Today it is easy to take for granted that experiments can be conducted to improve our understanding and knowledge of the natural world around us, but in the first half of the seventeenth century this was not the case.


New instruments

Once natural philosophers gained an appetite for conducting experiments, they designed new instruments to create the different circumstances, or conditions, in which the specimen, animal or mechanical device was to be manipulated and observed. In London, natural philosophers drew upon the skills of a range of makers to have their designs made into a reality. The construction of the air pump, for example, required glass blowers to make the glass vessels into which specimens, animals and mechanical devices were placed; clockmakers to make the intermeshing toothed wheels which operated the air pumps, and furniture makers or turners to make the wooden frames which supported the device.

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Air pump
Air pump by Francis Hauksbee, 1708
The Royal Society

This air pump was made by Francis Hauksbee the Elder (1660-1713). He used it in his role as Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society to demonstrate experiments at weekly meetings of the Fellows.

Related link: The New Science - 1550–1800


Trust and distrust

While the majority of natural philosophers accepted these activities and the results they generated, because of the quality checks mentioned above, not everyone did. There were examples in the period of people that were not convinced, such as Margaret Cavendish, who was the first woman to visit the Royal Society (the first female Fellow, Kathleen Lonsdale, was not elected until 1945). Cavendish was critical of the Fellows’ reliance on new optical instruments such as the microscope and telescope, suggesting that their eyes were being deceived by the lenses. Her remarks, which were repeated by others, demonstrate that it took several years for new instruments to become trusted by some people. She also wrote many books, one of which was entitled ’The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-world’, in which she openly satirised the Society and warned of a dystopian future for natural philosophy.

Cavendish was not alone in her use of satire directed at the Royal Society, and natural philosophers in general. In the late 1670s Thomas Shadwell’s play, ’The Virtuoso’, attracted audiences in London to its story involving the character Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a natural philosopher who conducts lots of different amusing experiments. Robert Hooke recorded visiting the play in his diary and being outraged that the character seemed to be based on him. Satirical critiques of experiments continued throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and reveal one view of natural philosophers beyond their own circles. However the monarchy, the government and the majority of the wealthy elite were keen supporters of natural philosophers’ work and could see how new knowledge could be put to use.


New science and new networks

While it is impossible to sum up the many varied ways by which science is carried out today as one single simple method, the concept of the experiment as a way of improving our collective knowledge of the natural world is a crucial part of scientific practice and has its roots in the seventeenth century. Thanks to hubs such as the Royal Society and publications such as ’The Philosophical Transactions’, natural philosophers throughout Europe were part of a network. They may not have always got along on a personal level and they may sometimes have had disagreements, but they realised that the network was essential for getting their ideas accepted by others, as it still is today.


King George III

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).

Related link: George III - A royal passion for Science