As a work of scientific history, this book contains many gems of curious detail, threaded together by a chronology that can be rather woodenly expressed. The society’s longest-serving president, for example, was the botanist Joseph Banks, who oversaw activities for 41 years. “For much of the time,” Tinniswood assures us, “he ruled with a rod of iron.” This does rather make you wonder what kind of rod he used the rest of the time.
But it is hard not to take pride, by the end, in the eccentric and inspiring story of a great British institution that is still going strong.
After devoting the first half of his book to the Royal Society’s gestation, birth and first 50 years, Tinniswood canters very fast through the 18th century, lingers a little longer in the 19th century, and rushes again through the 20th century. Though historians of science and social history may still find worthwhile material in the second half, it is much less entertaining or informative than the first. All the treasures here lie in the 17th century.
In the event, as Adrian Tinniswood’s compact, informative book shows, the Fellows’ ambition to recruit the rich and powerful was almost the society’s undoing. They rigged the rules to allow aristocrats to become Fellows of the Royal Society whether scientifically qualified or not. Their draft constitution stated that no applicants for a fellowship would be admitted “without scrutiny”, except “such as were of, or above, the degree of baron”. When it came to selecting the society’s first president the obvious choice was John Wilkins, a tireless theoriser who had been a driving force behind the society’s formation. However, an obscure viscount was chosen instead, solely because of his rank. At society meetings Fellows were obliged to take their hats off before addressing him.