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Who did the work? Experimental philosophers and public demonstrators in Augustan England



The growth of modern science has been accompanied by the growth of professionalization. We can unquestionably speak of professional science since the nineteenth century, although historians dispute about where, when and how much. It is much more problematic and anachronistic to do so of the late seventeenth century, despite the familiar view that the period saw the origin of modern experimental science. This paper explores the broad implications of that problem.
B)HS, 1995, 28, 131-56
Who did the work? Experimental philosophers
and public demonstrators in Augustan England
The growth of modern science has been accompanied by the growth of professionalization.
We can unquestionably speak of professional science since the nineteenth century,
although historians dispute about where, when and how much. It is much more
problematic and anachronistic to do so of the late seventeenth century, despite the familiar
view that the period saw the origin of modern experimental science. This paper explores
the broad implications of that problem.
One area of scientific activity, public science lecturing and demonstrating, certainly
produced its first professionals in the period 1660-1730. This was a period which Geoffrey
Holmes called 'Augustan England', and which he found to be marked by the expansion
of many of the professions.1 Swollen lower ranks of physicians, civil servants and teachers
crowded onto the ladder up to gentility, and even solicitors achieved respectability.
Alongside these established types the professional scientist, such as the public lecturer, was
a novelty. Later, in the high Georgian era, a small army of men like Stephen Demainbray
and Benjamin Martin made recognized if precarious livings from public experimentation,
but the first generation pioneers were entering new and risky territory. As Larry Stewart
has shown, 'the rise of public science' was a successful social and economic transformation
of the highest significance in the history of science which was part of what has been called
England's commercial revolution.2
We are accustomed to think of early, pioneering professionals like Robert Hooke,
Francis Hauksbee or Denis Papin as 'notable scientists'. That is how the Dictionary of
Scientific Biography describes Papin, and his entry is appropriately full and fulsome.3 It is
the aim of this paper to show that such judgements made no sense in Augustan society.
Its professional experimenters knew more keenly than most the difficulties and obstacles
which accompanied the 'making of middle class' and the concomitant reconfiguration of
all English social relations. An attention to their difficulties, I think, casts important light
upon the establishment of experimental learning, and continues the historiographical
process of turning experiment from a triumphant given into a problem amenable to
* Department of History, University of Lancaster, Lancaster LAI 4YG.
This paper was first presented at a joint meeting of the Science Museum and the British Society for the History
of Science, 'Science Lecturing in the Eighteenth Century'.
1 G. Holmes, Augustan England: Professions, State and Society, 1680-1730, London, 1982.
2 Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science. Rhetoric, Technology and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian
Britain, 1660-1750, Cambridge, 1992.
3 DSB, s.v. 'Hauksbee, Francis'.
132 Stephen Pumfrey
genuinely historical explanation. The problem is constituted from two obstacles which
acted to prevent the work of professional experimenters from receiving intellectual
In the first place, the early professional science lecturers and demonstrators were, by
definition, employed to perform the service of experimenting. They generally performed
for and before men of high rank who, because of their financial independence and leisured
were unquestionably gentlemen of property, virtue and political and cultural
influence. Paid employment betokened a much lower status, and professional experimenters
were very dependent upon collective or individual patronage. It is true that eighteenth-
century Enlightenment critics of the old order were beginning to argue, with gradual
success, that a man's [sic] social status should be a reflection of his rational
accomplishments rather than his inherited wealth and privilege. Indeed radical Whigs such
as Addison and Steele promoted this new ideology just as public science was emerging,
which they also promoted. Nevertheless, the liberal implications of that ideology were
hotly contested, even by moderate Whigs, and few acted in accordance with it. The notion
of a professional scientist was in the slow process of acquiring the status which it has today,
but it still had so little that the phrase is an anachronism. Consequently, it was not clear
that a paid experimenter could be a noble philosopher.
Secondly, there was the nature of the service provided. Experimental philosophy
involved not only head work but also hand work. The construction and use of air-pumps,
for example, demanded the manual skill and dirty, sweaty labour traditionally described
as 'mechanick'. Although science lecturers might appear to differ little from minor lawyers
or architects in offering professional expertise in return for a fee, the latter professions had
comfortably entered the ranks of the 'pseudo-gentry' by 1700 because even though the
source of their income was not property, it kept their hands clean. The better sort of
artisan, such as an instrument maker, might have left 'the mechanick part of mankind'4
to be redescribed as one of the' middling sort', but he was not genteel. In Augustan society,
then, not only the conditions but also the nature of his work was suspect. Thus, where we
would assume that a claimant of some discovery had performed the experiments, and had
been paid to do so, Augustan social conventions would have made this doubly surprising.
Those conventions fractured what for us is the unitary activity of the (professional)
scientist, because they represented a different set of triangular relationships between
labour, reason and social status.
This paper presents and interprets evidence that public experimental work emerged in
a hierarchical society in which a person's 'reason' (qua the capacity to be accorded
intellectual credibility) was strongly correlated with a social status which took little
account of intellectual merit. Since social status was negatively correlated with labour
(specifically paid experimental labour), the triangle put into question whether an employed
experimenter or science lecturer could also be an experimental philosopher. There was a
tension between the epistemological status of his productions, which looked more like
experimental philosophy than mechanical labour, and the social status of his position,
4 For a discussion see Peter Earle, The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and Family Life
in London, 1660-1730, London, 1989, 3.
Who did the work? 133
which looked more like that of a mechanic servant than an experimental philosopher. It
is worth noting, given that early modern discourses of status and rationality remained very
patriarchal, that a woman science lecturer (had one existed) would have introduced further
fractures and tensions.5
' Who did the work ?' thus becomes a pertinent question to ask of Augustan experimental
science. It links to profound issues which concerned the upper orders and which came to
divide Whigs and Tories in the 'first age of party'. Was rapid change within the social
hierarchy to be resisted or embraced
What legitimate grounds divided an elite from the
Who, amongst the emerging middle orders, should have a political voice, and who
should be admitted to the republic of letters? Was commercialization, most visibly of
agriculture, which brought increased enclosure and wage labouring, benefiting the nation
Or was 'the monied interest' destroying a traditional, harmonious social order based on
patronage and deference? Were tradesmen now 'quality', and how should a proper
gentleman behave towards them
By the early eighteenth century rapid change had produced many ideologists trying to
make sense of the new circumstances. The Tory Henry St John complained, on behalf of
'the landed men', that 'a new interest has been created... [whose] men are become their
masters, who formerly would with joy have been their servants'. Conversely Daniel Defoe
insisted that trade was 'the staff on which both king and people lean, and which (if it
should sink) the whole fabric must fall'.6 Yet all but the most radical Whigs continued to
insist upon the proper observance of place despite (or because of) increased social mobility.
Defoe was typical when he refused to endow political rights 'upon the inhabitants, but
upon the Freeholders, the Freeholders are the proper owners of the Country'. And while
Tories were shocked even by such a limited commonwealth, they could agree with the
Whig and Boyle Lecturer Samuel Clarke's insistence that order depended upon a man not
' being either uneasy or discontented, that others are placed by providence in different and
superior stations of the world; or so extremely and unreasonably solicitous to change his
state for the future, as thereby to neglect his present duty'.7 Faced with a society and its
presiding ideologies in transition, many Augustans acted, wrote and thought con-
tradictorily, in ways which extended to their assessment of experimental work.
The contradictions are very apparent in the political theory of John Locke, the self-styled
'underlabourer' to Boyle, Sydenham and 'the incomparable Mr. Newton', Fellow of the
Royal Society, advocate of commerce and foremost Whig ideologist of the 'Glorious
Revolution'. In his Second Treatise on Government Locke essayed a solution to the
problem of how to justify the overthrow of an established hierarchy (which most Tories
supported, however reluctantly) whilst safeguarding, against Whigs and others who sought
more radical change, the effective rule of an elite - albeit a more enterprising one. Since
Locke based his political theory on concepts of the individual's inalienable liberty, and
5 For a recent discussion of women and early modern science, see Patricia Phillips, The Scientific Lady: A
Social History of Women's Scientific Interests, 1520-1918, London, 1990. I am grateful for the editor's reminder
that gender compounded the fractures.
6 See H. T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property. Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain, London, 1977,
7 Dickinson, op. cit. (6), 88-9, 87-8.
134 Stephen Pwnfrey
rights to property and citizenship through his labour, Locke's problem had a specific form:
how to prevent rights being claimed by the entire middle class, indeed by all labouring
Locke's chief target was Robert Filmer's classical defence of the old order, Patriarcha,
first published in 1653. Filmer's ideology had gained renewed popularity among Tories
during the political crises of the 1670s and 1680s. As R. Tully explains, a central 'classical
belief was 'that labour and property are incompatible. Those who labour can own no
property and those who own property do not labour.' A related belief was that 'the master
owns the labour and the products of his servants'.9 Against this, Locke asserted supposed
natural laws and rights, which reflected the interests of entrepreneurs and actively
improving landowners: '[E]very man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has
any Right to but
The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may
say, are properly his.'10 Superficially liberal, even socialist judgements of the modernity of
his conception of property11 have produced, for generations of commentators, the paradox
of Locke's ensuing passage: 'Thus the Grass my Horse has bit; the Turfs my Servant has
cut; and the Ore I have digg'd in any place where I have a right to them in common with
others, becomes my Property.'12
Locke appears to have held both the 'modern' view that labour created absolute
property rights and the classical view that 'the Turfs my Servant has cut...become my
Property'. Although recent commentators such as MacPherson, Tully, Tribe and Wood
differ in their resolutions of the paradox, they agree that Locke was engaged in the far from
modern task of justifying new and rapidly evolving socio-economic relations.13 Their
resolutions rightly focus upon reading Locke in the context of elite Augustan beliefs and
practices concerning labour, property and master-servant relations. Such readings are of
great importance in the resolution of the more specific paradoxical relations between
gentlemen philosophers, such as Fellows of the Royal Society, and their experimental
For leisured Fellows at meetings of the early Royal Society, these profound questions
took two circumscribed forms. First, was experimental work appropriate to their 'superior
8 As Dickinson, op. cit. (6), 57, notes, 'only a minority of [Whigs] were committed to principles which might
be regarded as genuinely liberal... It is essential to remember that the Whigs shared many of the prejudices,
assumptions and ultimate objectives of their Tory opponents.' Concerning Locke he comments that 'there is no
reason to doubt that he accepted the dependance of the majority of the population on the aristocracy, gentry and
clergy. Other Whig theorists were more explicit than Locke and they certainly restricted active political rights to
men of property' (p. 69). Despite the literally Whiggish readings of past political historians, Locke can no longer
be seen as a far-sighted advocate of modern, liberal democracy any more than the Royal Society should be seen
as a proto-research institute.
9 R. Tully, A Discourse on Property. John Locke and his Adversaries, Cambridge, 1980, 135.
10 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. A Critical Edition with an Introduction and apparatus criticus
by Peter Laslett, Cambridge, 1964, 305-6. This is Locke's section 27 (hereafter '§27').
11 For a Marxist reading see D. G. Ritchie, 'Locke's theory of property', in his Darwin and Hegel, London,
12 Locke, op. cit. (10), 307 (§28).
13 Tully op. cit. (9); C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of
Individualism: Hobbes to Locke,
Oxford, 1962; Keith Tribe,
Labour and Economic Discourse, London, 1978; and Neal Wood, John Locke
and Agrarian Capitalism, Oxford, 1984, especially chapters 4 and 5.
Who did the work? 135
station', particularly when it was remunerated? The second concerned the public
experimenter/science lecturer/instrument maker whose performances were paid for from
their subscriptions: was he a natural philosopher like them, an employed mechanic, or
some new, in-between creation of a commercializing society? In short, how was
experimental work appropriate to his station
Such questions have recently received attention from Steven Shapin and
In an
earlier paper, I explored how these tensions operated upon Robert Hooke, the Royal
Society's Curator of Experiments, between the 1660s and 1680s. A major factor in Hooke's
difficulties was the very embryonic size, in both social span and absolute numbers, of the
career ladder for the 'professional scientist' in Restoration England. Extending the study
into the eighteenth-century era of science lecturers such as J. T. Desaguliers, we encounter
a public sphere of commercial opportunities which Hooke would have envied, particularly
those outside the Royal Society's direct influence. The Society's classical vision of the
gentleman virtuoso philosopher was infiltrated by the values of trade, the market place and
the 'monied interest' - values which Tories deplored and Whigs struggled with, but which
created the community of commercial science and released the tensions between the roles
of paid experimenter and experimental philosopher. The science lecturer, who came to
bridge the gulf between experimental philosophy as work and as leisure or duty, is thus one
of the more extraordinary and paradoxical products of the period.
The rise of the paid professional was rapid. No-one in England made a living from public
experimental science before Hooke became the Royal Society's 'Setled Curator of
Experiments' in 1664. His differed from the traditional or private roles fulfilled by an
academic lecturer like Seth Ward, a court philosopher like John Dee, a client like Thomas
Hobbes or a private 'operator' like Richard Shortgrave. It was Curator Hooke's
misfortune that the seventeenth century offered few other, and certainly no more
prestigious or remunerative outlets for his experimental talents.15 Yet by 1734 Desaguliers
could not 'help boasting of 11 or 12 Persons, who perform, Experimental courses at this
time in England and other parts of the world [because] I have had the honour of having
eight of them as my scholars'.16 In seventy years a community had developed which was
transforming the experimental study of nature from a gentlemanly pursuit into a publicly
exchanged commodity.
The paradoxes which defeated Locke and his fellow Augustans have also misled
historians of science. For one thing, we have evaluated Hooke as a leading experimental
philosopher where the Royal Society treated him as a servant.17 Secondly, commentators
14 S. Shapin, 'Who was Robert Hooke?', in Robert Hooke: New Studies (ed. M. Hunter and S. Schaffer),
Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989, 257-83 and S. Pumfrey, 'Ideas above his station: a social study of Hooke's
curatorship of experiments', History of Science (1991), 29, 1-44. Shapin's A Social History of Truth: Gentility,
Credibility and Scientific Knowledge in Seventeenth Century England, Chicago, 1994, is a broader study which
was published too recently for consideration in this paper.
15 Hooke's disastrous period as Secretary to the Society showed that this was not a viable promotion.
16 J. T. Desaguliers, A Course of Experimental Philosophy, volume I, London, 1734, p. cv.
17 Pumfrey, op. cit. (14), and Shapin, 'Hooke', op. cit. (14).
136 Stephen Pumfrey
have wondered why the Society's most effective experimenters consistently came from the
'wrong class'. These men, like the lecturing community they frequently belonged to, were
not gentlemen. As John Heilbron observed, 'Stephen Gray, a dyer by trade, fell below the
social level at which the Society aimed.'18 Thirdly, why did some of the major
experimentalists of this period die in poverty and obscurity, with only historians to restore
their credit? Where the DSB commemorates Denis Papin as a 'notable scientist', the Royal
Society deliberately cold-shouldered the destitute Huguenot as he made his last appeals for
recompense and employment.19 Fourthly, why were the Fellows of the Society most famous
for their experimental discoveries, like Hooke, Papin and Gray, far from being feted by
colleagues, frequently in dispute with them about the intellectual property rights to their
Lastly, historians have found it disappointingly inconsistent that, despite the powerful
and persistent experimentalist rhetoric generated within the Society first by an 'active
nucleus' of founding Fellows and then by Newton and his allies, the early Society's
experimental programme was never securely established. While it may have been a 'golden
for the reputation of individual Fellows and of the Philosophical Transactions,
meetings after 1666 left much to be desired. Thanks to the successive revisions of
Espinasse, Hoppen and Hunter, we no longer think of the Society as the first research
institute, with Hooke as a research director. But its fragile support for experimental
practice has only recently been fully documented. Marie Boas Hall observes that
experiments stopped and discussion died, and that by 1727 'the proud motto of nullius in
verba had little or no force when the Fellows no longer wished to see for themselves'.20
Every member was constantly exhorted, indeed bribed to remedy an ever-present dearth.
Yet from 1668, when a 20 shilling medal was available to any experimenter other than
Curator Hooke, through numerous reforms later in the century, and still unmoved by the
£5 reward generated by Copley's bequest of 1709, the Fellows sat on their soft hands. One
of Newton's final anxieties was the dishonour (blamed on Desaguliers) of Copley's name.21
All of these paradoxes are graphically illustrated by contrasting attitudes towards one
of the Society's most active experimenters, and one of England's first science lecturers,
Francis Hauksbee senior (c. 1666-1713). The importance of Hauksbee's work with
Newton on phosphorescence, electricity and optics to the enlargement of Newtonian
18 J. Heilbron, Physics at the Royal Society during Newton's Presidency, Los Angeles, 1984, 51.
19 For the rejection of Papin's appeals see below.
20 Marie Boas Hall, Promoting Experimental Learning. Experiment and the Royal Society, Cambridge, 1991,
for interpretation of the motto see C. Sutton, '"Nullius in verba" and "nihil in verbis": public
understanding of the role of language in science', B]HS (1994), 27, 55-64. On decline, see M. Espinasse, 'The
decline and fall of Restoration science', in Past and Present (1958), 14, 71-89; K. Theodore Hoppen, 'The nature
of the early Royal Society', BJHS (1976), 9, 1-24, 243-73; Michael Hunter, Establishing the New Science. The
Experience of the Early Royal Society, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989.
21 Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, From
its First Rise, 4 vols., London, 1756-57, ii, 265; J. Heilbron, Physics at the Royal Society during Newton's
Presidency, Los Angeles, 1984, 6-15. Following Sir Godfrey Copley's bequest, the Council decided to 'forever
cause one experiment or more to be made before them...soon after the Anniversary meeting'. See the Royal
Society of London Journal Book for 20 June 1717, p. 239 (hereafter entries are cited in the form JB, 20/6/17, 239).
Desaguliers was the first recipient in 1718. See The Council Minutes of the Royal Society for 3 July 1717, p. 243
(hereafter entries are cited in the form CM, 3/7/17, 243.) See also CM, 5/12/17,
CM, 17/11/26, 299.
Who did the
physics in general, and to the revisions of Principia and Opticks in particular, is now
established. Yet Richard Westfall concluded that 'Newton appears to have treated him not
as an intellectual peer, but as a servant.'22 Hauksbee was not, of course Newton's
intellectual peer but the German traveller Zaccharius von Uffenbach wanted in 1710 to visit
'the natural-philosopher Hauksbee',23 not an operator. Outsiders like him would have
been surprised to hear, as Council minutes typically recorded, that 'Mr Hauksbee was
ordered forty pounds for his last years waiting upon the Society and shewing and trying
their experiments.'24 Even Fellows were slow to learn of his death in 1713 because the
Society did not mourn his passing. Instead, Council discussed outstanding payments for his
services, and:
Mrs Hawksbee was ordered twenty pounds for the service of her late husband for the time he
made experiments before the Society before his death she giving a receipt in full. Mr Hawksbee
his nephew was ordered
guineas for his services since his unkles
death he giving a receipt
in full.25
The official minutes doubtless accentuate Hauksbee's subordinate position, but the sum of
the evidence consistently points, as it does for Hooke, to a man considered first and
foremost to be under direction, and lacking the independence that Augustans presumed of
their natural philosophers. If we too presume that he was a natural philosopher (perhaps
precisely because he 'did the work') we miss the important discrepancy between the
Society's assessment, and that of foreigners like von Uffenbach. The latter knew a textual,
virtuous Hauksbee read out of experimental records in the Philosophical Transactions and
in his Physico-Mechanical Experiments of 1709, and not a working, employed Hauksbee
developing experiments for the Royal Society and other paying publics.26
The point is vivid in Nicolas Desmarest's eloge of 1754, where Hauksbee is made to
embody the finest qualities of the natural philosopher. It was written as part of d'Alembert
and Bremond's campaign at the Academie des Sciences to defeat the Cartesian
Impulsionnaires and their esprit de systeme and to advance the Newtonian Attractionnaires
and the
M. Hauksbee became known around 1704 as a natural philosopher with enormous skill in manual
operations, and a scrupulous precision when discussing phenomena. He can be considered as the
first person in London who laid the phenomena of natural philosophy before the gaze of a sober
22 Richard S. Westfall, Never at
Newton, Cambridge, 1980, 634. See also Henry
Guerlac, 'Francis Hauksbee: experimentateur au profit de Newton', Archives Internationales d'histoire des
sciences (1963), 16, 113-28.
23 Westfall, op. cit. (22), 634.
24 CM, 2/7/07, 144.
25 CM, 24/8/13, 212.
26 His accounts 'having already been read and approv'd before the Society' were collected as F. Hauksbee,
Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects. Containing an Account of
Surprizing Phenomena
Touching Light and Electricity, Producible on the Attrition of Bodies, with many other Remarkable Appearances,
not before Observ'd, London, 1709. A second edition of 1719 contains subsequent experimental accounts 'not
ranged by [Hauksbee] before his Death', and so printed in the order of their presentation before the Society.
27 Nicolas Desmarest, 'Discours historique et raisonne sur l'experiences de M. Hauskbee', a preface to
Hauksbee, Experiences physico-mechaniques sur differens sujets, traduit par M. de Bre'mond de I'Academie
Royale des Sciences, 2 vols., Paris, 1754.
138 Stephen Pumfrey
and competent nation. In his experiments we discover the first steps towards a systematic spirit...
And that illustrious company [the Royal Society], convinced by the Tightness of his judgements
and by his skill, entrusted him with the repetition on numerous important occasions of complex
experiments in order to remove doubts and to remedy uncertainties. He justified their
choice...and they admired his exact observations and the finesse of his touch as much as his
insight and his wisdom - the qualities which together make up the natural philosopher.28
Desmarest also considered that, despite the dependance of English savants on Hauksbee's
apparatus, 'he did not abuse this trust by turning these machines into commercial objects,
which would have been to cede control to the ignorant'. That, like much else was wishful
thinking. Whilst it was true that Hauksbee became known to London's natural
philosophical community around 1704, he did so as Newton's choice of casual operator for
the Society and not as a natural philosopher.29 Desmarest appears to have gleaned his fact
from the preface to Desaguliers' Course in Experimental Philosophy. Desaguliers' book
itself offers yet another assessment,
Dr John Keill was the first who publickly taught Natural Philosophy by Experiments in a
Mathematicall Manner... in Oxford, about the year
or 1705... There were indeed, about the
same time, Experiments shewn at London by the late Mr. Hauksbee... But as they were only
shewn and explained as so many curious phenomena, and not made use of as mediums to prove
a series of philosophical propositions... [t]hey were Courses of Experiments, and his [Keill's] a
Course of Experimental Philosophy.30
An advocate and beneficiary of commercial science, Desaguliers did not invoke Hauksbee's
laborious status as he denied the rational, natural philosophical quality of his rival's
experiments. Whether or not we agree with Desaguliers, the issue of historical interest is
to explain the more generous judgements of von Uffenbach and Desmarest, and the
decidedly less generous behaviour of the Royal Society.31 Until recently, Desmarest's image
of the progressive, experimental natural philosopher has prevailed. Henri Guerlac, in his
1974 biography, found Desmarest's assessment 'valuable'.32 But how is today's historian
to explain the importance of pioneering professional experimenters and lecturers like
Hauksbee as they set about their work for the Society
As public experimental science was
forged in front of it, did the Society treat them as true philosophers, plain experimenters,
mere servants, or some paradoxical melange of all three
The answer depends first upon
discovering who did the work, and then upon locating that work more precisely within
Augustan ideologies.
28 Desmarest, op. cit. (27), i, pp. xl-xliii.
29 The first known contact between Hauksbee and either Newton or the Royal Society was his performance
with his improved air-pump at the first meeting over which Newton presided, on 15 December 1703. He was
ordered 5 guineas in July 1704. He then proposed, but was denied, more regular payment, and was told that 'he
would be gratified according to the proportion of his services'. See JB, 15/12/04, 55, and CM, 12/7/04, 126.
30 Desaguliers, op. cit. (16), Preface, p. cr. Volume
appeared in London, 1744. According to Henry Guerlac
in DSB, s.v. 'Hauksbee, Francis', Hauksbee did not himself lecture until 1710. He engaged the mathematician
James Hodgson to lecture for him in 1704.
31 For Hauksbee junior's involvement with the Society see below. For Desaguliers' relations with the divided
Hauksbee family see Stewart, op. cit. (2), 120.
32 DSB, s.v. 'Hauksbee, Francis [1666—1713]'. For an earlier but more extensive discussion see Guerlac, op.
cit. (22).
Who did the work? 139
Which men, and what kind of men, carried out experiments at the early Society
While this
only requires a trawl through the minutes of meetings, methodological caution and
explication are required. First, I have begun my analysis with the reconvening of the Society
in 1666, when the early, enthusiastic contributions of many individual virtuosi permanently
dried up, leaving the work to a few dedicated men.33 Secondly, I am concerned only with
experimenters who made more than one or two isolated contributions. The first to be
excluded by this yardstick is a president, Sir Isaac Newton, who made only four public
performances in eleven years, three in the first year of his presidency.34 This represents
superhuman dedication for a Fellow of independent means.
It is true that these criteria exclude what little virtuoso activity there was between 1660
and 1730, but that does not render the argument circular. As my earlier study emphasized,
gentlemen Fellows could perform experiments, did so frequently before 1665, and probably
continued to do so privately. When the Society invented the term 'curator of experiments'
it had in mind anyone who 'took care of an investigation. But public science was being
invented in its meetings and it evolved rapidly. My earlier study was limited to Hooke's
paid or 'Setled Curatorship' and could not determine whether it was Hooke's office or his
personal dynamism which caused other Fellows idly to leave the experimental work to him.
The timescale and personnel included in the current paper suggest that more sociostructural
causes were indeed at work. That Fellows could, in principle, experiment in public, but
chose to leave it to hired hands, would seem to justify excluding their one-off efforts as
insignificant. In this section I wish only to establish that the work which gained the early
Society its continuing reputation was generated by men whom the Society's Fellows did not
value as experimental philosophers.
Of more importance and difficulty is the question of what to count as an experiment.
This paper is concerned with those practices involving the physical and practical activities
which are a routine part of modern experiment. Unfortunately, early modern usage of
'experiment' did not always connote them. Indeed the terminology used in the Society's
minute does not map consistently onto modern categories. Not all experiments were
described as such, as when 'Mr Hauksbee shewed a new invented air-pump and in it, upon
the mercury descending, a Light'. Experiments, instruments and even curiosities from
gentlemen's cabinets were equally 'shewn'.35 By comparison with the seventeenth-century
minutes, those taken during Newton's reign employ a more consistently modern notion of
Since our focus is 'work', rather than 'experiment as an actor's category', we are forced
to select, and selection risks privileging those performances conforming to modern
33 Pumfrey, op. cit. (14), 4-7.
34 See JB, 17/5/04, 75; JB, 31/5/04, 76; and JB, 21/6/04, 79. These were on burning glasses. See also JB,
187, on colours.
15/12/03,55. Compare the showing of
large cock's leg, a horse's stone and ' the pizzle of
in JB, 12/1/03-4, 57, and that of Hauksbee's water gauge in JB, 15/3/04, 67.
36 Linguistic criteria bring their own illumination to the history of early modern experiment. See C. Schmitt,
'Experience and experiment: a comparison of Zabarella's view with Galileo's in De motu', Studies in the
Renaissance (1969), 16, 80-138.
140 Stephen Pumfrey
experimental practice. Marie Boas Hall's Promoting Experimental Learning: Experiment
and the Royal Society,37 whilst extremely useful in many ways, has been charged with using
the criteria for an experiment too unreflectively in this regard. She excludes, for example,
trials of apparatus and demonstrations of instruments.38 The anatomical and natural
historical work is particularly hard to classify, because it ranged from systematic
dissections to simple exhibitions of an unusual phenomenon like a possum's penis. Virtuosi
continued frequently to exhibit, 'experimentally', items from their cabinets of curiosities,
but I have only counted performances which require some form of technical, practical or
manual activity.39 Such selection is not petitio principii, but a necessary filter for catching
those who were prepared to roll up their sleeves and dirty their hands for the Society's
declared cause of the promotion of natural knowledge.
Following these criteria, it emerges that the overwhelming burden of the Society's work
in the six decades after 1666 devolved upon the twelve men listed below. To them must be
added Nehemia Grew, who was primarily active as a curator of plants from 1672 to 1679,
and James Douglas, whose work as a curator of anatomy around 1706-07 briefly and
ineffectually filled the Society's rarely met need for this kind of experiment. Although a
difference between my criteria and those of Boas Hall has been admitted, it is instructive
to compare her charts of experimental activity with the active periods of the men emerging
on my list. What Boas Hall found to be a very uneven scatter of narrow peaks of industry,
separated by expanses of dismal inactivity, resolves into a sequence of active periods of the
same twelve individuals.40
Thus the Society's fortune was contingent almost from the beginning upon finding
individual men willing to do its work. That there was little contingency in the class of men
whom it considered suitable emerges from a comparison of the individuals' curricula vitae.
Robert Hooke (1632-1701) came from a very poor clerical family.41 His Westminster and
Oxford education depended upon scholarships. While in Oxford he became an 'operator'
for Robert Boyle, and his mechanical skills were critical for the design of 'Boyle's' air-
pump. In 1662 Boyle obtained a similar position for Hooke with the Royal Society and
gained 'the thanks of the society for dispensing with him for their use'. He impressed
37 Boas Hall, op. cit. (20). I have relied upon her analysis for the very slack period, from the point of view of
experiment, between 1688 and 1702.
38 Boas Hall, op. cit. (20), 4-5, where she is refreshingly open about her criteria. My reservations have been
shared by other reviewers, such as Peter Dear in his (1993), 84, 148-9.
39 The work of the anatomy 'curator' James Douglas (see below) is a case in point. Douglas 'showed' both
dissections and monstrosities, such as the skull of a mouthless puppy. See JB, 29/10/07, 164.1 have not counted
the latter as experimental work.
40 Westfall, op. cit. (22), 634. See below for Richard Lower and Edward Tyson. For graphs of activity from
1660 to 1727, see Boas Hall, op. cit. (20). Each chronological chapter is accompanied by one. The following list
of individuals is arranged chronologically according to periods of activity in the Society.
41 For Hooke's biography, see M. Espinasse, Robert Hooke, London, 1956. For more recent assessments see
Hunter and Schaffer op. cit. (14), and Pumfrey, op. cit. (14).
Who did the work? 141
enough to be made a paid curator and, later, a Fellow. He achieved international
recognition through Micrographia, a publication of his microscopical observations
originally prepared by the Society for presentation to Charles II. His relationship with the
fellowship was later marred by his pursuit of other employments, such as surveying and
lecturing, and the concomitant, acrimonious disputes about whether he had fulfilled the
conditions of his stipend. In 1679 he successfully advanced Denis Papin as the Society's
regular, paid experimenter. Hooke now lacked power but was rich enough not to depend
upon his £50 p.a. stipend. He continued to contribute occasional discourses, and a final
experiment in 1696, one of the two performed during that year.42
Richard Lower (1631-91) was an Oxford-trained physician and physiologist. Hoping
that he could rectify the Society's dearth of anatomical experiments, Boyle and Hooke
promoted him as a paid curator of anatomy, believing him to be a 'fit' person with
'inclinations to such an employment'. A Hooke-like burst of activity resulted in offers of
a Fellowship, which he accepted, and a curatorship, which he declined 'on account of some
business, in which he was at present engaged'. The Society did not renew the offer, perhaps
because the statutes demanded exclusive employment of their curators. Lower rapidly
became an inactive and unsuitable Fellow, and achieved the rare distinction of being
expelled in 1675.43
Frederick Slare (1648-1727) and Edward Tyson (1650-1708) are my list's odd men out.
They were already well-established gentleman Fellows when they were appointed to curate
experiments in 1682, with Tyson reviving the curatorship of anatomy. Their posts resulted
from a major shake-up in the