Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

who in fact was at this time no more than seventy-five, and who lived and wrote for sixteen or seventeen years longer, had already involved himself in his famous mathematical controversy with Dr. Wallis and the new society, which speedily became so angry and scurrilous on both sides—especially on that of Hobbes, who was in the wrong; but it does not appear either that Sorbiere was prepossessed against the society, or they against him in the first instance, by his connexion with their great assailant. Perhaps, however, the circumstance was remembered afterwards, when some of the more zealous members found themselves dissatisfied with the Frenchman's published narrative, and Spratt, already the appointed historian of the society, and vain of his reputation as the finest or smartest writer of the day, undertook the task of exposing its blunders and calumnies.* The society elected Sorbiere a member while he was in England; and he on his part speaks with great respect both of the society as a body and of those of its members whom he has occasion to mention. Of Sir Robert Moray, he says, “It was a wonderful, or rather a very edifying thing, to find a person employed in matters of state, and of such excellent merit, and one who had been engaged a great part of his life in warlike commands and the affairs of the cabinet, apply himself in making machines in St. James's Park and adjusting telescopes. All this we have seen him do with great application. . . . I made him frequent visits, very much to my satisfaction, having never had the honour to see him but I learned something of him.” He adds,

* Observations on M. de Sorbiere's Voyage into England;

Yoritten to Dr. Wren, professor of astronomy in Oxford, 1708 (first printed in 1665).

“He was so kind as to introduce me to Prince Rupert, who is of the same frank temper, kind, modest, very curious, and takes no state upon him. . . . Sir Robert Moray brought me likewise into the king's presence, who is a lover of the curiosities of art and nature. He took the pains to bring me into the Royal Society, and had the goodness, almost every time that I attended there, to seat me next himself, that so he might interpret to me whatever was said in English.”* An account is afterwards given of the origin of the Royal Society, in which we are told that during the late civil war “persons of quality, having no court to make, applied themselves to their studies; some turning their heads to chemistry, others to mechanism, mathematics, or natural philosophy.” “Those same persons,” proceeds our author, “who had found their account in their respective studies, would not, after the king's return.... be guilty of so much ingratitude as to leave them and take upon them an idle court life; but they chose rather to intersperse these sorts of entertainments with their other diversions; and so the Lords Digby, Boyle, Brouncker, Moray, Devonshire, Worcester, and divers others (for the English nobility are all of them learned and polite), built elaboratories, made machines, opened mines, and made use of an hundred sorts of artists to find out some new invention or other. The king himself is not devoid of this curiosity; nay, he has caused a famous chymist to be brought over from Paris, for whom he has built a very fine elaboratory in St. James's Park. But his majesty more particularly takes great delight in finding out useful experiments in navigation, wherein he has immense knowledge.” He then notices with great * English Translation, p. 31. f Id., p. 33.

admiration Boyle's pneumatic engine, or air-pump, and other inventions of some of the members of the Royal Society. He states, by mistake, that the society had already begun a library adjoining to the gallery through which they passed from their hall of meeting in Gresham College: “they have as yet no library,” Spratt observes, “but only a repository for their instruments and rarities.”* Spratt is scandalised at the triviality of the description given of the meetings of the society; but the “mean circumstances,” the enumeration of which he denounces as unworthy of so noble a theme, are interesting enough at this distance of time. First is noticed the usher or beadle, “who goes before the president with a mace, which he lays down on the table when the society have taken their places:” this is the gilt silver mace the society still possess, the gift of their first royal patron. It is said to be the same which was formerly used in the House of Commons, and which was removed from the table by one of the soldiers on Cromwell's order to “take away that bauble,” when he came down and turned out the remnant of the Long Parliament on the famous 20th of April, 1653. “The room where the society meets,” the account goes on, “is large and wainscoted; there is a large table before the chimney, with seven or eight chairs covered with green cloth about it, and two rows of wooden and matted benches to lean on, the first being higher than the other, in form like an amphitheatre. The president and council are elective; they mind no precedency in the society, but the president sits at the middle of the table in an elbow chair, with his back to the chimney. The secretary sits at the end of the table on his left hand, and * Observations, p. 166.

they have each of them pen, ink, and paper before them. I saw nobody sit on the chairs; I think they are reserved for persons of great quality, or those who have occasion to draw near to the president. All the other members take their places as they think fit, and without any ceremony; and, if any one comes in after the society is fixed, nobody stirs, but he takes a place presently where he can find it, that so no interruption may be given to him that speaks. The president has a little wooden mace in his hand, with which he strikes the table when he would command silence; they address their discourse to him bareheaded till he makes a sign for them to put on their hats; and there is a relation given in a few words of what is . thought proper to be said concerning the experiments proposed by the secretary. There is nobody here eager to speak, that makes a long harangue, or intent upon saying all he knows; he is never interrupted that speaks, and differences of opinion cause no manner of resentment, nor as much as a disobliging way of speech; there is nothing seemed to me to be more civil, respectful, and better managed than this meeting; and, if there are any private discourses held between any while a member is speaking, they only whisper, and the least sign from the president causes a sudden stop, though they have not told their mind out. I took special notice of this conduct in a body consisting of so many persons, and of such different nations. ... In short, it cannot be discerned that any authority prevails here; and, whereas those who are mere mathematicians favour Des Cartes more than Gassendus, the literati, on the other side, are more inclined to the latter. But both of them have hitherto demeaned themselves with so much moderation that no different hypotheses or principles have been a means to break in upon the good har

mony of the society.” Spratt takes fire at this statement about the authority of Descartes with the mathematicians and of Gassendi with the men of general learning: “neither of these two men,” he says, “bear any sway amongst them; they are never named there as dictators over men's reasons; nor is there any extraordinary reference to their judgments.”f The Royal Society began to publish the most important of the papers communicated to it, under the title of the Philosophical Transactions, in March, 1665; and the work has been continued from that date to the present day, with the exception of the four years from January, 1679, to January, 1683 (for which space the deficiency is partly supplied by Hooke's volume of Philosophical Collections), of the three years and a month from December, 1687, to January, 1691, and of various shorter intervals, amounting in all to nearly a year and a half more, previous to October, 1695. From this work, or either of its abridgments—the first begun by Mr. Lowthorp and brought down by a succession of continuators to the middle of last century; the second, and best, by the late Dr. Charles Hutton and assistants, extending to the year 1800—and from the histories of Bishop Spratt and Dr. Birch, the former, however, coming down only to the year 1667, in which it was published—may be learned the general character of the inquiries with which the Royal Society occupied itself in the earlier stage of its existence, and which, we may hence infer, formed the kind of science at that time chiefly cultivated in this country. It will be found that mathematical and analytical investigations then bore an extremely small propor

* English Translation, p. 38.
f Observations, p. 165.

« AnteriorContinuar »