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George III: a royal passion for science

Published: 13 August 2019

When most people think of King George III (1738–1820) they probably think of him as an older man in poor mental health, but the truth is that this was only one part of his life. In his youth he was a thoughtful ruler and energetic in the pursuit of his many interests, one of which was natural philosophy, the term then used to describe what we know today as science.

The young King

Painting of George the third, dressed in robes with brocade detail Lent by the Governor and Company of the Bank of England
Portrait of King George III when Prince of Wales by Allan Ramsay, 1758–1760, London

The future King George III became Prince of Wales (and thus first in line to the throne) at the age of 12 when his father Frederick died in 1751. His intellectual thinking was very much influenced by one of his tutors in particular, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713–92). Bute introduced him to natural philosophy demonstrations and instrument collecting.

Upon ascending the throne in 1760 at the age of 22, the young King began to assemble his own collection of scientific instruments. Unlike some monarchs, who famously collected what has become known as a ‘cabinet of curiosity’ that contained fabulous but unused treasures George III had a genuine interest in natural philosophy. He was very much a product of his time and of the general sense of the education that a wealthy gentleman was required to have.

This was an era which became known as the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that spread across Europe. To varying degrees this influenced many aspects of human life including education, natural philosophy, literature, art, architecture, politics and economics.

Possibly as a consequence of Bute’s influence, George III hoped to demonstrate that he governed the nation according to reason and virtue, so that his citizens would also aspire to these values. Furthermore, both Bute and the King believed that physically using instruments and undertaking mathematical exercises helped to cultivate the rational mind.

These ideas were typical of the period. Bute’s thinking was influenced by his education in Leiden in the Netherlands and his involvement in the Scottish Enlightenment (which, while connected to the Enlightenment in England, very much emerged with its own identity and from its own networks).

Education in Natural Philosophy

People who were interested in natural philosophy in the 18th century, including King George III, did not limit themselves to one particular area, or subject specialism as we might call it today.

From the pamphlets that accompanied the numerous lectures given in London’s coffee houses, educational establishments and private houses, we can see that learning about natural philosophy included mechanics, pneumatics (the study of gases), hydrostatics (the study of fluids under pressure), optics (the study of light), mathematics and astronomy, to name just a few. Students of natural philosophy learned about all of these areas—not just one.

In London, young men attending schools to prepare them for careers as clerks or merchants, such as those attending Thomas Watts’ Academy on Little Tower Street, were also taught these subjects in addition to mathematics, surveying, bookkeeping and letter writing.

Young women were not given the same opportunities as men at this time, but some were fortunate enough to learn about natural philosophy at home and at the end of the 18th century a school was set up by Margaret Bryan to teach astronomy to girls and young women. 

Instruments and demonstration equipment would have been an essential part of this teaching. George III’s collection similarly contains instruments that could be used to demonstrate each of these areas of natural philosophy, although his were made of higher quality materials and would have been more expensive.

Here we explore some of the most striking examples that were used to demonstrate mechanics, pneumatics and astronomy to the King and his household.

Mechanics: practical solutions for a growing city

When people studied mechanics in the 18th century they were taught about motion, forces and mechanical devices. There were two important aspects to this: one was the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, and the other was for practical purposes.

In a rapidly expanding city, it was important to know why specific combinations of pulleys raised heavy weights more efficiently than other combinations, or why certain diameters of carriage wheel were more efficient for transporting a cart along a particular surface and incline.

In London, similarly to other European cities in this period, buildings needed to be constructed, cargo raised from ships, and loads transported along roads and lanes of varying condition. The more efficient these processes were, the more that could be achieved and therefore the more successful (and very often profitable) the endeavours were.

Mechanics gallery

The philosophical table is the centrepiece of the mechanics apparatus provided to the King by George Adams (1709–72), a successful instrument maker based on Fleet Street. Adams wrote a manuscript of lessons and demonstrations to accompany it, which is dated 1762. He drew heavily on the work of the natural philosophy lecturers Richard Helsham (1683–1738) in Dublin, Abbé Nollet (1700–70) in France, and John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683–1744) in London to do so.

Described by Adams as the ‘great table’, it was designed to enable many different demonstrations. Pendulums and devices to demonstrate motion could be attached to the pillars at each end of the table and the centre was used for demonstrations of the inclined horseway and model carriage.

The first bridge at Westminster was under construction in the late 1730s. The machine that was used to drive the piles, known as a pile driver, was designed by the watchmaker James Vauloué in 1737. He was awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal for his design. It featured a capstan that was powered by three horses that raised a large weight to the top of the shaft. The weight was released to strike the top of the piles five times in two minutes, which drove a firwood pile fourteen feet into the river bed in an hour.

The maker of this model is unknown, but it was used by Stephen Demainbray (1710–82) in his lectures concerning compound engines. The construction of the bridge would have been a familiar sight to Londoners in this period, so there was much interest in it. It was after all only the second bridge to be built over the Thames in central London, after London Bridge. Many pile driver models were made, but this one became part of the royal collection. Demainbray eventually went to work at King George III’s observatory at Kew, where his collection of instruments and demonstration equipment became subsumed into the King’s own collection.

The son of George Adams, known as George Adams the Younger (1750–95), also made instruments for demonstration that became part of the King’s collection. These two apparatus were used to demonstrate the mechanical powers and were made in the late 1770s. One shows the pulleys and levers. The other shows the inclined plane, the wedge and endless screw. These were seen as the fundamental mechanical devices on which all others were based. In a city that was expanding at a considerable rate with tonnes of cargo coming into the docks, Londoners were extremely interested in devices that enabled great weights to be lifted and transported.

Pneumatics: new tools and new insights

In the 18th century, the study of pneumatics mostly concerned the exploration of the effects of changing air pressure on various specimens, substances or mechanical devices. Lecturers or tutors of natural philosophy used an air pump to demonstrate the effects.

While studying mechanics was very much for practical uses as well as theoretical, studying pneumatics was much more focused on using it as a tool to find out more about how various things functioned and, more importantly, identifying their limitations.

The air pump is the centrepiece of the pneumatics apparatus provided to the King by George Adams. It consists of a glass chamber that was used to hold a specimen, substance or mechanical device.

When the handle was turned the air was removed from the chamber and a vacuum created. Observers could then watch to see the effect on the specimen. Additional attachments and devices enabled the user to alter the environment within the glass chamber, such as by introducing steam, as can be seen here.

Pneumatics gallery

Adams wrote a manuscript of lessons and demonstrations to accompany it, which is dated 1761. He drew heavily on the work of the natural philosophy lecturers Willem Jacob ‘s Gravesande (1688-1742) in the Netherlands, Abbé Nollet (1700–1770), and London-based Francis Hauksbee the Elder (1660–1713) and Younger (1687–1763), and William Whiston (1667–1752).

When a mechanical bell was set ringing in the air pump and the sound could no longer be heard once the air had been removed, people realised that the air surrounding an object influenced its ability to make a sound, or for an observer to hear the sound being made. Removing air and creating a vacuum disrupted the transmission of sound waves. When the air was returned to the air pump, the sound of the bell could be heard again, demonstrating that the lack of sound had not been caused by a faulty bell.

Astronomy: recording the heavens

Image of a brass and wood Orrery Lent by King’s College London
The Grand Orrery. The original maker is unknown, but it was modified and enlarged by Thomas Wright for Queen Caroline in 1733

Astronomy became part of the natural philosophy curriculum, as it was considered to be an essential branch of knowledge. The seventh planet, Uranus, was not discovered until 1781, meaning that the known planets were still those that had been known since antiquity (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). The stars had been catalogued with greater accuracy, comets had been observed and recorded, and natural philosophers were trying to use observations to answer larger questions such as the size of the solar system.

Many lecturers in natural philosophy used an orrery to demonstrate the motion of the planets and their moons and to show how to make certain calculations such as the rising and setting of the Sun and Moon on different dates throughout the year and to explain how an eclipse of the Sun or Moon occurs.

This orrery was already part of the royal collection when George III became King. Its original maker is unknown, but it was expanded in 1733 by Thomas Wright (active 1718–47), an instrument maker based on Fleet Street. The orrery was at one time located in Kensington Palace and was relocated to Kew when the King’s observatory was completed. Turning the handle of the orrery demonstrates the revolutions of the planets that were known at the time—Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn—and the motion of the Moon.

A collection fit for a King

King George III’s collection as a whole and the selection of objects highlighted above shows us not only how deep his interest in natural philosophy genuinely was, but also gives us a chance to consider a set of instruments that may not have survived as a unit had they not belonged to the King. Stephen Demainbray’s demonstration equipment, made mostly in wood, would have been typical of the kind of kit owned by a travelling lecturer in the 18th century, but has been preserved because it became part of the King’s own collection.

Teaching using instruments was an accepted practice that survived in schools and colleges until at least the mid-20th century and while most learning now takes place using computer devices and textbooks, some specialist learning such as navigation at sea still requires its students to learn using instruments in addition to computer systems.

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