I just finished writing for the Columbia Journalism Review about a report on misinformation that was published recently by the UK’s Royal Society, and in the process of researching the piece, I learned a bit about the society, which is more than just your usual collection of academics and researchers. It turns out that it is one of the oldest scientific organizations in the world — it was founded in 1660 as the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge,” when it was given a royal charter by King Charles II.
Prior to that, it was known as the “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning,” and before that it was often known as “the Invisible College.” One of the founders was Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral but was also an astronomer, physicist and all-around scientist. Robert Hooke, another early founder who was the first to visualize a micro-organism using a microscope, was given the title of “Curator of Experiments,” and performing experiments was one of the main early functions of the Royal Society. Sir Isaac Newton became the president of the society in 1703 and served in that role for almost a quarter of a century. In the 18th century, some of the society’s work became political:
It became customary for His Majesty’s Government to refer highly important scientific questions to the council of the society for advice, something that, despite the non-partisan nature of the society, spilled into politics in 1777 over lightning conductors. The pointed lightning conductor had been invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, while Benjamin Wilson invented blunted ones. During the argument that occurred when deciding which to use, opponents of Franklin’s invention accused supporters of being American allies, and the debate eventually led to the resignation of the society’s president, Sir John Pringle.
The society’s motto is “Nullius in verba,” which is Latin for “take no one’s word for it.” It was adopted to signify the fellows’ determination to establish facts via experiments and comes from Horace’s Epistles, where he compares himself to a gladiator who, having retired, is free from control. Neal Stephenson’s book “Quicksilver” — one of his “Baroque Cycle” of books of historical fiction — revolves around the formation of the Royal Society, and some of the early scientists and philosophers who played a role in it. It also hints at some of the controversies in the early years of the society, such as Sir Isaac Newton’s feud with Gottfried Liebniz over the foundations of calculus.
Liebniz, a German polymath who joined the Royal Society in 1673, was in many ways the father of mechanical computing. He discovered and wrote about the binary number system that computers are based on, and invented a machine that could add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers — which he called a “stepped reckoner.” He also described a more complicated machine that was very much like what computing pioneer Alan Turing came up with, which in turn influenced John von Neumann, who designed the first modern computer architecture.