Astonishing Science. Spectacular museum.
In the eighteenth century, science - or 'natural philosophy' as it was then called - caught the attention of two groups of people. For those who moved in fashionable circles, an interest in the new philosophy stemmed from the founding, in 1660, of the Royal Society. The Society's membership included such well-known figures as Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Edmond Halley, Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren. Among a wider public, access to the 'new science' came when experiments carried out at the Royal Society were repeated by lecturers whose courses on mechanics, pneumatics, optics, electricity, magnetism and hydrostatics were open to anyone prepared to pay the necessary fee. For both these groups, experiments using instruments such as air pumps, microscopes and electrical machines provided immediate and convincing proof of scientific ideas.
The Science Museum's King George III Collection is one of the most comprehensive surviving collections of eighteenth-century scientific apparatus. Its diversity is shown by two contrasting groups of apparatus. First, there is the apparatus which King George III commissioned from the instrument maker George Adams in 1761. These instruments were used by the royal family for entertainment and instruction and are expensive and elaborate. Second, there is the apparatus assembled during the 1750s by Stephen Demainbray for use in his lectures to the public. Although this apparatus was designed to demonstrate many of the same principles as that commissioned by the King, it is cheaper, simpler and more hard-wearing. The two collections came together in 1769 when Demainbray took up the post of Superintendent of the Observatory at Kew where the King's scientific instruments were housed. They were removed to King's College, London in the mid-nineteenth century and finally to the Science Museum in 1927.
The seventeenth century was a time of great political, social and religious upheaval in England. At the heart of this was the shift of power from the monarchy to Parliament which resulted from the civil war of the 1640s. Linked to these events was another change: a new way of looking at the natural world which we now call science. One example of this new way of thinking was the development of the Copernican model of the solar system, which put the Sun rather than the Earth at its centre. This idea was extended through Galileo's observations using the newly-invented telescope and Newton's theory of gravity. In 1660, The Royal Society was founded to discuss these matters of scientific interest, especially the new science known as "natural philosophy", with its emphasis on experiment.
Experiment with Magdeburg hemispheres, 1654
In the mid-seventeenth century, Otto von Guericke used an air pump to remove the air from between two close-fitting hemispheres. Teams of horses then could not separate them. A scaled-down version of the demonstration became standard in courses of natural philosophy.
In the 1690s, a fierce battle was fought between those who thought the knowledge of the ancients was superior to that of the moderns and those who believed exactly the opposite. The differing in opinions were reflected in the developments of universities in England and Scotland. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to concentrate on the classics throughout the eighteenth century while those of Edinburgh and Glasgow developed into important centres for scientific research and teaching. The new science was also promoted by public lectures, an innovation of the early eighteenth century. At first, lectures on scientific subjects were intended as vocational training. Then, around 1705, the first lectures on natural philosophy intended for a wider public took place in Oxford, Cambridge and London. They were a kind of rational entertainment, part of a wider 'polite' culture, and did not become a requirement for any trade or profession.
The enterprise of science grew and changed in the course of the eighteenth century. Natural history increased enough in popularity to eclipse natural philosophy, and specialist scientific institutions were established to promote different branches of science. During this period, known as the Enlightenment, science was seen as a symbol of progress.
However, the new ideas were also used to criticise the backwardness of the monarchy and the church and eventually contributed to the onset of the French Revolution, changing popular attitudes towards science.
William Blake objected to the narrow emphasis on rationality and neglect of spirituality in scientific thinking which he saw as linked to the dehumanising effects of industry. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818, she created the archetypal 'mad scientist'. Dr. Frankenstein does not see that there can be any limits to scientific discoveries and progress. He finds the secret of life - and lets loose a monster. At the end of the eighteenth century there was no longer any easy confidence in science. The Enlightenment had come to an end.
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