It's been almost 180 years since Charles Babbage published his take-no-prisoners manifesto Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes (1830), and the sparks still fly from its pages. Babbage felt sure that England was falling behind Germany and France in the support and respect it afforded men of science, and in identifying the problems, Babbage named names, shredded reputations, and caused an uproar.
To Babbage, the big problem was the sorry state of the Royal Society of London. Founded in 1660 (the same year as the Restoration), the Royal Society had served well in the era of Newton, Boyle, and Hooke, but it had become bloated and stagnant. In 1828 the Royal Society impotently stood by while the government abolished the Board of Longitude, an important source of funding for scientific research. The Royal Society had become a gentlemen's social club, filled with dilettantes who sought the prestige of following their names with the initials F.R.S. (Fellow of the Royal Society), but had no interest in actually performing any scientific work.
A brief except from The Decline of Science will reveal the sarcastic tone of Babbage's book. Here he describes the process of becoming a member of the Royal Society:
A.B. gets any three Fellows to sign a certificate, stating that he (A.B.) is desirous of becoming a member, and likely to be a useful and valuable one. This is handed in to the Secretary, and suspended in the meeting room. At the end of ten weeks, if A.B. has the good fortune to be perfectly unknown by any literary or scientific achievement, however small, he is quite sure of being elected as a matter of course. If, on the other hand, he has unfortunately written on any subject connected with science, or is supposed to be acquainted with any branch of it, the members begin to enquire what he has done to deserve the honor; and, unless he has powerful friends, he is sure of being blackballed. (Babbage, p. 50-51)
Science was becoming more professional and more specialized. Smaller, more focused, organizations seemed to work much better than the Royal Society. The Geological Society of London (founded 1822) actually featured highly energetic discussions following the readings of papers; papers read at the Royal Society meetings were not discussed at all. Babbage was particularly impressed with the workings of the Society of German Naturalists and Natural Philosophers, whose Berlin meeting he had attended in 1828. These were professional men of science, enthusiastic about their vocation and brimming with new ideas.
The consensus among historians is that Charles Babbage and his book probably did not have a significant influence in the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1831. But the BAAS was everything the Royal Society was not. It would not be centered in London, nor anywhere else, but instead hold its annual meeting in different cities in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The BAAS strived to be more professional than the Royal Society but paradoxically less restrictive and more democratic and populist. A division into various sections corresponding to scientific disciplines would accomdate the growing specialization of professional men of science. The BAAS would also serve as a conduit to appeal for government funds, and to distribute those funds to needy areas of research.
The first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held in 1831 in York. In subsequent years, the late-summer or early-fall week-long meetings were sometimes held at major centers of learning (such as Oxford in 1832, Cambridge in 1833, Edinburgh in 1834, and Dublin in 1835) but later more frequently in seaport towns and centers of industry — even some locations that had seen civil disturbances precipitated by the uglier side effects of the industrial revolution. In 1836 the BAAS met at Bristol (which had experienced riots in 1831), then Liverpool, Newcastle, Birminghan, and Glasgow in 1840, where it was attended by the 16-year old William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin).
These early meetings of the BAAS set some standards followed for many decades thereafter. The President served for only one year, and it was more an honorary position than the center of power. The President would begin his term by opening the week-long meeting with an inspiring Address that would often be reprinted and publicized. Often a popular lecture would be open to a "mixed" public audience (that is, both men and women). The meetings were documented in a large published Report containing some long articles about particular researches, and many small notices and abstracts divided by discipline (astronomy, chemistry, botony, etc) that many people found indispensable for keeping up on current developments in their own field and others.
The 1830s were an important transitional era in British science. In 1830 John Herschel published his influential book Preliminary Discourses on the Study of Natural Philosophy and Charles Lyell published the first of the three volumes of his popular Principles of Geology, which firmly established the long history of the Earth among its English readers. In 1831 — the same year that the BAAS came into being — the young Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle. By the end of the decade, Darwin had realized how evolution worked, and William Whewell had coined the word "scientist" to replace the older term Natural Philosopher and the somewhat awkward Man of Science.
The 1830s were also the decade in which a sum of £8,000 left by the will of Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, was distributed to eight writers who composed the eight Bridgewater Treatises (to which Charles Babbage voluntarily added a 9th) to show how the design of the natural world revealed the "Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation." The Bridgewater Treatises were the last great hurrah of the typically English manifestation of natural theology that had wedded science and religion as complementary fields of study since at least the 17th century.
The early 1830s were also an era of political reform in England, with the much debated first Reform Act finally passed by Parliament in 1832 to liberalize the electoral process.
The 1830s also witnessed the official start of the Victorian era when the 18-year old Victoria became Queen in 1837. Victoria herself had no strong feelings for or against science, but in 1840 she married her German first cousin Prince Albert — the type of person we would now call a "science buff" or perhaps even "science geek."
The Prince Consort (as he was later called) was a hard-working man who enjoyed studying and writing. Most at ease in the company of artists, scientists, musicians, and intellectuals, Prince Albert had a clear sense of the importance of science and technology to England's industrial future. As chancellor of the University of Cambridge, he sought to bring the curriculum into the modern era. He was involved in the founding of the Royal College of Chemistry in 1845 and the Royal School of Mines in 1851.
Prince Albert's biggest triumph was as committee chairman of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851, and the public figure most closely associated with this massive undertaking. The Great Exhibition was intended as a showcase for British technology, industry, and art. It was housed in a specially constructed iron and glass building in Hyde Park dubbed the Crystal Palace, approximately 1/3 of a mile long and 450 feet wide. Although conceived to show off English industry, it did just as much to introduce the English public to the works of other participating countries. Almost everyone loved the Great Exhibition and it was enormously successful. In the 5½ months it was open, over 6 million tickets were sold, and it realized a profit of £186,000. The money was used to help buy land in South Kensington on which today stands the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Through the 1840s and 1850s, the peripatetic BAAS continued to make its way through the British Isles: Plymouth in 1841, then Manchester, Cork, back to York in 1844, Cambridge again, Southampton, Oxford again, Swansea, Birmingham again, Edinburgh again, Ipswich during the year of the Great Exhibition (and a meeting attended by Prince Albert), Belfast, Hull, Liverpool again, Glasgow again, Cheltenham, Dublin again, and Leeds in 1858.
In September 1859, the BAAS held its meeting in the Scottish coast city of Aberdeen — not far from Victoria and Albert's estate of Balmoral — and a site chosen to coincide with the selection of Prince Albert as the President of the Association.
On Wednesday, September 14, 1859 — 150 years ago today — in a ceremony scheduled to begin at "8½ P.M.," the previous president of the BAAS, Richard Owen, resigned and "His Royal Highness the Prince Consort" took his place and delivered an Address, which was printed in the Report and can be read in a copy available on Google Book Search.
Nothing about Prince Albert's Address to the BAAS is earth-shattering, or historically significant, or even unexpected. As was the convention, he had some inspirational words to say about science and the men practicing it:
To me, Science, in its most general and comprehensive acceptation, means the knowledge of what I know, the consciousness of human knowledge.... The labors of the man of Science are therefore at once the most humble and the loftiest which man can undertake. He only does what every little child does from its first awakening into life, and must do every moment of its existence; and yet he aims at the gradual approximation of divine truth itself.
Then, as now, men of science needed money to help pay for their researches, and Prince Albert lent his support to this quest. He noted that the impediments to science "are often such as can only be successfully dealt with by the powerful arm of the State or the long purse of the Nation." This is why "the Association, together with its sister Society 'the Royal Society,' becomes the spokesman of Science with the Crown, the Government, or Parliament." Albert knew that education in the sciences were crucial, not just for people practicing science, but for everyone to recognize how much science benefits all of society. There was still much to do.
We may be justified in hoping, however, that by the gradual diffusion of Science, and its increasing recognition as a principal part of our national education, the public in general, no less than the Legislature and the State, will more and more recognize the claims of Science to their attention; so that it may no longer require the begging-box, but speak to the State, like a favoured child to its parent, sure of his parental solicitude for its welfare; that the State will recognize in Science one of its elements of strength and prosperity, to foster which the clearest dictates of self-interest demand.
No one at the meeting expected Prince Albert to commit actual government funding to the scientific cause. He did not have the power to do that; nor did the Queen. The Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 had long ago established that it was Parliament and not the Crown who ran England and controlled the purse. It was not even permissable for Prince Albert to use his position to publicly request government funds. This is why he speaks of the need for money more from the perspective of an interested citizen than a head of state.
As Prince Albert wrapped up his speech, convention called for him to become rhapsodic:
These meetings draw forth the philosopher from the hidden recesses of his study, call in the wanderer over the field of science to meet his brethren, to lay before them the results of his labours, to set forth the deductions at which he has arrived, to ask for their examination, to maintain in the combat of debate the truth of his positions and the accuracy of his observations.
Although England's long tradition of natural theology was definitely on the wane in 1859, it was still the custom for the President of the BAAS to mention the relation of science to the works of the Creator, and Prince Albert concluded his address in precisely that way. After pointing out that men of science "are not vain theorists, but essentially men of practice," he goes on to allude to the popular perception of them as sceptics:
Neither are they daring and presumptuous unbelievers — a character which ignorance has sometimes affixed to them — who would, like the Titans, storm heaven by placing mountain upon mountain, till hurled down from the height attained, by the terrible thunders of outraged Jove; but rather the pious pilgrims to the Holy Land, who toil on in search of the sacred shrine, in search of truth — God's truth — God's laws as manifested in His works, in His creation.
This tradition would continue for many years. In 1871 in Edinburgh, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) concluded his Presidential Address by calling William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) "that excellent old book" and asserting that "overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all around us" and "all living beings depend on one ever-acting Creator and Ruler." But three years later in 1874 in Belfast, John Tyndall turned the tradition on its head with a two-hour speech (called the Belfast Address) that ripped into supernatural explanations of design in the world, and which had some people calling for his prosecution for blasphemy.
The attendees of the BAAS meeting in 1859 could still take comfort that they were living in a world ruled by a benevolent Creator. How else could living things be so well adapted to their environment other than having been designed specifically for that purpose? Most of them were unaware that this world-view was about to be altered in a very dramatic manner.
One attendee at the 1859 meeting who knew what was coming was Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology was now in its 9th edition. Lyell was president of the Geological section of the BAAS in 1859, and his introductory address is actually more interesting that Prince Albert's address. He begins:
No subject has lately excited more curiosity and general interest among geologists and the public than the question of the antiquity of the human race; whether or no we have sufficient evidence to prove the former co-existence of man with certain extinct mammalia, in caves or in the superficial deposits commonly called drift or "diluvium." For the last quarter of a century, the occasional occurrence, in various parts of Europe, of the bones of man or the works of his hands, in cave-breccias and stalactites associated with the remains of extinct hyaena, bear, elephant, or rhinocerous, has given rise to a suspicion that the date of man must be carried further back than we had heretofore imagined.
Lyell then goes on to discuss many recent findings, and then changes the subject somewhat:
Among the problems of high theoretical interest which the recent progress of Geology and Natural History has brought into notice, no one is more prominent, and at the same time more obscure, than that relating to the origin of species. On this difficult and mysterious subject a work will very shortly appear, by Mr. Charles Darwin, the result of twenty years of observation and experiments in Zoology, Botany, and Geology, by which he has been led to the conclusion, that those powers of nature which give rise to races and permanent varieties in animals and plants, are the same as those which, in much longer periods, produce species, and, in a still longer series of ages, give rise to differences of generic rank. He appears to me to have succeeded, by his investigations and reasonings, in throwing a flood of light on many classes of phenomena connected with the affinities, geographical distribution, and geological succession of organic beings, for which no other hypothesis has been able, or has even attempted, to account.
With those words, the dean of English geologists gave his imprimitar to this new way of looking at adaptation and change (although it would be some time before Lyell would agree with Darwin entirely).
William Jardine, the president of the Botany and Zoology section of the BAAS, had a rather different perspective. After discussing some recent and forthcoming books, he said merely:
There is another work upon a similar subject advertised, from which we may expect some curious reasonings, 'On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection,' by Charles Darwin.
"Curious" indeed! Aside from these two mentions, there is an eerie calm-before-the-storm silence at the 1859 meeting of the BAAS on the subject of natural selection and the evolution of species.
The next year would be a little different: The 1860 BAAS meeting in Oxford featured several impromptu and contentious debates about evolution, including the really famous one that had Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asking Thomas H. Huxley whether it was through his grandfather and grandmother that he was descended from a monkey, and T. H. Huxley replying that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for a grandparent, but he would be ashamed of using his intellectual gifts to obscure the truth.
A bishop exchanging barbs with a biologist at the BAAS! That's how much the world can change in just one year!
Prince Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42. At the time they said it was typhoid, but it may have been something else, perhaps cancer. Queen Victoria, a few months older than her husband, would live for another 40 years.
Babbage, Charles, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of its Causes (London, 1930).
Basalla, George, et. al., eds, Victorian Science: A Self-Portrait from the Presidential Addresses to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Anchor Books, 1970).
Cannon, Susan Faye, Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period (Dawson and Science History Publications, 1978).
Gill, Gillian, We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals (Ballentine Books, 2009).
Howarth, O. J. R., The British Association for the Advancement of Science: A Retrospect 1831 – 1931 (BAAS, 1931).
Hyman, Anthony, Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer (Princeton University Press, 1982).
Morrell, Jack and Arnold Tackray, Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Clarendon Press, 1981).
Earlier Entries in This Series
1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)
1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)
1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)
1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)
1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)
1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)
1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)
1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)
1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (7/17/09)
1859 Music: Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (8/30/2009)
1859 Books: Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig” (9/5/2009)