Astonishing Science. Spectacular museum.
In Smollett's novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, the character Matthew Bramble was pointing to a gap in the subjects covered by the newly-opened British Museum. He was drawing on his knowledge of the natural philosophy lectures given in the 1760s.
Lectures on natural philosophy had first been given in about 1705. One of the most influential of the early lecturers was J.T. Desaguliers, who was also curator of experiments at the Royal Society. He helped to standardise the courses by publishing first his syllabus, and then the text of his lectures.
Another important lecturer was Stephen Demainbray, who toured Britain and France between 1749 and 1754, giving public lectures on natural philosophy and collecting apparatus as he travelled. In 1754, he became one of the many scientists advertising courses of lectures in London.
Women were welcomed by lecturers, particularly after the success of the book Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy Explained for the Use of the Ladies by Francesco Algarotti, translated from the Italian and published in 1739. Children benefited too: little previous knowledge of natural philosophy was necessary to attend courses. James Ferguson made a point of claiming that:
No hard Terms of Art will be used, nor any Thing but what generally happens in Common Discourse; by which Means the whole subject will be intelligible.
Hauksbee's air pump, 1708
Medical lecturers were more successful at attracting an audience than those offering natural philosophy courses because natural philosophy was never part of a vocational training.
Other institutions, such as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce established in 1754 (now the Royal Society of Arts), captured the new audience and took over the role of disseminating information about technological innovations. Specialist scientific institutions devoted to particular subjects such as chemistry and natural history dwarfed the efforts of the independent lecturers. Towards the end of the 1750s, audiences for lectures began to dwindle. It became more and more difficult for lecturers to make a living. Benjamin Martin published extensively and sold scientific instruments while James Ferguson sold portraits in ink for 15 shillings (75p). Demainbray campaigned for patronage, and eventually became Superintendent of the King's Observatory at Kew.
In the 1770s, publishers started to produce popular science books for children. These lecture courses and science books of the eighteenth century have left their legacy. Popular science books published today often carry the same experiments and tell the same stories about the past masters of science, such as Isaac Newton.
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