. I might, however, have given the substance of what I have extracted without the words, and no one could then have reproached me with any infringement of our rules: but there were two objections to that course. In the first place, it is impossible, even for the most candid, in all cases, to convey precisely the same sentiment in different language; and I thought it therefore more fair towards those from whom I differed, as well as to the public, to give the precise words. Again: had it been possible to make so accurate a paraphrase, I should yet have preferred the risk of incurring the reproach of the Royal Society for the offence, to escaping their censure by an evasion. What I have done rests on my own head; and I shrink not from the responsibility attaching to it.

If those, whose mismanagement of that Society I condemn, should accuse me of hostility to the Royal Society; my answer is, that the party which governs it is not the Royal Society; and that I will only admit the justice of the accusation, when the whole body, becoming acquainted with the system I have exposed, shall, by ratifying it with their approbation, appropriate it to themselves: an event of which I need scarcely add I have not the slightest anticipation.



Introductory Remarks
CHAP. I. On the Reciprocal Influence of Science and Education. CHAP. II. Of the Inducements to Individuals to cultivate Science. –Sect. 1. Professional Impulses.
—— 2. Of National Encouragement. —— 3. Of Encouragement from learned Societies. CHAP. III. General State of learned Societies in England. CHAP. IV. State of the Royal Society in particular. –Sect. 1. Mode of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society. —— 2. Of the Presidency and Vice-Presidencies. —— 3. Of the Secretariships
—— 4. Of the Scientific Advisers. —— 5. Of the Union of several Offices in one person. —— 6. Of the Funds of the Society.
—— 7. Of the Royal Medals.
—— 8. Of the Copley Medals.
—— 9. Of the Fairchild Lecture. —— 10. Of the Croonian Lecture.
—— 11. Of the Causes of the Present State of the Royal Society. —— 12. Of the Plan for Reforming the Society. CHAP. V. Of Observations.
–Sect. 1. Of Minute Precision.
—— 2. On the Art of Observing.
—— 3. On the Frauds of Observers. CHAP. VI. Suggestions for the Advancement of Science in England. –Sect. 1. Of the Necessity that Members of the Royal Society ——— should express their Opinions. —— 2. Of Biennial Presidents.
—— 3. Of the Influence of the Colleges of Physicians and ——— Surgeons in the Royal Society. —— 4. Of the Influence of the Royal Institution on the Royal ——— Society.
—— 5. Of the Transactions of the Royal Society. —— 6. Order of Merit.
—— 7. Of the Union of Scientific Societies. CONCLUSION.
——- NO. 2.
——- NO. 3.




It cannot have escaped the attention of those, whose acquirements enable them to judge, and who have had opportunities of examining the state of science in other countries, that in England, particularly with respect to the more difficult and abstract sciences, we are much below other nations, not merely of equal rank, but below several even of inferior power. That a country, eminently distinguished for its mechanical and manufacturing ingenuity, should be indifferent to the progress of inquiries which form the highest departments of that knowledge on whose more elementary truths its wealth and rank depend, is a fact which is well deserving the attention of those who shall inquire into the causes that influence the progress of nations.

To trace the gradual decline of mathematical, and with it of the highest departments of physical science, from the days of Newton to the present, must be left to the historian. It is not within the province of one who, having mixed sufficiently with scientific society in England to see and regret the weakness of some of its greatest ornaments, and to see through and deplore the conduct of its pretended friends, offers these remarks, with the hope that they may excite discussion,–with the conviction that discussion is the firmest ally of truth,–and with the confidence that nothing but the full expression of public opinion can remove the evils that chill the enthusiasm, and cramp the energies of the science of England.

The causes which have produced, and some of the effects which have resulted from, the present state of science in England, are so mixed, that it is difficult to distinguish accurately between them. I shall, therefore, in this volume, not attempt any minute discrimination, but rather present the result of my reflections on the concomitant circumstances which have attended the decay, and at the conclusion of it, shall examine some of the suggestions which have been offered for the advancement of British science.



That the state of knowledge in any country will exert a directive influence on the general system of instruction adopted in it, is a principle too obvious to require investigation. And it is equally certain that the tastes and pursuits of our manhood will bear on them the traces of the earlier impressions of our education. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that some portion of the neglect of science in England, may be attributed to the system of education we pursue. A young man passes from our public schools to the universities, ignorant almost of the elements of every branch of useful knowledge; and at these latter establishments, formed originally for instructing those who are intended for the clerical profession, classical and mathematical pursuits are nearly the sole objects proposed to the student’s ambition.

Much has been done at one of our universities during the last fifteen years, to improve the system of study; and I am confident that there is no one connected with that body, who will not do me the justice to believe that, whatever suggestions I may venture to offer, are prompted by the warmest feelings for the honour and the increasing prosperity of its institutions. The ties which connect me with Cambridge are indeed of no ordinary kind.

Taking it then for granted that our system of academical education ought to be adapted to nearly the whole of the aristocracy of the country, I am inclined to believe that whilst the modifications I should propose would not be great innovations on the spirit of our institutions, they would contribute materially to that important object.

It will be readily admitted, that a degree conferred by an university, ought to be a pledge to the public that he who holds it possesses a certain quantity of knowledge. The progress of society has rendered knowledge far more various in its kinds than it used to be; and to meet this variety in the tastes and inclinations of those who come to us for instruction, we have, besides the regular lectures to which all must attend, other sources of information from whence the students may acquire sound and varied knowledge in the numerous lectures on chemistry, geology, botany, history, &c. It is at present a matter of option with the student, which, and how many of these courses he shall attend, and such it should still remain. All that it would be necessary to add would be, that previously to taking his degree, each person should be examined by those Professors, whose lectures he had attended. The pupils should then be arranged in two classes, according to their merits, and the names included in these classes should be printed. I would then propose that no young man, except his name was found amongst the “List of Honours,” should be allowed to take his degree, unless he had been placed in the first class of some one at least of the courses given by the professors. But it should still be imperative upon the student to possess such mathematical knowledge as we usually require. If he had attained the first rank in several of these examinations, it is obvious that we should run no hazard in a little relaxing: the strictness of his mathematical trial.

If it should be thought preferable, the sciences might be grouped, and the following subjects be taken together:–

Modern History.
Laws of England.
Civil Law.

Political Economy.
Applications of Science to Arts and Manufactures.


Zoology, including Physiology and Comparative Anatomy. Botany, including Vegetable Physiology and Anatomy.

One of the great advantages of such a system would be, that no young person would have an excuse for not studying, by stating, as is most frequently done, that the only pursuits followed at Cambridge, classics and mathematics, are not adapted either to his taste, or to the wants of his after life. His friends and relatives would then reasonably expect every student to have acquired distinction in SOME pursuit. If it should be feared that this plan would lead to too great a diversity of pursuits in the same individual, a limitation might be placed upon the number of examinations into which the same person might be permitted to enter. It might also be desirable not to restrict the whole of these examinations to the third year, but to allow the student to enter on some portion of them in the first or second year, if he should prefer it.

By such an arrangement, which would scarcely interfere seriously with our other examinations, we should, I think, be enabled effectually to keep pace with the wants of society, and retaining fully our power and our right to direct the studies of those who are intended for the church, as well as of those who aspire to the various offices connected with our academical institutions; we should, at the same time, open a field of honourable ambition to multitudes, who, from the exclusive nature of our present studies, leave us with but a very limited addition to their stock of knowledge.

Much more might be said on a subject so important to the interests of the country, as well as of our university, but my wish is merely to open it for our own consideration and discussion. We have already done so much for the improvement of our system of instruction, that public opinion will not reproach us for any unwillingness to alter. It is our first duty to be well satisfied that we can improve: such alterations ought only to be the result of a most mature consideration, and of a free interchange of sentiments on the subject, in order that we may condense upon the question the accumulated judgment of many minds.

It is in some measure to be attributed to the defects of our system of education, that scientific knowledge scarcely exists amongst the higher classes of society. The discussions in the Houses of Lords or of Commons, which arise on the occurrence of any subjects connected with science, sufficiently prove this fact, which, if I had consulted the extremely limited nature of my personal experience, I should, perhaps, have doubted.



Interest or inclination form the primary and ruling motives in this matter: and both these exert greater or less proportionate influence in each of the respective cases to be examined.



A large portion of those who are impelled by ambition or necessity to advance themselves in the world, make choice of some profession in which they imagine their talents likely to be rewarded with success; and there are peculiar advantages resulting to each from this classification of society into professions. The ESPRIT DE CORPS frequently overpowers the jealousy which exists between individuals, and pushes on to advantageous situations some of the more fortunate of the profession; whilst, on the other hand, any injury or insult offered to the weakest, is redressed or resented by the whole body. There are other advantages which are perhaps of more importance to the public. The numbers which compose the learned professions in England are so considerable, that a kind of public opinion is generated amongst them, which powerfully tends to repress conduct that is injurious either to the profession or to the public. Again, the mutual jealousy and rivalry excited amongst the whole body is so considerable, that although the rank and estimation which an individual holds in the profession may be most unfairly appreciated, by taking the opinion of his rival; yet few estimations will be found generally more correct than the opinion of a whole profession on the merits of any one of its body. This test is of great value to the public, and becomes the more so, in proportion to the difficulty of the study to which the profession is devoted. It is by availing themselves of it that men of sense and judgment, who have occasion for the services of professional persons, are, in a great measure, guided in their choice.

The pursuit of science does not, in England, constitute a distinct profession, as it does in many other countries. It is therefore, on that ground alone, deprived of many of the advantages which attach to professions. One of its greatest misfortunes arises from this circumstance; for the subjects on which it is conversant are so difficult, and require such unremitted devotion of time, that few who have not spent years in their study can judge of the relative knowledge of those who pursue them. It follows, therefore, that the public, and even that men of sound sense and discernment, can scarcely find means to distinguish between the possessors of knowledge, in the present day, merely elementary, and those whose acquirements are of the highest order. This remark applies with peculiar force to all the more difficult applications of mathematics; and the fact is calculated to check the energies of those who only look to reputation in England.

As there exists with us no peculiar class professedly devoted to science, it frequently happens that when a situation, requiring for the proper fulfilment of its duties considerable scientific attainments, is vacant, it becomes necessary to select from among amateurs, or rather from among persons whose chief attention has been bestowed on other subjects, and to whom science has been only an occasional pursuit. A certain quantity of scientific knowledge is of course possessed by individuals in many professions; and when added to the professional acquirements of the army, the navy, or to the knowledge of the merchant, is highly meritorious: but it is obvious that this may become, when separated from the profession, quite insignificant as the basis of a scientific reputation.

To those who have chosen the profession of medicine, a knowledge of chemistry, and of some branches of natural history, and, indeed, of several other departments of science, affords useful assistance. Some of the most valuable names which adorn the history of English science have been connected with this profession.

The causes which induce the selection of the clerical profession are not often connected with science; and it is, perhaps, a question of considerable doubt whether it is desirable to hold out to its members hopes of advancement from such acquirements. As a source of recreation, nothing can be more fit to occupy the attention of a divine; and our church may boast, in the present as in past times, that the domain of science has been extended by some of its brightest ornaments.

In England, the profession of the law is that which seems to hold out the strongest attraction to talent, from the circumstance, that in it ability, coupled with exertion, even though unaided by patronage, cannot fail of obtaining reward. It is frequently chosen as an introduction to public life. It also presents great advantages, from its being a qualification for many situations more or less remotely connected with it, as well as from the circumstance that several of the highest officers of the state must necessarily have sprung from its ranks.

A powerful attraction exists, therefore, to the promotion of a study and of duties of all others engrossing the time most completely, and which is less benefited than most others by any acquaintance with science. This is one amongst the causes why it so very rarely happens that men in public situations are at all conversant even with the commonest branches of scientific knowledge, and why scarcely an instance can be cited of such persons acquiring a reputation by any discoveries of their own.

But, however consistent other sciences may be with professional avocations, there is one which, from its extreme difficulty, and the overwhelming attention which it demands, can only be pursued with success by those whose leisure is undisturbed by other claims. To be well acquainted with the present state of mathematics, is no easy task; but to add to the powers which that science possesses, is likely to be the lot of but few English philosophers.



The little encouragement which at all previous periods has been afforded by the English Government to the authors of useful discoveries, or of new and valuable inventions, is justified on the following grounds:

1. The public, who consume the new commodity or profit by the new invention, are much better judges of its merit than the government can be.

2. The reward which arises from the sale of the commodity is usually much larger than that which government would be justified in bestowing; and it is exactly proportioned to the consumption, that is, to the want which the public feel for the new article.

It must be admitted that, as general principles, these are correct: there are, however, exceptions which flow necessarily from the very reasoning from which they were deduced. Without entering minutely into these exceptions, it will be sufficient to show that all abstract truth is entirely excluded from reward under this system. It is only the application of principles to common life which can be thus rewarded. A few instances may perhaps render this position more evident. The principle of the hydrostatic paradox was known as a speculative truth in the time of Stevinus; [About the year 1600] and its application to raising heavy weights has long been stated in elementary treatises on natural philosophy, as well as constantly exhibited in lectures. Yet, it may fairly be regarded as a mere abstract principle, until the late Mr. Bramah, by substituting a pump instead of the smaller column, converted it into a most valuable and powerful engine.–The principle of the convertibility of the centres of oscillation and suspension in the pendulum, discovered by Huygens more than a century and a half ago, remained, until within these few years, a sterile, though most elegant proposition; when, after being hinted at by Prony, and distinctly pointed out by Bonenberger, it was employed by Captain Kater as the foundation of a most convenient practical method of determining the length of the pendulum.–The interval which separated the discovery, by Dr. Black, of latent heat, from the beautiful and successful application of it to the steam engine, was comparatively short; but it required the efforts of two minds; and both were of the highest order.–The influence of electricity in producing decompositions, although of inestimable value as an instrument of discovery in chemical inquiries, can hardly be said to have been applied to the practical purposes of life, until the same powerful genius which detected the principle, applied it, by a singular felicity of reasoning, to arrest the corrosion of the copper-sheathing of vessels. That admirably connected chain of reasoning, the truth of which is confirmed by its very failure as a remedy, will probably at some future day supply, by its successful application, a new proof of the position we are endeavouring to establish.

[I am authorised in stating, that this was regarded by Laplace as the greatest of Sir Humphry Davy’s discoveries. It did not fail in producing the effect foreseen by Sir H. Davy,–the preventing the corrosion of the copper; but it failed as a cure of the evil, by producing one of an OPPOSITE character; either by preserving too perfectly from decay the surface of the copper, or by rendering it negative, it allowed marine animals and vegetables to accumulate on its surface, and thus impede the progress of the vessel.]

Other instances might, if necessary, be adduced, to show that long intervals frequently elapse between the discovery of new principles in science and their practical application: nor ought this at all to surprise us. Those intellectual qualifications, which give birth to new principles or to new methods, are of quite a different order from those which are necessary for their practical application.

At the time of the discovery of the beautiful theorem of Huygens, it required in its author not merely a complete knowledge of the mathematical science of his age, but a genius to enlarge its boundaries by new creations of his own. Such talents are not always united with a quick perception of the details, and of the practical applications of the principles they have developed, nor is it for the interest of mankind that minds of this high order should lavish their powers on subjects unsuited to their grasp.

In mathematical science, more than in all others, it happens that truths which are at one period the most abstract, and apparently the most remote from all useful application, become in the next age the bases of profound physical inquiries, and in the succeeding one, perhaps, by proper simplification and reduction to tables, furnish their ready and daily aid to the artist and the sailor.

It may also happen that at the time of the discovery of such principles, the mechanical arts may be too imperfect to render their application likely to be attended with success. Such was the case with the principle of the hydrostatic paradox; and it was not, I believe, until the expiration of Mr. Bramah’s patent, that the press which bears his name received that mechanical perfection in its execution, which has deservedly brought it into such general use.

On the other hand, for one person who is blessed with the power of invention, many will always be found who have the capacity of applying principles; and much of the merit ascribed to these applications will always depend on the care and labour bestowed in the practical detail.

If, therefore, it is important to the country that abstract principles should be applied to practical use, it is clear that it is also important that encouragement should be held out to the few who are capable of adding to the number of those truths on which such applications are founded. Unless there exist peculiar institutions for the support of such inquirers, or unless the Government directly interfere, the contriver of a thaumatrope may derive profit from his ingenuity, whilst he who unravels the laws of light and vision, on which multitudes of phenomena depend, shall descend unrewarded to the tomb.

Perhaps it may be urged, that sufficient encouragement is already afforded to abstract science in our different universities, by the professorships established at them. It is not however in the power of such institutions to create; they may foster and aid the development of genius; and, when rightly applied, such stations ought to be its fair and honourable rewards. In many instances their emolument is small; and when otherwise, the lectures which are required from the professor are not perhaps in all cases the best mode of employing the energies of those who are capable of inventing.

I cannot resist the opportunity of supporting these opinions by the authority of one of the greatest philosophers of a past age, and of expressing my acknowledgments to the author of a most interesting piece of scientific biography. In the correspondence which terminated in the return of Galileo to a professorship in his native country, he remarks, “But, because my private lectures and domestic pupils are a great hinderance and interruption of my studies, I wish to live entirely exempt from the former, and in great measure from the latter.”–LIFE OF GALILEO, p.18. And, in another letter to Kepler, he speaks with gratitude of Cosmo, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who “has now invited me to attach myself to him with the annual salary of 1000 florins, and with the title of Philosopher and principal Mathematician to his Highness, without the duties of any office to perform, but with most complete leisure; so that I can complete my treatise on Mechanics, &c.”–p.31.” [Life of Galileo, published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.]

Surely, if knowledge is valuable, it can never be good policy in a country far wealthier than Tuscany, to allow a genius like Mr. Dalton’s, to be employed in the drudgery of elementary instruction. [I utter these sentiments from no feelings of private friendship to that estimable philosopher, to whom it is my regret to be almost unknown, and whose modest and retiring merit, I may, perhaps, have the misfortune to offend by these remarks. But Mr. Dalton was of no party; had he ever moved in that vortex which has brought discredit, and almost ruin, on the Royal Society of England;–had he taken part with those who vote to each other medals, and, affecting to be tired of the fatigues of office, make to each other requisitions to retain places they would be most reluctant to quit; his great and splendid discovery would long since have been represented to government. Expectant mediocrity would have urged on his claims to remuneration, and those who covered their selfish purposes with the cloak of science, would have hastened to shelter themselves in the mantle of his glory.–But the philosopher may find consolation for the tardy approbation of that Society, in the applause of Europe. If he was insulted by their medal, he escaped the pain of seeing his name connected with their proceedings.] Where would have been the military renown of England, if, with an equally improvident waste of mental power, its institutions had forced the Duke of Wellington to employ his life in drilling recruits, instead of planning campaigns?

If we look at the fact, we shall find that the great inventions of the age are not, with us at least, always produced in universities. The doctrines of “definite proportions,” and of the “chemical agency of electricity,”– principles of a high order, which have immortalized the names of their discoverers, –were not produced by the meditations of the cloister: nor is it in the least a reproach to those valuable institutions to mention truths like these. Fortunate circumstances must concur, even to the greatest, to render them eminently successful. It is not permitted to all to be born, like Archimedes, when a science was to be created; nor, like Newton, to find the system of the world “without form and void;” and, by disclosing gravitation, to shed throughout that system the same irresistible radiance as that with which the Almighty Creator had illumined its material substance. It can happen to but few philosophers, and but at distant intervals, to snatch a science, like Dalton, from the chaos of indefinite combination, and binding it in the chains of number, to exalt it to rank amongst the exact. Triumphs like these are necessarily “few and far between;” nor can it be expected that that portion of encouragement, which a country may think fit to bestow on science, should be adapted to meet such instances. Too extraordinary to be frequent, they must be left, if they are to be encouraged at all, to some direct interference of the government.

The dangers to be apprehended from such a specific interference, would arise from one, or several, of the following circumstances:–That class of society, from whom the government is selected, might not possess sufficient knowledge either to judge themselves, or know upon whose judgment to rely. Or the number of persons devoting themselves to science, might not be sufficiently large to have due weight in the expression of public opinion. Or, supposing this class to be large, it might not enjoy, in the estimation of the world, a sufficiently high character for independence. Should these causes concur in any country, it might become highly injurious to commit the encouragement of science to any department of the government. This reasoning does not appear to have escaped the penetration of those who advised the abolition of the late Board of Longitude.

The question whether it is good policy in the government of a country to encourage science, is one of which those who cultivate it are not perhaps the most unbiassed judges. In England, those who have hitherto pursued science, have in general no very reasonable grounds of complaint; they knew, or should have known, that there was no demand for it, that it led to little honour, and to less profit.

That blame has been attributed to the government for not fostering the science of the country is certain; and, as far as regards past administrations, is, to a great extent, just; with respect to the present ministers, whose strength essentially depends on public opinion, it is not necessary that they should precede, and they cannot remain long insensible to any expression of the general feeling. But supposing science were thought of some importance by any administration, it would be difficult in the present state of things to do much in its favour; because, on the one hand, the higher classes in general have not a profound knowledge of science, and, on the other, those persons whom they have usually consulted, seem not to have given such advice as to deserve the confidence of government. It seems to be forgotten, that the money allotted by government to purposes of science ought to be expended with the same regard to prudence and economy as in the disposal of money in the affairs of private life.

[Who, for instance, could have advised the government to incur the expense of printing SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY copies of the Astronomical Observations made at Paramatta, to form a third part of the Philosophical Transactions for 1829, whilst of the Observations made at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, two hundred and fifty copies only are printed?

Of these seven hundred and fifty copies, seven hundred and ten will be distributed to members of the Royal Society, to six hundred of whom they will probably be wholly uninteresting or useless; and thus the country incurs a constantly recurring annual expense. Nor is it easy to see on what principle a similar destination could be refused for the observations made at the Cape of Good Hope.]

To those who measure the question of the national encouragement of science by its value in pounds, shillings, and pence, I will here state a fact, which, although pretty generally known, still, I think, deserves attention. A short time since it was discovered by government that the terms on which annuities had been granted by them were erroneous, and new tables were introduced by act of Parliament. It was stated at the time that the erroneous tables had caused a loss to the country of between two and three millions sterling. The fact of the sale of those annuities being a losing concern was long known to many; and the government appear to have been the last to be informed on the subject. Half the interest of half that loss, judiciously applied to the encouragement of mathematical science, would, in a few years, have rendered utterly impossible such expensive errors.

To those who bow to the authority of great names, one remark may have its weight. The MECANIQUE COELESTE, [The first volume of the first translation of this celebrated work into our own language, has just arrived in England from–America.] and the THEORIE ANALYTIQUE DES PROBABILITES, were both dedicated, by Laplace, to Napoleon. During the reign of that extraordinary man, the triumphs of France were as eminent in Science as they were splendid in arms. May the institutions which trained and rewarded her philosophers be permanent as the benefits they have conferred upon mankind!

In other countries it has been found, and is admitted, that a knowledge of science is a recommendation to public appointments, and that a man does not make a worse ambassador because he has directed an observatory, or has added by his discoveries to the extent of our knowledge of animated nature. Instances even are not wanting of ministers who have begun their career in the inquiries of pure analysis. As such examples are perhaps more frequent than is generally imagined, it may be useful to mention a few of those men of science who have formerly held, or who now hold, high official stations in the governments of their respective countries.

Country. Name. Department of Public Office. Science.

France .. Marquis Laplace[1] Mathematics President of the Conservative

France .. M.Carnot Mathematics Minister of War.

France .. Count Chaptal[2] Chemistry Minister of the Interior.

France .. Baron Cuvier[3] Comparative Minister of Anatomy, Public
History Instruction

Prussia.. Baron Humboldt Oriental Ambassador Languages to England

Prussia.. Baron Alexander The celebrated Chamberlain to Humboldt Traveller the King of Prussia

Modena . Marquis Rangoni[4] Mathematics Minister of Finance and
of Public
Instruction, President of
Italian Academy of Forty.

Tuscany . Count Fossombroni Mathematics Prime Minister [5] of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Saxony .. M. Lindenau[6] Astronomy Ambassador.

[4] Author of MEMORIA SULLE FUNZIONI GENERATRICI, Modena, 1824, and of various other memoirs on mathematical subjects. [5] Author of several memoirs on mechanics and hydraulics, in the Transactions of the Academy of Forty.

M. Lindenau, the Minister from the King of Saxony to the King of the Netherlands, commenced his career as astronomer at the observatory of the Grand Duke of Gotha, by whom he was sent as his representative at the German Diet. On the death of the late reigning Duke, M. Lindenau was invited to Dresden, and filled the same situation under the King of Saxony; after which he was appointed his minister at the court of the King of the Netherlands. Such occurrences are not to be paralleled in our own country, at least not in modern times. Newton was, it is true, more than a century since, appointed Master of the Mint; but let any person suggest an appointment of a similar kind in the present day, and he will gather from the smiles of those to whom he proposes it that the highest knowledge conduces nothing to success, and that political power is almost the only recommendation.


Of Encouragement from Learned Societies.

There are several circumstances which concur in inducing persons pursuing science, to unite together, to form societies or academies. In former times, when philosophical instruments were more rare, and the art of making experiments was less perfectly known, it was almost necessary. More recently, whilst numerous additions are constantly making to science, it has been found that those who are most capable of extending human knowledge, are frequently least able to encounter the expense of printing their investigations. It is therefore convenient, that some means should be devised for relieving them from this difficulty, and the volumes of the transactions of academies have accomplished the desired end.

There is, however, another purpose to which academies contribute. When they consist of a limited number of persons, eminent for their knowledge, it becomes an object of ambition to be admitted on their list. Thus a stimulus is applied to all those who cultivate science, which urges on their exertions, in order to acquire the wished-for distinction. It is clear that this envied position will be valued in proportion to the difficulty of its attainment, and also to the celebrity of those who enjoy it; and whenever the standard of scientific knowledge which qualifies for its ranks is lowered, the value of the distinction itself will be diminished. If, at any time, a multitude of persons having no sort of knowledge of science are admitted, it must cease to be sought after as an object of ambition by men of science, and the class of persons to whom it will become an object of desire will be less intellectual.

Let us now compare the numbers composing some of the various academies of Europe.-The Royal Society of London, the Institute of France, the Italian Academy of Forty, and the Royal Academy of Berlin, are amongst the most distinguished.

Name Number of Number
Population. Members of Country. of its Foreign
Academy. Members

1. England. 22,299,000 685 50 2. France . 32,058,000 76 8 Mem. 100 Corr. 8. Prussia . 12,915,000 38 16
4. Italy . . 12,000,000 40 8

It appears then, that in France, one person out of 427,000 is a member of the Institute. That in Italy and Prussia, about one out of 300,000 persons is a member of their Academies. That in England, every 32,000 inhabitants produces a Fellow of the Royal Society. Looking merely at these proportions, the estimation of a seat in the Academy of Berlin, must be more than nine times as valuable as a similar situation in England; and a member of the Institute of France will be more than thirteen times more rare in his country than a Fellow of the Royal Society is in England.

Favourable as this view is to the dignity of such situations in other countries, their comparative rarity is by no means the most striking difference in the circumstances of men of science. If we look at the station in society occupied by the SAVANS of other countries, in several of them we shall find it high, and their situations profitable. Perhaps, at the present moment, Prussia is, of all the countries in Europe, that which bestows the greatest attention, and most unwearied encouragement on science. Great as are the merits of many of its philosophers, much of this support arises from the character of the reigning family, by whose enlightened policy even the most abstract sciences are fostered.

The maxim that “knowledge is power,” can be perfectly comprehended by those only who are themselves well versed in science; and to the circumstance of the younger branches of the royal family of Prussia having acquired considerable knowledge in such subjects, we may attribute the great force with which that maxim is appreciated.

In France, the situation of its SAVANS is highly respectable, as well as profitable. If we analyze the list of the Institute, we shall find few who do not possess titles or decorations; but as the value of such marks of royal favour must depend, in a great measure, on their frequency, I shall mention several particulars which are probably not familiar to the English reader. [This analysis was made by comparing the list of the Institute, printed for that body in 1827, with the ALMANACH ROYALE for 1823.]

Number of the Members of the Total Number of each Class Institute of France who belong of the Legion of Honour. to the Legion of Honour.

GrandCroix……… 3 80
GrandOfficier ….. 3 160
Commandeur …….. 4 400
Officier ………. 17 2,000 Chevalier ……… 40 Not limited.

Number of Members of the Institute Total Number decorated with of
the Order of St. Michel. that Order.

Grand Croix ……. 2
Chevalier ……… 27

Amongst the members of the Institute there are,–
Dukes ………………. 2
Marquis …………….. 1
Counts ……………… 4
Viscounts……………. 2
Barons ……………… 14


Of these there are
Peers of France ………. 5

We might, on turning over the list of the 685 members of the Royal Society, find a greater number of peers than there are in the Institute of France; but a fairer mode of instituting the comparison, is to inquire how many titled members there are amongst those who have contributed to its Transactions. In 1827, there were one hundred and nine members who had contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society; amongst these were found:-

Peer …………………… 1
Baronets ……………….. 5
Knights ………………… 5

It should be observed, that five of these titles were the rewards of members of the medical profession, and one only, that of Sir H. Davy, could be attributed exclusively to science.

It must not be inferred that the titles of nobility in the French list, were all of them the rewards of scientific eminence; many are known to have been such; but it would be quite sufficient for the argument to mention the names of Lagrange, Laplace, Berthollet, and Chaptal.

The estimation in which the public hold literary claims in France and England, was curiously illustrated by an incidental expression in the translation of the debates in the House of Lords, on the occasion of His Majesty’s speech at the commencement of the session of 1830. The Gazette de France stated, that the address was moved by the Duc de Buccleugh, “CHEF DE LA MAISON DE WALTER SCOTT.” Had an English editor wished to particularize that nobleman, he would undoubtedly have employed the term WEALTHY, or some other of the epithets characteristic of that quality most esteemed amongst his countrymen.

If we turn, on the other hand, to the emoluments of science in France, we shall find them far exceed those in our own country. I regret much that I have mislaid a most interesting memorandum on this subject, which I made several years since: but I believe my memory on the point will not be found widely incorrect. A foreign gentleman, himself possessing no inconsiderable acquaintance with science, called on me a few years since, to present a letter of introduction. He had been but a short time in London; and, in the course of our conversation, it appeared to me that he had imbibed very inaccurate ideas respecting our encouragement of science.

Thinking this a good opportunity of instituting a fair comparison between the emoluments of science in the two countries, I placed a sheet of paper before him, and requested him to write down the names of six Englishmen, in his opinion, best known in France for their scientific reputation. Taking another sheet of paper, I wrote upon it the names of six Frenchmen, best known in England for their scientific discoveries. We exchanged these lists, and I then requested him to place against each name (as far as he knew) the annual income of the different appointments held by that person. In the mean time, I performed the same operation on his list, against some names of which I was obliged to place a ZERO. The result of the comparison was an average of nearly 1200L. per annum for the six French SAVANS whom I had named. Of the average amount of the sums received by the English, I only remember that it was very much smaller. When we consider what a command over the necessaries and luxuries of life 1200L. will give in France, it is underrating it to say it is equal to 2000L. in this country.

Let us now look at the prospects of a young man at his entrance into life, who, impelled by an almost irresistible desire to devote himself to the abstruser sciences, or who, confident in the energy of youthful power, feels that the career of science is that in which his mental faculties are most fitted to achieve the reputation for which he pants. What are his prospects? Can even the glowing pencil of enthusiasm add colour to the blank before him? There are no situations in the state; there is no position in society to which hope can point, to cheer him in his laborious path. If, indeed, he belong to one of our universities, there are some few chairs in his OWN Alma Mater to which he may at some distant day pretend; but these are not numerous; and whilst the salaries attached are seldom sufficient for the sole support of the individual, they are very rarely enough for that of a family. What then can he reply to the entreaties of his friends, to betake himself to some business in which perhaps they have power to assist him, or to choose some profession in which his talents may produce for him their fair reward? If he have no fortune, the choice is taken away: he MUST give up that line of life in which his habits of thought and his ambition qualify him to succeed eminently, and he MUST choose the bar, or some other profession, in which, amongst so many competitors, in spite of his great talents, he can be but moderately successful. The loss to him is great, but to the country it is greater. We thus, by a destructive misapplication of talent which our institutions create, exchange a profound philosopher for but a tolerable lawyer.

If, on the other hand, he possess some moderate fortune of his own; and, intent on the glory of an immortal name, yet not blindly ignorant of the state of science in this country, he resolve to make for that aspiration a sacrifice the greater, because he is fully aware of its extent;–if, so circumstanced, he give up a business or a profession on which he might have entered with advantage, with the hope that, when he shall have won a station high in the ranks of European science, he may a little augment his resources by some of those few employments to which science leads;–if he hope to obtain some situation, (at the Board of Longitude, for example,) [This body is now dissolved] where he may be permitted to exercise the talents of a philosopher for the paltry remuneration of a clerk, he will find that other qualifications than knowledge and a love of science are necessary for its attainment. He will also find that the high and independent spirit, which usually dwells in the breast of those who are deeply versed in these pursuits, is ill adapted for such appointments; and that even if successful, he must hear many things he disapproves, and raise no voice AGAINST them.

Thus, then, it appears that scarcely any man can be expected to pursue abstract science unless he possess a private fortune, and unless he can resolve to give up all intention of improving it. Yet, how few thus situated are likely to undergo the labour of the acquisition; and if they do from some irresistible impulse, what inducement is there for them to deviate one step from those inquiries in which they find the greatest delight, into those which might be more immediately useful to the public?



The progress of knowledge convinced the world that the system of the division of labour and of cooperation was as applicable to science, as it had been found available for the improvement of manufactures. The want of competition in science produced effects similar to those which the same cause gives birth to in the arts. The cultivators of botany were the first to feel that the range of knowledge embraced by the Royal Society was too comprehensive to admit of sufficient attention to their favourite subject, and they established the Linnean Society. After many years, a new science arose, and the Geological Society was produced. At an another and more recent epoch, the friends of astronomy, urged by the wants of their science, united to establish the Astronomical Society. Each of these bodies found, that the attention devoted to their science by the parent establishment was insufficient for their wants, and each in succession experienced from the Royal Society the most determined opposition.

Instituted by the most enlightened philosophers, solely for the promotion of the natural sciences, that learned body justly conceived that nothing could be more likely to render these young institutions permanently successful, than discouragement and opposition at their commencement. Finding their first attempts so eminently successful, they redoubled the severity of their persecution, and the result was commensurate with their exertions, and surpassed even their wildest anticipations. The Astronomical Society became in six years known and respected throughout Europe, not from the halo of reputation which the glory of its vigourous youth had thrown around the weakness of its declining years; but from the sterling merit of “its unpretending deeds, from the sympathy it claimed and received from every practical astronomer, whose labours it relieved, and whose calculations it lightened.”

But the system which worked so well is now changed, and the Zoological and Medico-Botanical Societies were established without opposition: perhaps, indeed, the total failure of the latter society is the best proof of the wisdom which guided the councils of the Royal. At present, the various societies exist with no feelings of rivalry or hostility, each pursuing its separate objects, and all uniting in deploring with filial regret, the second childhood of their common parent, and the evil councils by which that sad event has been anticipated.

It is the custom to attach certain letters to the names of those who belong to different societies, and these marks of ownership are by many considered the only valuable part of their purchase on entry. The following is a list of some of these societies. The second column gives the ready-money prices of the tail-pieces indicated in the third.

SOCIETIES. Fees on Admission Appended including Composition Letters for Annual Payments.

L. s. d.
Royal Society …………. 50 0 0 F.R.S. Royal Society of Edinburgh. 25 4 0* F.R.S.E. Royal Academy of Dublin … 26 5 0 M.R.I.A. Royal Society of Literature 36 15 0 F.R.S.Lit. Antiquarian …………… 50 8 0 F.A.S. Linnean ………………. 36 0 0 F.L.S. Geological ……………. 34 15 0 F.G.S. Astronomical ………….. 25 4 0 M.A.S. Zoological ……………. 26 5 0 F.Z.S. Royal Institution ……… 50 0 0 M.R.I. Royal Asiatic………….. 31 10 0 F.R.A.S. Horticultural …………. 43 6 0 F.H.S. Medico-Botanical ………. 21 0 0 F.M.B.S.

[* The Royal Society of Edinburgh now requires, for composition in lieu of annual contributions, a sum dependent on the value of the life of the member.]

Thus, those who are ambitious of scientific distinction, may, according to their fancy, render their name a kind of comet, carrying with it a tail of upwards of forty letters, at the average cost of 10L. 9s. 9d. per letter.

Perhaps the reader will remark, that science cannot be declining in a country which supports so many institutions for its cultivation. It is indeed creditable to us, that the greater part of these societies are maintained by the voluntary contributions of their members. But, unless the inquiries which have recently taken place in some of them should rectify the SYSTEM OF MANAGEMENT by which several have been oppressed, it is not difficult to predict that their duration will be short. Full PUBLICITY, PRINTED STATEMENTS OF ACCOUNTS, and occasional DISCUSSIONS and inquiries at GENERAL MEETINGS, are the only safeguards; and a due degree of VIGILANCE should be exercised on those who DISCOURAGE these principles. Of the Royal Society, I shall speak in a succeeding page; and I regret to add, that I might have said more. My object is to amend it; but, like all deeply-rooted complaints, the operation which alone can contribute to its cure, is necessarily painful. Had the words of remonstrance or reproof found utterance through other channels, I had gladly been silent, content to support by my vote the reasonings of the friend of science and of the Society. But this has not been the case, and after frustrated efforts to introduce improvements, I shall now endeavour, by the force of plain, but perhaps painful truths, to direct public opinion in calling for such a reform, as shall rescue the Royal Society from contempt in our own country, from ridicule in others.

On the next five societies in the list, I shall offer no remarks. Of the Geological, I shall say a few words. It possesses all the freshness, the vigour, and the ardour of youth in the pursuit of a youthful science, and has succeeded in a most difficult experiment, that of having an oral discussion on the subject of each paper read at its meetings. To say of these discussions, that they are very entertaining, is the least part of the praise which is due to them. They are generally very instructive, and sometimes bring together isolated facts in the science which, though insignificant when separate, mutually illustrate each other, and ultimately lead to important conclusions. The continuance of these discussions evidently depends on the taste, the temper, and the good sense of the speakers. The things to be avoided are chiefly verbal criticisms–praise of each other beyond its reasonable limits, and contest for victory. This latter is, perhaps, the most important of the three, both for the interests of the Society and of truth. With regard to the published volumes of their Transactions, it may be remarked, that if members were in the habit of communicating their papers to the Society in a more finished state, it would be attended with several advantages; amongst others, with that of lightening the heavy duties of the officers, which are perhaps more laborious in this Society than in most others. To court publicity in their accounts and proceedings, and to endeavour to represent all the feelings of the Society in the Council, and to avoid permanent Presidents, is a recommendation not peculiarly addressed to this Society, but would contribute to the well-being of all.

Of the Astronomical Society, which, from the nature of its pursuits, could scarcely admit of the discussions similar to those of the Geological, I shall merely observe, that I know of no secret which has caused its great success, unless it be attention to the maxims which have just been stated.

On the Zoological Society, which affords much rational amusement to the public, a few hints may at present suffice. The largeness of its income is a frightful consideration. It is too tempting as the subject for jobs, and it is too fluctuating and uncertain in its amount, not to render embarrassment in the affairs of the Society a circumstance likely to occur, without the greatest circumspection. It is most probable, from the very recent formation of this Institution, that its Officers and Council are at present all that its best friends could wish; but it is still right to mention, that in such a Society, it is essentially necessary to have men of business on the Council, as well as persons possessing extensive knowledge of its pursuits. It is more dangerous in such a Society than in any other, to pay compliments, by placing gentlemen on the Council who have not the qualifications which are requisite; a frequent change in the members of the Council is desirable, in order to find out who are the most regular attendants, and most qualified to conduct its business. Publicity in its accounts and proceedings is, from the magnitude of its funds, more essential to the Zoological than to any other society; and it is rather a fearful omen, that a check was attempted to be given to such inquiries at the last anniversary meeting. If it is to be a scientific body, the friends of science should not for an instant tolerate such attempts.

It frequently happens, that gentlemen take an active part in more than one scientific society: in that case, it may be useful to derive instruction as to their merits, by observing the success of their measures in other societies.

The Asiatic Society has, amongst other benefits, caused many valuable works to be translated, which could not have otherwise been published.

The Horticultural Society has been ridden almost to death, and is now rousing itself; but its constitution seems to have been somewhat impaired. There are hopes of its purgation, and ultimate restoration, notwithstanding a debt of 19,000L., which the Committee of Inquiry have ascertained to exist. This, after all, will not be without its advantage to science, if it puts a stop to HOUSE-LISTS, NAMED BY ONE OR TWO PERSONS,– to making COMPLIMENTARY councillors,–and to auditing the accounts WITHOUT EXAMINING EVERY ITEM, or to omitting even that form altogether.

The Medico-Botanical Society suddenly claimed the attention of the public; its pretensions were great–its assurance unbounded. It speedily became distinguished, not by its publications or discoveries, but by the number of princes it enrolled in its list. It is needless now to expose the extent of its short-lived quackery; but the evil deeds of that institution will long remain in the impression they have contributed to confirm throughout Europe, of the character of our scientific establishments. It would be at once a judicious and a dignified course, if those lovers of science, who have been so grievously deceived in this Society, were to enrol upon the latest page of its history its highest claim to public approbation, and by signing its dissolution, offer the only atonement in their power to the insulted science of their country. As with a singular inversion of principle, the society contrived to render EXPULSION* the highest HONOUR it could confer; so it remains for it to exemplify, in suicide, the sublimest virtue of which it is capable. [* They expelled from amongst them a gentleman, of whom it is but slight praise to say, that he is the first and most philosophical botanist of our own country, and who is admired abroad as he is respected at home. The circumstance which surprised the world was not his exit from, but his previous entrance into that Society.]



As the venerable first parent of English, and I might perhaps say, of European scientific societies; as a body in the welfare of which, in the opinions of many, the interests of British science are materially involved, I may be permitted to feel anxiously, and to speak more in detail.



I have no intention of stating what ought to be the qualifications of a Fellow of the Royal Society; but, for years, the practical mode of arriving at that honour, has been as follows:–

A. B. gets any three Fellows to sign a certificate, stating that he (A. B.) is desirous of becoming a member, and likely to be a useful and valuable one. This is handed in to the Secretary, and suspended in the meeting-room. At the end of ten weeks, if A. B. has the good fortune to be perfectly unknown by any literary or scientific achievement, however small, he is quite sure of being elected as a matter of course. If, on the other hand, he has unfortunately written on any subject connected with science, or is supposed to be acquainted with any branch of it, the members begin to inquire what he has done to deserve the honour; and, unless he has powerful friends, he has a fair chance of being black-balled. [I understand that certificates are now read at the Council, previously to their being hung up in the meeting-room; but I am not aware that this has in the slightest degree diminished their number, which was, at the time of writing this note, TWENTY-FOUR.]

In fourteen years’ experience, the few whom I have seen rejected, have all been known persons; but even in such cases a hope remains;– perseverance will do much, and a gentleman who values so highly the distinction of admission to the Royal Society, may try again; and even after being twice black-balled, if he will a third time condescend to express his desire to become a member, he may perhaps succeed, by the aid of a hard canvass. In such circumstances, the odds are much in favour of the candidate possessing great scientific claims; and the only objection that could then reasonably be suggested, would arise from his estimating rather too highly a distinction which had become insignificant from its unlimited extension.

It should be observed, that all members contribute equally, and that the sum now required is fifty pounds. It used, until lately, to be ten pounds on entrance, and four pounds annually. The amount of this subscription is so large, that it is calculated to prevent many men of real science from entering the Society, and is a very severe tax on those who do so; for very few indeed of the cultivators of science rank amongst the wealthy classes. Several times, whilst I have been consulting books or papers at Somerset House, persons have called to ask the Assistant- secretary the mode of becoming a member of the Royal Society. I should conjecture, from some of these applications, that it is not very unusual for gentlemen in the country to order their agents in London to take measures for putting them up at the Royal Society.



Why Mr. Davies Gilbert became President of the Royal Society I cannot precisely say. Let him who penned, and those who supported this resolution solve the enigma:

“It was Resolved,

“That it is the opinion of the Council that Davies Gilbert, Esq. is by far the most fit person to be proposed to the Society at the approaching anniversary as President, and that he be recommended accordingly.”

To resolve that he was a FIT person might have been sufficiently flattering: to state that he was the most fit, was a little hard upon the rest of the Society; but to resolve that he was “BY FAR THE MOST FIT” was only consistent with that strain of compliment in which his supporters indulge, and was a eulogy, by no means unique in its kind, I believe, even at that very Council.

That Mr. Gilbert is a most amiable and kind-hearted man will be instantly admitted by all who are, in the least degree, acquainted with him: that he is fit for the chair of the Royal Society, will be allowed by few, except those who have committed themselves to the above-quoted resolution.

Possessed of knowledge and of fortune more than sufficient for it, he might have been the restorer of its lustre. He might have called round him, at the council board, those most actively engaged in the pursuits of science, most anxious for the improvement of the Royal Society. Instead of himself proposing resolutions, he might have been, what a chairman ought to be, the organ of the body over which he presides. By the firmness of his own conduct he might have taught the subordinate officers of the Society the duties of their station. Instead of paying compliments to Ministers, who must have smiled at his simplicity, he might have maintained the dignity of his Council by the dignity of knowledge.

But he has chosen a different path; with no motives of interest to allure, or of ambition to betray him, instead of making himself respected as the powerful chief of a united republic,– that of science,–he has grasped at despotic power, and stands the feeble occupant of its desolated kingdom, trembling at the force of opinions he might have directed, and refused even the patronage of their names by those whose energies he might have commanded.

Mr. Gilbert told the Society he accepted the situation for a year; and this circumstance caused a difficulty in finding a Treasurer: an office which he had long held, and to which he wished to return.

Another difficulty might have arisen, from the fact of the late Board of Longitude comprising amongst its Members the PRESIDENT of the Royal Society, and three of its Fellows, appointed by the President and Council. Of course, when Mr. Gilbert accepted the higher situation, he became, EX OFFICIO, a Member of the Board of Longitude; and a vacancy occurred, which ought to have been filled up by the President and Council. But when this subject was brought before them, in defiance of common sense, and the plain meaning of the act of parliament, which had enacted that the Board of Longitude should have the assistance of four persons belonging to the Royal Society, Mr. Gilbert refused to allow it to be filled up, on the ground that he should not be President next year, and had made no vacancy.

Next year Mr. Gilbert wished again to be President one other year; but the Board of Longitude was dissolved, otherwise we might have had some LOCUM TENENS to retire at Mr. Gilbert’s pleasure.

These circumstances are in themselves of trifling importance, but they illustrate the character of the proceedings: and it is not becoming the dignity of science or of the Society that its officers should be so circumstanced as to have an apparent and direct interest in supporting the existing President, in order to retain their own places; and if such a system is once discovered, doubt immediately arises as to the frequency of such arrangements.



Whether the present Secretaries are the best qualified to aid in reforming the Society, is a question I shall not discuss. With regard to the senior Secretary, the time of his holding office is perhaps more unfortunate than the circumstance. If I might be permitted to allude for a moment to his personal character, I should say that the mild excellencies of his heart have prevented the Royal Society from deriving the whole of that advantage from his varied knowledge and liberal sentiments which some might perhaps have anticipated; and many will agree with me in regretting that his judgment has not directed a larger portion of the past deeds of the Councils of the Royal Society. Of the junior Secretary I shall only observe, that whilst I admit his industry, his perseverance, and his talents, I regret to see such valuable qualities exerted at a disadvantage, and that I sincerely wish them all the success they merit in situations more adapted for their developement.

There are, however, some general principles which it may be important to investigate, which relate to the future as well as to the past state of the office of Secretary of the Royal Society. Inconvenience has already arisen from having had at a former period one of our Secretaries the conductor of a scientific journal; and this is one of the points in which I can agree with those who now manage the affairs of the Society. [These observations were written previous to the late appointment, to which I now devote Section 6. Experience seems to be lost on the Council of the Royal Society.] Perhaps it might be advantageous to extend the same understanding to the other officers of the Society at least, if not to the members of its Council.

Another circumstance worthy of the attention of the Society is, to consider whether it is desirable, except in special cases, to have military persons appointed to any of its offices. There are several peculiarities in the military character, which, though they do not absolutely unfit their possessors for the individual prosecution of science, may in some degree disqualify such persons from holding offices in scientific institutions. The habits both of obedience and command, which are essential in military life, are little fitted for that perfect freedom which should reign in the councils of science. If a military chief commit an oversight or an error, it is necessary, in order to retain the confidence of those he commands, to conceal or mask it as much as possible. If an experimentalist make a mistake, his only course to win the confidence of his fellow-labourers in science, and to render his future observations of any use, is to acknowledge it in the most full and explicit manner. The very qualifications which contribute to the professional excellence of the soldier, constitute his defects when he enters the paths of science; and it is only in those rare cases where the force of genius is able to control and surmount these habits, that his admission to the offices of science can be attended with any advantage to it.

Another objection deserving notice, although not applying exclusively to the military profession, is, that persons not imbued with the feelings of men of science, when they have published their observations, are too apt to view every criticism upon them as a personal question, and to consider that it is as offensive to doubt the accuracy of their observations as it is to doubt their word. Nothing can be more injurious to science than that such an opinion should be tolerated. The most unreserved criticism is necessary for truth; and those suspicions respecting his own accuracy, which every philosophical experimenter will entertain concerning his own researches, ought never to be considered as a reproach, when they are kept in view in examining the experiments of others. The minute circumstances and apparently trivial causes which lend their influence towards error, even in persons of the most candid judgment, are amongst the most curious phenomena of the human mind.

The importance of affording every aid to enable others to try the merits of observations, has been so well expressed by Mayer, that I shall conclude these remarks with an extract from the Preface to his Observations:

“Officii enim cujusque observatoris ease reor, de habitu instrumenti sui, de cura ac precautione, qua usus est, ad illud recte tractandum, deque mediis in errores ejus inquirendi rationem reddere publice, ut aliis quoque copia sit judicandi, quanta fides habenda conclusionibus ex nostris observationibus deductis aut deducendis. Hoc cum minus fecissent precedentis saeculi astronomi, praxin nimis secure, nimisque theoretice tractantes, factum inde potissimum est, ut illorum observationes tot vigiliis tantoque labore comparatae tam cito obsoleverint.” P. viii.

There are certain duties which the Royal Society owes to its own character as well as to the public, which, having been on some occasions apparently neglected, it may be here the proper place to mention, since it is reasonable to suppose that attention to them is within the province of its Secretaries.

The first to which I shall allude is the singular circumstances attending the fact of the Royal Society having printed a volume of Astronomical Observations which were made at the Observatory of Paramatta (New South Wales), bearing the title of “The Third Part of the Philosophical Transactions for the Year 1829.”

Now this Observatory was founded at the private expense of a British officer; the instruments were paid for out of his purse; two observers were brought from Europe, to be employed in making use of those instruments, at salaries defrayed by him. A considerable portion of the observations so printed were made by these astronomers during their employment in his service, and some of them are personally his own. Yet has the Royal Society, in adopting them as part of its Transactions, omitted all mention, either in their title-page, preface, or in any part of the volume, of the FACT that the world owed these valuable observations to the enlightened munificence of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Brisbane; whose ardent zeal in the pursuit of science induced him to found, at his own private expense, an establishment which it has been creditable to the British Government to continue as a national institution. Had any kindred feelings existed in the Council, instead of endeavouring to shift the responsibility, they would have hastened to rectify an omission, less unjust to the individual than it was injurious to English science.

Another topic, which concerns most vitally the character and integrity of the Royal Society, I hardly know how to approach. It has been publicly stated that confidence cannot be placed in the written minutes of the Society; and an instance has been adduced, in which an entry has been asserted to have been made, which could not have been the true statement of what actually passed at the Council.

The facts on which the specific instance rests are not difficult to verify by members of the Royal Society. I have examined them, and shall state them before I enter on the reasoning which may be founded upon them. In the minutes of the Council, 26th November, 1829, we find–

“Resolved, that the following gentlemen be recommended to be put upon the Council for the ensuing year.” [Here follows a list of persons, amongst whom the name of Sir John Franklin occurs [Sir John Franklin was absent from London, and altogether unacquainted with this transaction, until he saw it stated in the newspapers some months after it had taken place. That his name was the one substituted for that of Captain Beaufort I know, from other evidence which need not be produced here, as the omission of the latter name is the charge that has been made.], and that of Captain Beaufort is not found. [Any gentleman may satisfy himself that this is not a mistake of the Assistant Secretary’s, in copying, by consulting the rough minutes of that meeting of the Council, which it might perhaps be as well to write in a rough minute-book, instead of upon loose sheets of paper; nor can it be attributed to any error arising from accidentally mislaying the real minutes, for in that case the error would have been rectified immediately it was detected; and this has remained uncorrected, although publicly spoken of for months. As there is no erasure in the list, one is reluctantly compelled to conjecture that the real minutes of that meeting have been destroyed.]]

Now this could not be the list actually recommended by the Council on the morning of the 26th of November, because the President himself, on the evening of that day, informed Capt. Beaufort that he was placed on the house list; and that officer, with the characteristic openness of his profession, wrote on the next or the following day to the President, declining that situation, and stating his reasons for the step.

Upon the fact, therefore, of the suppression of part of a resolution of the Council, on the 26th of November, there can be no doubt; but in order to understand the whole nature of the transaction, other information is necessary. It has been the wish of many members of the Society, that the President should not absolutely name his own Council, but that the subject should be discussed fairly at the meeting previous to the Anniversary– this has always been opposed by Mr. Gilbert, and those who support him. Now, it has been stated, that, at the meeting of the Council on the 26th of November, the President took out of his pocket a bit of paper, from which he read the names of several persons as fit to be on the Council for the ensuing year;–that it was not understood that any motion was made, and it is certain that none was seconded, nor was any ballot taken on such an important question; and it was a matter of considerable surprise to some of those present, to discover afterwards that it was entered on the minutes as a resolution. This statement I have endeavoured to verify, and I believe it to be substantially correct; if it was a resolution, it was dictated, not discussed. It is also important to observe, that no similar resolution stands on the council-books for any previous year.

On examining the minutes of the succeeding Council, no notice of the letter of Captain Beaufort to the President is found. Why was it omitted? If the first entry had been truly made, there would have been no necessity for the omission; and after the insertion of that letter, a resolution would naturally have followed, recommending another name instead of the one withdrawn. Such was the natural and open course; but this would have exposed to the Society the weakness of those who manage it. If the rough minutes of each meeting of the Council were read over before it separated, and were copied previously to the next meeting, such a substitution could hardly have occurred; but, unfortunately, this is not the case, and the delay is in some cases considerable. Thus, the minutes of the three Councils, held on February 4, on February 11, and on March 11, were not entered on the minute- books of the Council on Tuesday, the 16th March; nor was this the fault of the Assistant-secretary, for up to that day the rough minutes of no one of those Councils had been transmitted to him.

Deeply as every friend to the Royal Society must regret such an occurrence, one slight advantage may accrue. Should that resolution be ever quoted hereafter to prove that the Council of 1829 really discussed the persons to be recommended as their successors, the detection of this suppression of one portion of it, will furnish better means of estimating the confidence due to the whole.



Whether it was feared by the PARTY who govern the Royal Society, that its Council would not be sufficiently tractable, or whether the Admiralty determined to render that body completely subservient to them, or whether both these motives concurred, I know not; but, low as has been for years its character for independence, and fallen as the Royal Society is in public estimation, it could scarcely be prepared for this last insult. In order to inform the public and the Society, (for I believe the fact is known to few of the members,) it will be necessary to trace the history of those circumstances which led to the institution of the offices of Scientific Advisers, from the time of the existence of the late Board of Longitude.

That body consisted, according to the act of parliament which established it, of certain official members, who usually possessed no knowledge of the subjects it was the duty of the Board to discuss–of certain professors of the two universities, and the Astronomer Royal, who had some knowledge, and who were paid 100L. a year for their attendance;–of three honorary members of the Royal Society, who combined the qualifications of the two preceding classes; and, lastly, of “three other persons,” named Resident Commissioners, who were supposed to be “WELL VERSED IN THE SCIENCES OF MATHEMATICS, ASTRONOMY, OR NAVIGATION,” and who were paid a hundred a year to do the work of the Board.

The first three classes were permanent members, but the “three other persons” only held the appointment for ONE YEAR, and were renewable at the pleasure of the Admiralty. This Board was abolished by another act of parliament, on the ground that it was useless. Shortly after, the Secretary of the Admiralty communicated to the Council of the Royal Society, the copy of an Order in Council:

ADMIRALTY OFFICE, November 1, 1828.

I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, to send herewith, for the information of the President and Council of the Royal Society, a copy of His Majesty’s Order in Council of the 27th of last month; explaining that the salaries heretofore allowed to the Resident Commissioners of the Board of Longitude, and to the Superintendents of the Nautical Almanac, and of Chronometers, shall be continued to them, notwithstanding the abolition of the Board of Longitude. And I am to acquaint you, that the necessary orders have been given to the Navy Board for the payment of the said salaries.

I am, Sir,
Your most obedient humble servant,


27th October, 1828.

The King’s most Excellent Majesty in Council,

Whereas, there was this day read at the Board a Memorial from the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, dated 4th of this instant, in the words following, viz.–

Whereas, by an Act of the 58th of his late Majesty’s reign, cap. 20, instituted “An Act for the more effectually discovering the Longitude at sea, and encouraging attempts to find a Northern passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and to approach the North Pole,” three persons well versed in the sciences of Mathematics, Astronomy, or Navigation, were appointed as a Resident Committee of the Board of Commissioners for discovery of the Longitude at sea, and a Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac and of Chronometers was also appointed, with such salaries for the execution of those services as his Majesty might, by any Order in Council, be pleased to direct; and, whereas, your Majesty was in consequence, by your Order in Council of the 27th of May, 1828, most graciously pleased to direct, that the three said Resident Commissioners should be paid at the rate of 100L. a year each; and by your further Order in Council, of the 31st October, 1818, that the Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac should be allowed a salary of 300L., and the Superintendent of Chronometers 100L. a year; and, whereas, the act above mentioned has been repealed, and the Board of Longitude abolished; and doubts have therefore arisen, whether the said Orders in Council shall still continue in force; and whereas it is expedient that the said appointments be continued; We beg leave most humbly to submit to your Majesty, that your Majesty may be graciously pleased, by your Order in Council, to direct that the said offices of Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, and of Superintendent of Chronometers; and also the three persons before-mentioned as a Resident Committee, to advise with the Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral, on all questions of discoveries, inventions, calculations, and other scientific subjects, be continued, with the same duties and salaries, and under the same regulations as heretofore; and further beg most humbly to propose, that such three persons to form the Resident Committee, be chosen annually by the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral, from among the Council of the Royal Society.

His Majesty, having taken the said Memorial into consideration, was pleased, by and with the advice of his Privy Council, to approve thereof and the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty are to give the necessary directions herein accordingly.


Thus, it appeared that the Admiralty were to choose three persons from among the Council of the Royal Society, who were to have a hundred a year each during the pleasure of the Admiralty.

Such an open attack on the independence of the Council could not escape the remarks of some of the members, and a kind of mild remonstrance was made, in which the real ground of complaint was omitted.


RESOLVED, That in acknowledging the communication of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, made to the Council of the Royal Society, on the 20th of November last, it be represented to them that inconvenience may arise from the plan therein specified, from the circumstance of all the members of the Council being annually elected by the Society at large; and that body being consequently subject to continual changes from year to year.

This was answered by the following letter from the Secretary of the Admiralty :


Having submitted to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your Letter of the 18th instant, subjoining an extract from the Minutes of the proceedings of the Council of the Royal Society, arising out of the communication made to them by their Lordships, on the subject of his Majesty’s Order in Council, of the fifth of October last, I have their Lordships’ command to acquaint you, for the information of the President and Council, and with reference to what they have stated as to the inconvenience which may arise from the intended plan of limiting their Lordships’ choice of members of the Resident Committee of Scientific Advice to the Council of the Royal Society, that their Lordships were induced to recommend this plan to his Majesty as a mark of respect to the Society, and as a pledge to the public of the qualification of the persons chosen. Nor did their Lordships