This article is the online version of an essay I just submitted as University coursework. In some ways it is a more refined version of this article I wrote a while back, see what you make of it!
“The Royal Institution was the main driving force behind scientific discovery and popularisation in Victorian England. Discuss.”
At the time of its foundation in 1660 the Royal Society embodied a new philosophic and scientific attitude emerging in English society. Its swift recognition by the recently restored monarchy of King Charles II, who granted the fledgling organisation legitimacy through a royal charter in 1662, demonstrated that the smothering effect secular and ecclesiastical powers wielded over science was receding. More than a century later during the industrial revolution English society once again found itself at another critical juncture when the Royal Institution was founded in 1799. These two generations of English society, separated by over a hundred years of history, respectively saw science as being the essence of modernity, progress, and cultural sophistication. This essay shall set out to prove that despite being established in the shadow of the Royal Society, the Royal Institution would go on to not only prove its merit to Victorian society but ultimately become the driving force behind scientific discovery and the popularisation of science.
Before addressing this question one must establish the contextual background of both organisations. At the time of its establishment the Royal Society, as reflected in its royal charter, set out “to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity”. Simplified, this charter meant that the Royal Society was founded on the premise that it would advise governments in matters of science – not as an end, but as a means to an eventual end. The Royal Institution on the other hand, to summarise its own charter, set out to “provide access to scientific knowledge, through lectures, to lay audiences, for the application of science to practical purposes”. The cores of the two organisations show that they simultaneously represented differing ends but similar means; the Society was a select group of elite natural philosophers who advised the upper echelons of government while the Institution focused the same efforts on grass roots society.
The establishment of the Royal Institution and its emphasis on grass roots society must be understood in the light of a wider context of revolutionary Europe, in a time of monumental social and intellectual upheaval. Angela Esterhammer points out that Britain’s access to mainland Europe for scientific innovation, namely those of the Académie des Sciences, would have been difficult due to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars; therefore the necessity to develop practical domestic science was pressing. From the ripples caused by the Enlightenment, English society had gradually become aware of the potential applications of science on a domestic level and drew a connection between science and modernity; a sentiment that embodied the zeal of English society towards science in this century. It was no longer enough for elite intellectuals to merely discuss the applications of science without a practical end-product. It is in the context of this mentality, of practicality over theory that the Royal Institution truly stands apart from the Royal Society. At the time of its establishment and the Royal Institution housed, as Arne Hessenbruch describes, “one of the finest scientific laboratories in Europe”. As well as possessing one of the best laboratories in Europe the Royal Institution was also the sole location in Britain where one could undertake experimental science. As the Royal Society lacked such facilities of its own it entered a period of relative decline.
The manner in which these two organisations interacted with each other is where the first historiographical debate, relevant to the underlining question posed, can be found. Henry Lyons insists that, despite some initial friction, dialogue between the Royal Society and the Royal Institution was largely civil and founded on mutual professional respect. Other historians and primary sources paint a different picture however. Andrew Ede and Leslie Cormack describe the Royal Society in the nineteenth century doing very little to support scientific innovation, becoming “little more than a kind of social club”. Looking beyond secondary sources one can find a colourfully written pamphlet authored by Charles Babbage in 1830 during which he launched a vitriolic attack on what he saw as the unprofessional membership and inertia of the Royal Society. Lawrence Henderson notes that Babbage’s work must have struck a nerve as the contemporary reaction from the Royal Society was swift; with its members creating a charter committee tasked with restricting membership exclusively to scientific minds in an attempt to debunk criticism.
If animosity of this scale existed between the Society and the Institution its potential root cause may well have stemmed from their fundamental differences in finance, membership and internal politics. Enmity directed at the relatively luxurious Royal Society from the Royal Institution in the middle of growing pains makes animosity between the two plausible but also paints the former in a negative light – as a place where, as Michael Faraday believed, nepotism had come to overrule merit. The hierarchy of Victorian science was not entirely polarised between these two bodies however. The Royal Polytechnic Institution, presently known as the University of Westminster, opened its doors in 1838 as “an institution where the public, at little expense, may acquire practical knowledge of the various arts and branches of science”. Unfortunately, unlike the Royal Society and Royal Institution the Royal Polytechnic could not maintain itself financially, a result of its over-emphasis on public education, and it was forced to close in 1881. In comparison to the Royal Society and the Royal Polytechnic, the Royal Institution would gradually come to strike the fine balance between public education and the need for subsistence.
Although the Royal Institution was by its nature a vast collective of natural philosophers its crowning achievements have been tied to a relatively small selection of individuals. Three names in particular cross the minds of historians whenever the subject of the Royal Institution surfaces: Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday and John Tyndall. Humphry Davy was among the founding members of the Royal Institution and was instrumental in ensuring its early survival through discoveries in chemistry and the founding of its initial public lectures. Michael Faraday was the protégé of Davy and responsible for ground breaking discoveries in electrodynamics, despite lacking a recognisable scientific education, and for perfecting the public lectures started by his mentor. John Tyndall, in turn, was the successor of Michael Faraday who continued his predecessor’s work in diamagnetism and who, among other efforts, wrote a series of books on experimental physics aimed at a lay audience. It was under figures such as these that the Royal Institution became the site of major scientific discoveries and played an important role not only in scientific popularisation but also, in time, as an advisory body to England and its industrial sector.
Immense as the contributions to science of each of these figures were historians continue to debate which of the discoveries to come out of the Royal Institution during the nineteenth century was the most significant for Victorian England. Some, like Robert Siegfried, argue that the initial ground-swell generated by Davy through his advances in chemistry and in public relations facilitated the innovations that followed his own. Others such as Arthur Whitmore Smith promote the position of Tyndall for his refinement of the work that had come before him and his noble efforts to simplify science for an un-initiated wider audience. However, when one establishes this historiographical debate, and by an extension the underlining focus of the Royal Institution being the driving force of discovery, in its context of the Industrial Revolution it is hard to exaggerate the importance of Michael Faraday’s advances in electromagnetism and electrochemistry. Faraday’s four major discoveries in this field were the magnetic field, electromagnetic rotations, electromagnetic induction, and the magnetisation of light.
Frank James, Professor for the History of Science at the Royal Institution, has written extensively on the contributions Faraday made to the industrial revolution and to the popularisation of science during his lifetime. Using the laboratory of the Royal Institution Faraday was able to undertake research into a topic that had at the time captivated European science: the electromagnetic field. While advances in the research of the electromagnetic field were not entirely Faraday’s own creation he was, reflecting the founding principles of the Royal Institution, able to turn the electromagnetism theory drafted by Hans Oersted into practical and useful innovations. During an experiment in 1821 Faraday proved that electrical energy could be converted into mechanical energy by use of an electromagnetic field. This was achieved by placing a magnet into a pool of mercury and then suspending an electrified wire nearby it. When the wire was placed near the magnet it began to rotate around it in a perfect circle – discovering electromagnetic rotations in the process. In 1831 Faraday conducted another experiment during which he discovered that a changing magnetic field, made possible through electromagnetic rotations, could ‘introduce’ a current into a conductor – discovering electromagnetic induction. What made these two discoveries so important for nineteenth century science is that they resulted in the invention of the electric generator and the electric transformer, devices capable of generating and regulating huge amounts of electricity.
For Victorian England, the practical application of these discoveries in electrodynamics was in London’s industrial sector as electricity proved a more convenient source of power than either coal or steam. Technological innovations the Royal Institution brought about optimized industry within English cities and greatly increased their productivity. Such was the effect these innovations had on Victorian society conservative historian David Landes claims that they caused a “second industrial revolution” sometime in the nineteenth century. This thesis was met with mixed reactions with some historians criticising its basis but with Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm concurring with it in theory, likewise believing that scientific innovations in the nineteenth century caused the industrial revolution to “take-off” between 1830-1840. The Royal Institution had not only provided Victorian England with the knowledge and means needed to optimize the industrial revolution but it had also contributed to the twentieth century as well as every modern power station worldwide, regardless of its primary source of energy, operates on the principles established by Faraday’s contributions to electrodynamics.
As its influence grew throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Institution eventually came to provide consultation services to English governments, a role previously solely occupied by the Royal Society. However, that is not to suggest that the relationship between the Royal Institution and certain governments was entirely civil as an analysis of Faraday’s personal letters reveals that he had a rather tempestuous relationship with political authority figures, especially Prime Minister William Lamb. In comparison to the Royal Institution, the Royal Society at this time was gripped by a state of inertia. During a period she calls ‘The Crisis of 1830’ Marie Hall depicts the Royal Society in a state of disarray with its membership numbers plummeting as the result of the internal purge prompted by Charles Babbage, and with its depleted ranks in-fighting over the allocation of research funds and alleged electoral fraud.
Despite being substantial, scientific discovery is only one part of the Royal Institution’s legacy. As much as it sought to apply science to the problems faced by society the Royal Institution also sought to educate society through scientific discourse. Public lectures aimed at upper class audiences were established by Humphry Davy in 1801. Considering the founding principles of the Royal Institution the circumstances surrounding the establishment of these lectures inevitably present an ideological contradiction. Because the Royal Institution lacked the financial support of the King or his government it needed to appeal to wealthy members of London’s social elite by staging spectacular lectures involving scientific experiments. Although Leslie Williams and Frank James rightfully point out this contradiction they also waive it away as an unfortunate necessity, for the Royal Institution would have not survived through its infancy without playing the part of the ‘showman’ and that public lectures were as much a scientific gesture as they were commercial.
Twenty years after the Royal Institution had established itself in the public sphere through its public lectures it once again found itself in financial trouble. The perpetual financial issues that beset the organisation can be attributed to the cost of its residences and the maintenance of its sizeable laboratory. In 1825 Faraday, then Director of the Laboratory, had since succeeded his mentor Davy as a lecturer at the Institution. Putting his experience with his contemporary media to use, skills gained during his apprenticeship as a book-binder in his youth, Faraday established two entirely new series of public lectures: The Friday Evening Discourse and the ‘Juvenile’ Christmas Lectures. In addition to raising much-needed revenue which almost certainly saved the Royal Institution from bankruptcy the Friday Evening Discourses, which endure to this day, played a substantial part in promoting the plight of the Victorian scientist.
If the public lectures and the Friday Evening Discourses reflected the Royal Institution’s need for both education and subsistence then the Christmas Lectures, founded likewise in 1825 by Faraday, embodied the educational aspects laid out in its charter in their purest sense. These lectures gave the Royal Institution an exceptionally popular image in the eyes of the English public and gave it, as Lawrence Bragg describes, “a unique character which it has retained”. Bragg also claims that the Christmas Lectures can be identified as the originating point of many works of children’s scientific literature, a reasonable statement considering the focus of Tyndall’s written works and the fact that lecturers were recommended by Faraday to compile their notes into book format for mass distribution. The founding of the Christmas Lectures and their accessibility was a remarkable development as scientific education, let alone education as a whole, was not a universal norm for Victorian children. The fact that both the Friday Evening Discourses and the Christmas Lectures survive to the present day validates the educational legacy of the Royal Institution. That the structure of the lectures remain largely unchanged stands as a testament to their success and impact on Victorian society.
The manner in which the contemporary media related to the Royal Institution is another crucial part of the underlying question as it demonstrates how scientists at the Royal Institution were able to harness media to raise widespread interest in science. The social-media paradigm in this instance is, as Frank James details, a remarkable example of triangular symbiosis between the Royal Institution, the printing press and Victorian society. The Royal Institution needed media coverage of its lectures and activities to ensure financial stability; the printing press in turn was given material used to fill its columns and their customers, the Victorian public, acquired an appetite for scientific knowledge provided by the Royal Institution. Refocusing on the the Royal Institution, this paradigm meant that it could simultaneously fulfil its purpose of educating lay audiences, popularise science through mass media, and gain much-needed revenue in the process.
In order to properly understand the popularisation of science in the nineteenth century one must examine the anatomy of the contemporary media. The study of the reasons behind the Victorian fascination with science is important for three reasons specified by Bernard Lightman. Firstly, popularisation offers historians opportunities to assess the interaction between science and culture. Secondly, it demonstrates how scientists were able to break barriers between what had previously been deemed ‘elitist science’ and public discourse. Thirdly, it demonstrates how new forms of media and narratives beyond the written word were used to enable science to ‘branch out’. With regards to the written word, Lightman refers to the “distribution revolution” thesis proposed by Simon Elliot, a thesis claiming that publishers in the nineteenth century benefitted from the industrial revolution as mass production was made possible and that, as a consequence, there was an increasingly literate working class eager to in turn consume greater quantities of scientific media. The distribution revolution thesis is built upon by Joe Kember, John Plunkett, and Jill Sulivan who suggest that although there could have not been an appetite for scientific literature if there had not been an audience willing to nurture it the process led to the popularisation of its progenitors.
This phenomenon, the ‘Victorian Gentleman of Science’, has been discussed by historians ever since the term “Scientist” was coined by William Whewell in 1834. Frank Turner draws an analogy between the “Heroic Victorian Man of Science” and popular artisans; implying a cult of celebrity. Martin Hewitt on the other hand draws attention to the larger concept of the ‘platform culture’, an off-shoot of the Romantic Movement, prevalent in the nineteenth century. The ‘platform culture’ was, in its most basic form, the Victorian equivalent of standing on one’s soap-box: an act of commercialism during which figures would deliver rousing speeches and stage grand demonstrations in public areas such as London’s Hyde Park, a tradition that endures to this day. Victorian society expected as much from public figures seeking to argue a viewpoint and scientists, taking heart from the success of the Royal Institution lectures, were all too eager to oblige.
Although the popularisation of science was made possible through public lectures and platform culture it raises another issue that perpetually plagues academia and science alike. Despite being a science fiction writer, thus a populariser of science himself, H. G. Wells once wrote that “popular science is to be feared, a phrase that conveys a certain flavour of contempt to many a scientist”. This ‘contempt’ has been noted by Bernard Lightman during his studies of nineteenth century scientists. In particular, Lightman highlights the correspondence of Thomas Henry Huxley, who both lectured at the Royal Institution and served as the president of the Royal Society between 1881 and 1885. Huxley’s viewpoint on the potential ‘cheapening’ of science for financial gain and publicity echoes Frank James; that the popularisation of science was a means to an end for nineteenth century science. What is also revealing about Huxley’s career his that by lecturing at the Royal Institution he implies, among other Royal Society members, that he gradually came to recognise the importance of the Royal Institution and endorsed its role in Victorian society.
In conclusion, the scientific and societal contributions of the Royal Institution to Victorian society far outmatched those of the Royal Society in practically every manner. While the Royal Society was in relative decline, paralysed by a state of inertia, the fledgling Royal Institution contributed immensely to the practical functionality of science and scientific education of society in the nineteenth century. That the discoveries of the Royal Institution in electrodynamics resulted in the expansion of industrialisation, something that not only shaped the nineteenth century but also the twentieth, is an enduring validation of its significance. By discovering new fields of science and then practically applying them to a society that as a result came to revere it, the Royal Institution had achieved what it had set out to in its founding philosophy. The fact that public lectures established by the Royal Institution survive to the present day and now utilise contemporary media to reach, as it did during the nineteenth century, a new audiences is a resounding validation of the same philosophy. As nineteenth century England progressed it became increasingly literate and sought a greater understanding of science. Through the inaction and aloof disposition of the Royal Society the void for scientific knowledge was occupied by the Royal Institution, a void that it filled by utilizing contemporary media to reach mass lay audiences. It is a position that was claimed during a period of societal transition and, to its everlasting credit, the Institution was able to not only ride the winds of change but in time come to direct them.
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 Margery Purver, The Royal Society, Concept and Creation (London, 1967), p.128.
 Frank A. James, Guide to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, (p.3)
available at http://www.rigb.org/docs/brief_history_of_ri_1.pdf (Last Accessed: 12/03/14).
 Andrew Ede; Leslie Cormack, A History of Science in Society: From the Scientific Revolution to the Present (Toronto, 2012), p.225.
 Angela Esterhammer, Spheres of Action: Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture (Toronto, 2009), p.55.
 A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge, 1946), p.119.
 Arne Hessenbruch, Reader’s Guide to the History of Science (London, 2013), p.661.
 Henry Lyons, The Royal Society, 1660-1940 (Cambridge, 1944), p.215.
 Ede; Cormack, A History of Science in Society, p.224.
 Charles Babbage, Reflections on the Scientific Decline of England (London, 1830), pp.50-54.
 Lawrence Henderson, ‘The Royal Society’, Science, Vol. 93, No. 2402 (Jan. 1941), p.30.
 Silvanus Thompson, Michael Faraday: His Life and Work (Melbourne, 1901), p.261.
 Bernard Lightman (ed), Victorian Popularisers of Science (Chicago, 2007), p.206.
 Elizabeth Garber, The Language of Physics: The Calculus and Development of Theoretical Physics in Europe, 1750-1914 (New York, 1999), p.174.
 John Tyndall, Faraday as a Discoverer (London, 1868), pp.9-10.
 Michael Faraday and a handful of Royal Institution researchers were summoned in 1846 by the English government under Robert Peel to investigate the Haswell County Durham explosion which killed 95 men.
See: Colin Russell, Michael Faraday: Physics and Faith (Oxford, 2000), p.102.
 Robert Siegfried, ‘The Chemical Philosophy of Humphry Davy’, Chymia, Vol. 5, (1959), p.193.
 Arthur Whitmore Smith, ‘John Tyndall (1820-1893)’, The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 11, No.4 (1920), p.331.
 A. S. Weber, 19th Century Science: An Anthology (Ontario, 2000), p.254.
 Tyndall, Faraday as a Discoverer, pp.174-75.
 Frank A. James, ‘Michael Faraday, The City Philosophical Society and the Society of Arts’, RSA Journal, Vol. 140, No. 5426 (1992), pp.192-93.
 Hans Christian Oersted was a Danish natural philosopher and director of the Copenhagen Polytechnic Institute. Faraday acknowledged that the providence of his experiments were based on Oersted’s theories and was later invited to become a member of the Copenhagen Royal Society of Sciences by him.
See: Frank A. James, The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, Volume 2 (1832-1840) (London, 1993), pp.78-79.
 Frank A. James, Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010), p.98.
 Tai L. Chow, Introduction to Electromagnetic Theory: A Modern Perspective (Massachusetts, 2006), p.171.
 Frank A. James, ‘Faraday’s Discoveries’, RSA Journal, Vol. 139, No. 5421 (1991), p.594.
 David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge, 2003), pp.1-4.
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789 – 1848 (London, 2010), pp.27-29.
 James, Guide to the Royal Institution, p.10.
 Frank A. James, ‘Editing Faraday’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 56, No. 3 (2002), p.351.
 Frank A. James, The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, p.1052.
 Marie Boas Hall, All Scientists Now: The Royal Society in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 2002), pp.44-45.
 Leslie Williams, Michael Faraday (London, 1965), p.320.
 E. A. Davis, Science in the Making: Scientific Development as Chronicled Historic Papers in the Philosophical Magazine, with Commentaries and Illustrations (Florida, 2003), p.76.
 Frank A. James, ‘Reporting Royal Institution Lectures, 1826-1867’ in Geoffrey Cantor (ed), Science Serialized: Representation of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (Massachusetts, 2004), pp.67-69.
 These problems are perpetual in the sense that the Royal Institution, even today, struggles to maintain itself financially largely because of the costs of its laboratory.
(Last Accessed: 17/03/14).
 Weber, 19th Century Science, p.253.
 Williams, Michael Faraday, p.323.
 Lawrence Bragg, ‘School Lectures at the Royal Institution’, Science, Vol. 150, No. 3702 (1965), p.1420.
 Bragg, ‘School Lectures at the Royal Institution’, p.1421.
 Philip Gardner, ‘Literacy, Learning and Education’ in Chris Williams, A Companion to 19th Century Britain (New Jersey, 2008), p.353.
 Mark Erickson, Science, Culture and Society: Understanding Science in the 21st Century (Cambridge, 2005), p.150.
 James, ‘Reporting Royal Institution Lectures’, p.76.
 Bernard Lightman, Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997), pp.191-92.
 Lightman, Popularisers of Victorian Science, pp.30-31.
 Joe Kember; John Plunkett; Jill Sulivan (eds), ‘Introduction’, Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840-1910 (London, 2012), p.17.
 Anne DeWitt, Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel (Cambridge, 2013), p.23.
 Frank Turner, ‘The Victorian Man of Science’ in Bernard Lightman (ed), Victorian Science in Context, p.284.
 Martin Hewitt, ‘Platform Culture’ in Kember; Plunkett; Sulivan (eds), Popular Exhibitions, p.82.
 Katherine Newey, ‘Victorian Theatricality’ in Martin Hewitt, The Victorian World (London, 2012), pp.569-72.
 Herbert George Wells, ‘Popularising Science’, Nature, Vol. 50 (1894), p.300.
 Lightman, Victorian Popularisers of Science, pp.358-61.
 Ibid, p.360.
 James, Guide to the Royal Institution, p.15.