The story of the Royal Society is the story of modern science.
Our origins lie in a 1660 ‘invisible college’ of natural philosophers and physicians. Today we are the UK’s national science academy and a Fellowship of some 1,600 of the world’s most eminent scientists.
Nullius in verba
The very first ‘learned society’ meeting on 28 November 1660 followed a lecture at Gresham College by Christopher Wren. Joined by other leading polymaths including Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, the group soon received royal approval, and from 1663 it would be known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’.
The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.
Advancements and adventure
The early years of the Society saw revolutionary advancements in the conduct and communication of science. Hooke’s Micrographia and the first issue of Philosophical Transactions were published in 1665 alone. Philosophical Transactions, which established the important concepts of scientific priority and peer review, is now the oldest continuously-published science journal in the world.
We published Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning. We backed James Cook’s journey to Tahiti, reaching Australia and New Zealand, to track the Transit of Venus. We published the first report in English of inoculation against disease, approved Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, documented the eruption of Krakatoa and published Chadwick’s detection of the neutron that would lead to the unleashing of the atom.
The leading scientific lights of the past four centuries can all be found among the 8,000 Fellows elected to the Society to date. From Newton to Darwin to Einstein, Hawking and beyond, pioneers and paragons in their fields are elected by their peers. Current Fellows include Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Sophie Wilson and Tim Berners-Lee.
Over time, the criteria for, and transparency of election to the Fellowship became stricter, and Fellows were elected solely on the merit of their scientific work. The first female Fellows were elected in 1945 – Dorothy Hodgkin, elected in 1947, remains Britain’s only female Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
In the 19th century, a Parliamentary Grant system was introduced, allowing the Society to aid scientific development while remaining an independent body. The Society now allocates nearly £42 million each year from government grants and donations and legacies from organisations and individuals.
Peter Collins, Emeritus Director at the Royal Society, has written about the history of the Society’s postwar activities in The Royal Society and the promotion of science since 1960 (published by Cambridge University Press in 2015).
Through our policy work, journals, scientific meetings, events, worldwide partnerships and grants and awards, the Royal Society works to support excellence in science, building a home and future for science in the UK.