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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Stephen Pumfrey
Department of History, University of Lancaster, Lancaster LA1 4YG.


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.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1995

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1 Holmes, G., Augustan England: Professions, State and Society, 1680–1730, London, 1982.Google Scholar

2 Stewart, Larry, The Rise of Public Science. Rhetoric, Technology and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750, Cambridge, 1992.Google Scholar

3 DSB, s.v. ‘Hauksbee, Francis’.

4 For a discussion see Earle, Peter, The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and Family Life in London, 1660–1730, London, 1989, 3.Google Scholar

5 For a recent discussion of women and early modern science, see Phillips, Patricia, The Scientific Lady: A Social History of Women's Scientific Interests, 1520–1918, London, 1990Google Scholar. I am grateful for the editor's reminder that gender compounded the fractures.

6 See Dickinson, H. T., Liberty and Property. Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain, London, 1977, 52, 86.Google Scholar

7 Dickinson, , op. cit. (6), 88–9, 87–8.Google Scholar

8 As Dickinson, , op. cit. (6), 57Google Scholar, 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 Tully, R., A Discourse on Property. John Locke and his Adversaries, Cambridge, 1980, 135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government. A Critical Edition with an Introduction and apparatus criticus by Laslett, Peter, Cambridge, 1964, 305–6Google Scholar. This is Locke's section 27 (hereafter ‘§27’).

11 For a Marxist reading see Ritchie, D. G., ‘Locke's theory of property’, in his Darwin and Hegel, London, 1893.Google Scholar

12 Locke, , op. cit. (10), 307 (§28).Google Scholar

13 Tully, op. cit. (9)Google Scholar; Macpherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford, 1962Google Scholar; Tribe, Keith, Land, Labour and Economic Discourse, London, 1978Google Scholar; and Wood, Neal, John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism, Oxford, 1984Google Scholar, especially chapters 4 and 5.

14 Shapin, S., ‘Who was Robert Hooke?’, in Robert Hooke: New Studies (ed. Hunter, M. and Schaffer, S.), Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989, 257–83Google Scholar and Pumfrey, S., ‘Ideas above his station: a social study of Hooke's curatorship of experiments’, History of Science (1991), 29, 144CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Shapin, 's A Social History of Truth: Gentility, Credibility and Scientific Knowledge in Seventeenth Century England, Chicago, 1994Google Scholar, 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 Desaguliers, J. T., A Course of Experimental Philosophy, volume I. London, 1734, p. cv.Google Scholar

17 Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14)Google Scholar, and Shapin, , ‘Hooke’, op. cit. (14).Google Scholar

18 Heilbron, J., Physics at the Royal Society during Newton's Presidency, Los Angeles, 1984, 51.Google Scholar

19 For the rejection of Papin's appeals see below.

20 Hall, Marie Boas, Promoting Experimental Learning. Experiment and the Royal Society, Cambridge, 1991, 132CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for interpretation of the motto see Sutton, C., ‘“Nullius in verba” and “nihil in verbis”: public understanding of the role of language in science’, BJHS (1994), 27, 5564CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On decline, see Espinasse, M., ‘The decline and fall of Restoration science’, in Past and Present (1958), 14, 7189CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hoppen, K. Theodore, ‘The nature of the early Royal Society’, BJHS (1976), 9, 124, 243–73CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Hunter, Michael, Establishing the New Science. The Experience of the Early Royal Society, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989.Google Scholar

21 Birch, Thomas, The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, From its First Rise, 4 vols., London, 17561757, ii, 265Google Scholar; Heilbron, J., Physics at the Royal Society during Newton's Presidency, Los Angeles, 1984, 615Google Scholar. 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 06 1717, p. 239Google Scholar (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 07 1717, p. 243Google Scholar (hereafter entries are cited in the form CM, 3/7/17, 243.) See also CM, 5/12/17, 208–11; CM, 17/11/26, 299.

22 Westfall, Richard S., Never at Rest. A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge, 1980, 634Google Scholar. See also Guerlac, Henry, ‘Francis Hauksbee: expérimentateur au profit de Newton’, Archives internationales d'histoire des sciences (1963), 16, 113–28.Google Scholar

23 Westfall, , op. cit. (22), 634.Google Scholar

24 CM, 2/7/07, 144.Google Scholar

25 CM, 24/8/13, 212.Google Scholar

26 His accounts ‘having already been read and approv'd before the Society’ were collected as Hauksbee, F., Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects. Containing an Account of Several Surprizing Phenomena Touching Light and Electricity, Producible on the Attrition of Bodies, with many other Remarkable Appearances, not before Observ'd, London, 1709Google Scholar. 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 Desmarest, Nicolas, ‘Discours historique et raisonné sur l'expériences de M. Hauskbée’, a preface to Hauksbee, F., Expériences physico-mechaniques sur differens sujets, traduit par M. de Brémond de l'Académie Royale des Sciences, 2 vols., Paris, 1754.Google Scholar

28 Desmarest, , op. cit. (27), i, pp. xlxliii.Google Scholar

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, 55Google Scholar, and CM, 12/7/04, 126.Google Scholar

30 Desaguliers, , op. cit. (16), Preface, p. crGoogle Scholar. Volume II 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 Hodgson, James to lecture for him in 1704.Google Scholar

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.Google Scholar

32 DSB, s.v. ‘Hauksbee, Francis [1666–1713]’. For an earlier but more extensive discussion see Guerlac, , op. cit. (22).Google Scholar

33 Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 47.Google Scholar

34 See JB, 17/5/04, 75Google Scholar; JB, 31/5/04, 76Google Scholar; and JB, 21/6/04, 79Google Scholar. These were on burning glasses. See also JB, 19/5/08, 187, on colours.Google Scholar

35 See JB, 15/12/03, 55Google Scholar. Compare the showing of a large cock's leg, a horse's stone and ‘the pizzle of a possum’ in JB, 12/1/03–4, 57Google Scholar, and that of Hauksbee's water gauge in JB, 15/3/04, 67.Google Scholar

36 Linguistic criteria bring their own illumination to the history of early modern experiment. See Schmitt, C., ‘Experience and experiment: a comparison of Zabarella's view with Galileo's in De motu’, Studies in the Renaissance (1969), 16, 80138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Hall, Boas, op. cit. (20)Google Scholar. I have relied upon her analysis for the very slack period, from the point of view of experiment, between 1688 and 1702.

38 Hall, Boas, op. cit. (20), 45Google Scholar, where she is refreshingly open about her criteria. My reservations have been shared by other reviewers, such as Dear, Peter in Isis (1993), 84, 148–9.Google Scholar

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, 164Google Scholar. I have not counted the latter as experimental work.

40 Westfall, , op. cit. (22), 634Google Scholar. See below for Richard Lower and Edward Tyson. For graphs of activity from 1660 to 1727, see Hall, Boas, op. cit. (20)Google Scholar. 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 Espinasse, M., Robert Hooke, London, 1956Google Scholar. For more recent assessments see Hunter, and Schaffer, op. cit. (14)Google Scholar, and Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14).Google Scholar

42 Hall, Boas, op. cit. (20), 94.Google Scholar

43 Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 39 n23.Google Scholar

44 Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 810, 32–5.Google Scholar

45 According to the DNB, Papin ‘sought the more lucrative post of secretary, but Halley was elected in his stead’. I find no record of this in Birch, , op. cit. (21)Google Scholar, but it would confirm the use of such positions by would-be professional experimenters.

46 JB, 17/3/07–8, 179Google Scholar; JB, 14/4/08, 182Google Scholar; JB, 21/4/08, 184Google Scholar; JB, 18/5/09, 214Google Scholar; JB, 26/4/11, 278–80.Google Scholar

47 According to the DSB, Leibniz wrote to the Royal Society Council about Papin in February 1707/8.

48 JB, 14/4/08, 182Google Scholar. Newton referred discussion of Papin's payment to Council on 27/12/11. Unlike other projectors and instrument makers such as Kerridge and Fahrenheit, Papin was already a Fellow and did not need permission to attend meetings.

49 CM, 22/12/08, 158Google Scholar; CM, 23/2/09, 160.Google Scholar

50 CM, 2/8/11, 192Google Scholar; CM, 4/1/11–12, 199Google Scholar. Unlike other ballots of the period, the result was not recorded nemine contradicente.

51 JB, 16/10/12, 421.Google Scholar

52 Hunt performed experiments, for example, on gunpowder (JB, 15/3/03–4, 67Google Scholar), sulphur (JB, 28/2/04–5, 97Google Scholar), a pike (JB, 7/11/06, 114Google Scholar), magnetism (JB, 19/12/05, 116Google Scholar; JB, 10/4/06, 128Google Scholar) and on temperature (JB, 12/1/08–9, 203Google Scholar). For Hunt's earlier assistance to Lister, see Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 35–6.Google Scholar

53 JB, 25/6/13, 500Google Scholar; CM, 29/6/13, 211Google Scholar; CM, 7/12/13, 215.Google Scholar

54 For Halley, see Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 1516Google Scholar and Ronan, C. A., Edmond Halley: Genius in Eclipse, London, 1975, 6375Google Scholar. Halley's only ‘experimental’ contribution after 1692 was an observation of the variation, reported in JB, 3/7/05, 110.Google Scholar

55 The most convenient summary of Hauksbee's life remains Guerlac's entry in DSB.

56 Stewart, , op. cit. (2), 120.Google Scholar

57 CM, 24/8/13, 212Google Scholar. This is the last reference under Newton's presidency, until he re-emerged as housekeeper. He came recommended ‘by divers members of the Society’, but not by Newton, whose favourite was one Thomas Overton, nor by Desaguliers, who backed Thomas Glover. See CM, 4/4/23, 267.Google Scholar

58 Following Hauksbee the elder's last performance on 29 January 1713, experiments ceased. When on 21 May 1713 d'Aumont's arrival was announced just before the meeting commenced ‘Mr Hauksbee was ordered to prepare some particular Experiments for his Entertainment’ (JB, 21/5/13, 483Google Scholar). It was thought proper to defer the usual reading of papers for a Newtonian display, and the duke ‘was entertained with severall experiments of the production of light by friction, or elasticity, of the mutuall Attraction of the Parts of Matter, of the curve caused by the Rising of a Fluid between glass planes, etc.’ Sloane stalled by showing curiosities in the repository, and contributed an ‘experiment of the Stone called Oculus Mundi’. Whilst the attendance of ‘Mr [George] Berkeley, a clergyman’ did not provoke experimentation, the return of d'Aumont panicked them into a repertoire of air-pump experiments, presumably again by Hauksbee junior. See JB, 11/6/13, 492.Google Scholar

59 For details of the selection process see the fascinating CM, 4/4/23, 267Google Scholar. Each candidate was ‘examined in the following particulars’ of handwriting, languages ‘skill in Natural Knowledge or History’, librarianship, and ‘the sufficiency of the Security they were able to give for their Trust’. Hauksbee offered £400–500 against any misdemeanour. This was a sensitive matter because Alban Thomas had absconded leaving debts. The Society considered legal proceedings (CM, 30/11/23, 275Google Scholar; CM, 12/3/24–5, 276Google Scholar), but was ultimately benevolent (CM, 3/11/26, 297–8Google Scholar). As with Halley's election to the Clerkship, the conditions imposed on the housekeeper were ungentlemanly and incompatible with Fellowship, but manifestly compatible with the performance of experimental work.

60 Note that this is not the same as Hooke's Curatorship by Office. Desaguliers was paid according to his efforts. Newton generally preferred payments to be ‘esteemed as a gratuity and not [to] be drawn into a president [sic]’. See CM, 5/11/19, 251Google Scholar: CM, 12/12/16, 257.Google Scholar

61 JB, 18/2/13–14, 546.Google Scholar

62 CM, 17/11/26, 299Google Scholar. Desaguliers also introduced his co-projectors William Vream and Henry Beighton. See JB, 4/4/23, 267, 269Google Scholar, and Stewart, , op. cit. (2), 225.Google Scholar

63 This was initially a monetary payment only. A medal was also awarded from 1736, which Desaguliers won. The first person other than Desaguliers to receive the £5 was Gray, Stephen in 1731 and 1732Google Scholar. See Hall, Boas, op. cit. (20), 130–1.Google Scholar

64 JB, 5/3–30/4/24, 443ff.Google Scholar

65 I have not studied Gray's work after 1730, and my account relies upon those of Heilbron, , op. cit. (18) and op. cit. (21)Google Scholar, and his entry in DSB, s.v. ‘Gray, Stephen’.

66 I am grateful to Simon Schaffer for this suggestion.

67 CM, 28/2/32–3, 122.Google Scholar

68 Hunter, , op. cit. (20), 1989, 261–78, quotation from 276Google Scholar. This account relies substantially on Hunter's thorough study.

69 CM, 2/7/07, 144Google Scholar, when Hauksbee also received £40 ‘for his last years waiting upon the Society’. See also The Record of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, 4th edn, London, 1940, 30.Google Scholar

70 I have been unable to determine his dates. They are missing from the otherwise full index of Hall, Boas, op. cit. (20).Google Scholar

71 Westfall, , op. cit. (22), 673–5.Google Scholar

72 CM, 3/11/08, 156Google Scholar; CM, 12/1/08–9, 159. Emphasis supplied.Google Scholar

73 CM, 12/7/11, 192.Google Scholar

74 Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 9.Google Scholar

75 For Papin, see DSB, s.v. ‘Papin, Denis’; for Desaguliers' decline see Stewart, L., ‘Public lectures and private patronage’, Isis (1986), 77, 4758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

76 For Fahrenheit see CM, 7/5/24, 279Google Scholar. ‘[Fahrenheit's] constant attendance upon the Society seemed to require some sort of acknowledgement’ which was 10 guineas. Fahrenheit was another who arrived as an unknown, was ‘given leave’ to attend meetings because he was not a Fellow, and provided experimental entertainment, as recorded in JB, 5/3/23–4, 443Google Scholar; JB, 26/3/24, 454Google Scholar; JB, 2/4/24, 457Google Scholar; JB, 23/4/24, 467Google Scholar and JB, 30/4/24, 470Google Scholar. Having performed thermometric experiments and demonstrated instruments, Fahrenheit was proposed for a Fellowship by Desaguliers at the meeting of 26 March 1724 and subsequently elected.

77 See Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 7 and 38Google Scholar n26 and CM, 17/11/26 for Hooke's and Desaguliers' rebukes.

78 Though this is not to deny that they did experiment privately, and occasionally publicly. This is discussed below.

79 Locke, , op. cit. (10), 309 (§34).Google Scholar

80 Macpherson, , op. cit. (13).Google Scholar

81 Tully, , op. cit. (9), 136.Google Scholar

82 Tully, , op. cit. (9), 136Google Scholar; Locke, , op. cit. (10), 340 (§85).Google Scholar

83 One might speculate, in this regard, whether Newton, for example, thought of Hauksbee as an apprentice natural philosopher, when he directed him in the design of instruments and experiments.

84 Tully, , op. cit. (9), 140.Google Scholar

85 Tribe, , op. cit. (13), 51.Google Scholar

86 Tully, , op. cit. (9), 169Google Scholar; Wood, , op. cit. (13), 75.Google Scholar

87 Locke variously described the lower orders as ‘destined to labour and given up to the service of their bellies’, and who, in religion, ‘cannot know and therefore must believe’. See Macpherson, , op. cit. (13), 223.Google Scholar

88 Macpherson, , op. cit. (13), 223.Google Scholar

89 The Society's minutes frequently record the direction of experimenters by the virtuoso philosopher. See, for example, JB, 18/2/13–14, 546Google Scholar, where the airy Desaguliers was ‘desired to wait on the President and take his directions’.

90 Sprat, T., A History of the Royal Society, London, 1667 (reprint edn, London, 1959), 391–2, 404.Google Scholar

91 Sprat, , op. cit. (90), 397, 396, 427.Google Scholar

92 It would, however, be instructive to re-examine the distribution of private experimental work. We need to determine the extent to which gentlemen acted as philosophical overseers of operators, whose contributions become invisible in the public reports.

93 JB, 10/6/14, 574Google Scholar; JB, 21/7/15, 78Google Scholar. Such experiments were accompanied with references to the principles which they demonstrated. In the following paper in this issue Schaffer suggests that these particular experiments related to claims for perpetual motion machines (see Schaffer, S., ‘The show that never ends: displays of perpetual motion in the early eighteenth century’, BJHS (1995), 28, 157–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

94 JB, 26/4/11, 278–9.Google Scholar

95 See Stewart, , op. cit. (75), 201.Google Scholar

96 A water engineer called Kerridge, who is not mentioned in Stewart, , op. cit. (2)Google Scholar, made three entreaties to the Society. First he asked for recommendations, which Fellows considered giving, but as individuals and not as from the Society as a whole. He returned to offer his services, without result, and then appeared two years later pleading his ‘necessitous condition’. He was informed that the Society did not deal with such petitions. JB, 3/7/12, 412Google Scholar; JB, 30/10/12, 425Google Scholar; JB, 22/4/14, 562.Google Scholar

97 JB, 24/6/14, 8Google Scholar; JB, 3/11/15, 84Google Scholar; CM, 8–14/4/19, 247–8Google Scholar; Stewart, , op. cit. (2), 225–8.Google Scholar

98 Desaguliers, J. T., A Course of Experimental Philosophy, Volume II, London, 1744, Preface.Google Scholar

99 Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 13.Google Scholar

100 Pumfrey, , op. cit. (14), 810Google Scholar. The evidence of Hauksbee's and Desaguliers' employment and reward shows that the system was adhered to in the eighteenth century.

101 Newton did not pay them ‘by results’ (in Heilbron's understandably loose words), but according to the model of service.

102 For Desaguliers and Steele, see Stewart, , op. cit. (2), especially 265–7.Google Scholar

103 Desaguliers, , op. cit. (16), Preface, p. cv.Google Scholar

104 Desaguliers, , op. cit. (16), Preface, p. cv.Google Scholar

105 Hauksbee, , op. cit. (26)Google Scholar, Dedicatory letter (to John, Lord Somers), my emphasis.

106 Desmarest, , op. cit. (27).Google Scholar