A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter IX
and new institutions of learning
Scientific societies
At the present time, when the elements of time and distance are practically eliminated in the propagation of news, and when cheap printing has minimized the difficulties of publishing scientific discoveries, it is difficult to understand the isolated position of the scientific investigation of the ages that preceded steam and electricity. Shut off from the world and completely out of touch with fellow-laborers perhaps only a few miles away, the investigators were naturally seriously handicapped; and inventions and discoveries were not made with the same rapidity that they would undoubtedly have been had the same men been receiving daily, weekly, or monthly communications from fellow-laborers all over the world, as they do to-day. Neither did they have the advantage of public or semi-public laboratories, where they were brought into contact with other men, from whom to gather fresh trains of thought and receive the stimulus of their successes or failures. In the natural course of events, however, neighbors who were interested in somewhat similar pursuits, not of the character of the rivalry of trade or commerce, would meet more or less frequently and discuss their progress. The mutual advantages of such intercourse would be at once appreciated; and it would be but a short step from the casual meeting of two neighborly scientists to the establishment of "societies," meeting at fixed times, and composed of members living within reasonable travelling distance. There would, perhaps, be the weekly or monthly meetings of men in a limited area; and as the natural outgrowth of these little local societies, with frequent meetings, would come the formation of larger societies, meeting less often, where members travelled a considerable distance to attend. And, finally, with increased facilities for communication and travel, the great international societies of to-day would be produced - the natural outcome of the neighborly meetings of the primitive mediaeval investigators.

In Italy, at about the time of Galileo, several small societies were formed. One of the most important of these was the Lyncean Society, founded about the year 1611, Galileo himself being a member. This society was succeeded by the Accademia del Cimento, at Florence, in 1657, which for a time flourished, with such a famous scientist as Torricelli as one of its members.

In England an impetus seems to have been given by Sir Francis Bacon's writings in criticism and censure of the systern of teaching in colleges. It is supposed that his suggestions as to what should be the aims of a scientific society led eventually to the establishment of the Royal Society. He pointed out how little had really been accomplished by the existing institutions of learning in advancing science, and asserted that little good could ever come from them while their methods of teaching remained unchanged. He contended that the system which made the lectures and exercises of such a nature that no deviation from the established routine could be thought of was pernicious. But he showed that if any teacher had the temerity to turn from the traditional paths, the daring pioneer was likely to find insurmountable obstacles placed in the way of his advancement. The studies were "imprisoned" within the limits of a certain set of authors, and originality in thought or teaching was to be neither contemplated nor tolerated.

The words of Bacon, given in strong and unsparing terms of censure and condemnation, but nevertheless with perfect justification, soon bore fruit. As early as the year 1645 a small company of scientists had been in the habit of meeting at some place in London to discuss philosophical and scientific subjects for mental advancement. In 1648, owing to the political disturbances of the time, some of the members of these meetings removed to Oxford, among them Boyle, Wallis, and Wren, where the meetings were continued, as were also the meetings of those left in London. In 1662, however, when the political situation bad become more settled, these two bodies of men were united under a charter from Charles II., and Bacon's ideas were practically expressed in that learned body, the Royal Society of London. And it matters little that in some respects Bacon's views were not followed in the practical workings of the society, or that the division of labor in the early stages was somewhat different than at present. The aim of the society has always been one for the advancement of learning; and if Bacon himself could look over its records, he would surely have little fault to find with the aid it has given in carrying out his ideas for the promulgation of useful knowledge.

Ten years after the charter was granted to the Royal Society of London, Lord Bacon's words took practical effect in Germany, with the result that the Academia Naturae Curiosorum was founded, under the leadership of Professor J. C. Sturm. The early labors of this society were devoted to a repetition of the most notable experiments of the time, and the work of the embryo society was published in two volumes, in 1672 and 1685 respectively, which were practically text-books of the physics of the period. It was not until 1700 that Frederick I. founded the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, after the elaborate plan of Leibnitz, who was himself the first president.

Perhaps the nearest realization of Bacon's ideal, however, is in the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris, which was founded in 1666 under the administration of Colbert, during the reign of Louis XIV. This institution not only recognized independent members, but had besides twenty pensionnaires who received salaries from the government. In this way a select body of scientists were enabled to pursue their investigations without being obliged to "give thought to the morrow" for their sustenance. In return they were to furnish the meetings with scientific memoirs, and once a year give an account of the work they were engaged upon. Thus a certain number of the brightest minds were encouraged to devote their entire time to scientific research, "delivered alike from the temptations of wealth or the embarrassments of poverty." That such a plan works well is amply attested by the results emanating from the French academy. Pensionnaires in various branches of science, however, either paid by the state or by learned societies, are no longer confined to France.

Among the other early scientific societies was the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, projected by Peter the Great, and established by his widow, Catharine I., in 1725; and also the Royal Swedish Academy, incorporated in 1781, and counting among its early members such men as the celebrated Linnaeus. But after the first impulse had resulted in a few learned societies, their manifest advantage was so evident that additional numbers increased rapidly, until at present almost every branch of every science is represented by more or less important bodies; and these are, individually and collectively, adding to knowledge and stimulating interest in the many fields of science, thus vindicating Lord Bacon's asseverations that knowledge could be satisfactorily promulgated in this manner.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.