City of London, City of Science

Opening of the Linbury Gallery Science City 1550-1800 at the Science Museum; growth of London in 16th century with influx of skilled instrument makers from Europe; establishment of Gresham College and Royal Society; growth of public scientific culture with lectures and experiments open to all; George III’s interest and enthusiasm and support for scientific projects; the establishment of London as the leading centre of science evidenced by the development of new instruments and new approaches to manufacturing during the 19th century.

Dame Fiona Woolf

21 October 2019

President, Historians, Ladies and Gentlemen

The Science Museum has just opened one of its most important permanent galleries ever, Science City 1550 – 1800: the Linbury Gallery. It brings together, for the first time, three outstanding collections that tell us a great deal about the scientific culture of London and, more particularly, the City during that period. The Science Museum’s own early scientific instruments are interspersed amongst the great King George III collection on loan from King’s College, London and part of the collection of the Royal Society. They are all very eye-catching and tell great stories.

Arguably, the City was nothing special in 1550. Its position on the world stage was not that extensive and rather overtaken by the maritime achievements of Amsterdam and Antwerp. The City’s population was only a quarter of that of Paris – some 70,000 people. By 1800, despite plague and fire, the population was almost a million and London had become the largest city in Europe.

In the early part of the 16th century, mathematical instruments for measuring or calculating were largely imported from Europe or occasionally made by the local metal worker. As the need for precision commercial instruments grew, skilled instrument makers from Germany (Nuremberg and Augsburg, for example) and from Flanders and the Netherlands were attracted to London not just by the market-led demand but also by Elizabeth I’s advisers recognising the benefits of encouraging local manufacturers to learn from them. Some of these European craftsmen were attracted to London to escape wars, conflicts and religious persecution by the evident freedom of speech, religion, assembly and thought that they could find there.

As well as doing business together, exchanging money and goods, they would also exchange knowledge and ideas. There were formal surroundings in landed societies but as we know, the coffeehouses were a remarkably inclusive and successful environment for productive thought. Thomas Sprat, a cleric and Fellow of the Royal Society writing in the 1660s noticed something which is less well known “there will scarce be a Ship come up the Thames that does not make some return of Experiments as well as of Merchandise”.[1] The City’s preoccupations drove the very questions being asked and the methods by which they were looking for solutions in this period. It was accepted that science was profoundly relevant to the real world. The citizens were deeply curious.

In the second half of the 16th century, 4.9% of the population were recorded as being “strangers”. They were mainly from the Low Countries and the German States, but there were others from France, Italy, Spain and
Portugal[2]. Even though by 1651 there were only 30 instrument makers in London, other craftspeople immigrated in much larger numbers.

Royal patents were granted to foreign scientific instrument makers on condition that they trained English workmen. The criteria applied by William Cecil, Secretary of State to Elizabeth I, was based on how much money patent holders would bring to the Crown[3]. In the late 1500s, we begin to see the development of apprenticeships and journeymen, trying to earn as much as possible to set up on their own. The passing on of skills and knowledge and of networking (as we might call it today) were the secrets of success in forging a commercial and sustainable trade.

From 1550, London grew from strength to strength and a century later it was described by Thomas Sprat (mentioned above) in this way:

“London alone… Is the head of a mighty Empire, the greatest that ever commanded the Ocean:
It is compos’d of Gentlemen, as well as Traders:
It has a large intercourse with all the Earth:
It is… A City, where all the noises and business in the World do meet…”

London’s high precision instruments were increasingly in demand all over the world, driven by trading ambitions and the need for efficiency and competitiveness, but also fuelled by military, economic and natural philosophical[4] interests.

Mathematical instruments were needed for new buildings for the growing population in the City and the related infrastructure such as the New River Project of 1613. They were also needed for establishing ownership, so it was not just construction that required geometry skills but also surveying and gunnery. In the 16th century, practical mathematical texts in English started arriving as did the texts to describe new instruments with “how to use it” examples. The horary quadrant and the practical mathematical textbook were invaluable to ensure that instruments were used correctly. One of the few well documented users was Ralph Treswell, a painter and surveyor in London between about 1560 and 1616. He had carried out surveys of the lands of London institutions such as St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Christ’s Hospital and the Clothworkers’ and Leathersellers’ Companies in the 1580s [5].

By the time we get to 1660, we reflect on the fact that the mathematical instrument trade in London was also driven by the desire of the rulers to expand the City and their own wealth. They were also conscious of the need for measuring and calculating instruments, for a vibrant market, skilled craftsmen and knowledge transfer to the next generation. These ingredients created a commercial trade that endured over several centuries but may well have died out but for Gresham College where a group of men in 1660 came together to form a society of learning that became the Royal Society in 1662.

The City remains proud of Gresham College, founded in 1597, the first academic institution apart from Oxford and Cambridge, which still holds public lectures to this day. It was home to the Royal Society for its first 50 years and, after the Great Fire in 1666, it provided a place where some 3000 City traders could meet and do business, instead of using the Royal Exchange which had been burnt down. [6]

The Founding Members of the Royal Society were acutely aware of the European academies but wanted to create a society dedicated very specifically to experimental philosophy. This was very different from its European counterparts, perhaps the result of its London location. The academies in Florence and Paris were closed environments, whereas the Royal Society Fellows actively shared their ideas and discoveries through a science journal called Philosophical Transactions. This journal was the first that focused on observation and experiment. It was unrivalled in its popularity across Europe as a journal uniquely dedicated to science until the 19th century.

What was remarkable about the Royal Society was that it shared its ideas, thinking and findings widely. The transparency was welcomed and driven by a desire to distinguish the Fellows from charlatans and, more importantly, to convince everyone that their efforts were of practical use to the City of London. This was about sustainability, legitimisation and survival. The post of Curator of Experiments for Society meetings in 1662 was intended to help to make that vision a reality7. The Society could tap into a pool of people with curiosity, not just for natural philosophy, but with a passion for craft and commerce. They knew the people who were able to make the new instruments that the Fellows wanted for their experiments and who had experience of collaboration with customers and scholars.

The Society’s motto beneath the coat of arms was “nullius in verba” , famously meaning “take no one’s word for it”. This created the scientific culture that we know today of evidence-based thinking and facts, verification of repeatable experiments and scientific discipline in the manner in which they were written up. The Fellows had to work hard to convince the public that this was the logical way that new knowledge is revealed and shared. Before that, a combination of religious texts and logical reasoning was thought to be sufficient. They used the City technique of gathering networks and promoting conversations with associates in London’s coffeehouses after Society meetings. [8]

For Robert Boyle, whose air pump experiments are well-known, the written description of an experiment was as important as the experiment itself. The way in which he described his experiments in his book, published in 1660
New Experiments Pysico-mechanicall uses a structure that we can recognise today. He also pointed out in his book that it is “usefull to recite what Experiments miscarry aswell as what succeed”. Drawing attention to the benefits of repeatability and independence, as well as peer group review, he said: “this Experiment was a few days after repeated in the presence of those excellent and deservedly Famous Mathematic Professors, Dr Wallace, Dr Ward and Mr Wren were pleased to Honour it with their Presence” [9].

The Royal Society operated as a hub in the City for collaboration, sharing and innovation. Newton and Hooke famously disagreed with each other but Newton believed in the Royal Society and its mission. His most famous publications, Opticks and Principia were published through the Society but they were funded from elsewhere. The Society acted as a catalyst for new instruments for experiments that had never been conducted before. There were many crafts in the City of London that could take a design and make a new instrument. Glass workers, clock and watchmakers, turners of wood and spectacle makers could all make useful instruments and be found in the City where the Royal Society made its home for so long.
The old approach of simply ordering an instrument gave way to collaboration. Robert Hooke’s diary reveals that he spent his days visiting instrument makers and coffeehouses as well as demonstrating experiments at the Royal Society. He collaborated with the great clock and watchmaker Thomas Tompion. In 1665, Hooke published Micrographia which is credited with initiating microscopy. The illustrations are of such high quality (he was trained as a painter) that they almost look like photographs, which says a great deal, not just for his own skill but for the quality of his apparatus. His friend Samuel Pepys described his book as “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life”[10] Hooke invented the term “cell” in biological sciences to describe small compartments of less than a thousandth of an inch diameter. Hooke would not have been able to achieve any of this without collaborating with the City’s optical instrument makers [11].
Samuel Pepys became a member of the Royal Society in 1665 and was its President in 1684, his name appearing on the title page of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Samuel Pepys argues that we can discern that he was a secret scientist of a kind because his diaries reveal thinking that is candid, dispassionate, regular and detailed. He, like so many others, was keen to be part of the most distinguished club in the country. [12]

The Royal Society is, however, only part of the story. In the 18th century there was a growing public scientific culture fuelled by a wide variety of activities which had nothing to do with the Society. It was important for London’s residents and visitors to be familiar with the latest knowledge and ideas. There were technological, engineering and commercial developments that would lead Britain into the agricultural and industrial revolutions and experimental science was at the heart of these innovations.

A growing number of lecturers were attracting audiences in a variety of venues from concert rooms to coffee houses. They competed for business and travelled around Britain and across Europe to reach new audiences, teaching scientific principles and carrying out experiments with the sort of equipment, such as air pumps, which might only have been observed by Royal Society Fellows. The experiments and learning were now enjoyed by a much wider part of society and even became a form of entertainment fashionable amongst the upper and growing middle classes. It was not as if there was nothing else to do – London was full of musical and theatrical entertainments, museums and art galleries, gardens and other demonstrations that played to the curious mind.

Stephen Demainbray was a leading lecturer with a vast collection of scientific instruments. Orphaned at an early age, he had spent much of his youth at the home of a fellow Huguenot, John Theophilus Desaguliers, himself an active lecturer who was the Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society. Through a family connection, Demainbray was appointed to teach natural philosophy to George, Prince of Wales, the future King George III and his brother, Prince Edward. He was 45 and remained in the employment of the Royal family for the rest of his life.

George III is famous for his interest and enthusiasm as well as his wonderful collection of scientific instruments. His royal buildings became science hubs in their own right, not just housing the instruments but hosting demonstrations, discussions and visits from Europe’s leading researchers, mathematicians and astronomers. George III was only 22 when he was crowned and under the guidance of the Earl of Bute, he commissioned a considerable suite of apparatus from a maker called George Adams, who provided instruction manuals and illustrations as well as an extraordinary standard of workmanship.

It can be argued that the results of lecturing in the early 18th century established a standard curriculum in science which students needed to learn whether they were a monarch or a merchant. The Earl of Bute was a powerful influence. For him it was important that George should equip himself to understand military or geographical issues and be able to follow lines of reasoning. Natural philosophy was training for the morals and for the mind[13]. George remained a great champion of science and mathematics throughout his life. He was responsible for granting significant sums of money for scientific projects, including the Royal Society’s expeditions to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. He built himself an observatory at Kew and his enthusiasm was so infectious that his grandmother, Queen Caroline, wife of George II, commissioned a magnificent orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system from leading maker, Thomas Wright. It eventually joined the collection at Kew and is now on display in the Science City Gallery at the Science Museum in Exhibition Road along with other outstanding instruments from George III’s stellar collection[14].

By the middle of the 18th century, foreign visitors were attracted to London to commission and purchase scientific instruments and see demonstrations. The Royal Society moved to Crane Court off Fleet Street in 1710, attracting makers to establish close by. Some preferred to locate closer to the docks, such was their foreign trade. They offered lectures and publicised themselves by writing books adopting trademarks and logos, producing pamphlets and catalogues now that printing was cheaper. They made a much wider range of instruments to cater for those less wealthy in the social hierarchy. Benjamin Martin developed a pocket microscope which he sold for a low price and also a simplified orrery. He wrote, “a pity it is that the costliness and magnificence of so curious and useful an instrument should be a bar to its common use”[15].

It would have been evident to a Londoner walking around the streets that science was developing the City into a more attractive place. Stephen Demainbray’s 1752 model of a pile-driving machine was used in the construction of a bridge and public experiments took place to find reliable lightning conductors. Electrical displays became common in London, electricity being an exciting phenomenon for the public. The growing variety of electrical machines delighted wide audiences. We also have public lecturers to thank for explaining Newton’s extraordinary contribution to science and to society. By the time Newton died in 1727, only a highly specialised audience had read the Principia, his celebrated work on motion and gravity. It was deliberately technical and not written for people that Newton described as “little Smatterers in Mathematicks”[16]. There were publications such as Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles: and made easy to those who have not studied mathematics by James Ferguson in 1756 and The Newtonian System of Philosophy Adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies that remained popular until well into the 19th century. That is not to say that the Royal Society was not promoting and defending Newtonian concepts from challenge on behalf of its former President. Its Curator of Experiments, Desaguliers, was a leading champion, performing experiments, lecturing and teaching personally in his spare moments.

Finally, we should not underestimate the contribution that the City made to science by becoming the great global city that it is today. Funding for scientific and mathematical instruments for trade, standardising weights and measures, navigation, architecture construction and surveying came from trading companies and some wealthy individuals as well as from governments. In the 18th century the name of the game was to achieve much higher levels of accuracy, efficiency and productivity. There was also a need to support naval and military activities as well as to attract foreign trade and investment.

The state had a huge interest in science as we know from accounts of the activities of the Board of Admiralty, the Board of Longitude, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the Board of Ordnance and the Board of Excise all of which were demanding standardisation, regulation and mathematical precision in measurement and counting. London’s trading companies, such as the East India Company, which took charge of land overseas, needed many scientific and mathematical skills and tools for surveying and navigating. They also needed instrument makers to make the most of the opportunities in order to rise to new challenges. But the need was equally great at home, especially to create the first accurate map of Britain. One of the results was the development of increasingly refined theodolites that made their way all over the world.

The great 18th century voyages of exploration provoked scientific advancement. They may have been driven by imperial competition, but they also drew together traders, agricultural importers, Fellows of the Royal Society as well as the state, making use of London’s instrument makers in their pursuit of greater precision. Cook’s first circumnavigation in 1768-71 is a famous example. It was organised by the Royal Society and the Navy with funds from George III. It was required to gather information, observations and specimens.
By the 19th century, we will find instrument makers like Robert Brettel Bate, a Master of the Spectacle Makers’ Company, selling and exporting all kinds of mathematical optical and scientific instruments from his shop on Poultry, working to create new Parliamentary standards of weights and measures which they then supplied in great profusion. Bate then made bullion balances for the Bank of England and the East India Company. His meticulous work and pursuit of precision enabled him to be appointed the sole agent for Admiralty Charts and the Nautical Almanac. London provided unique and essential resources for a nation pursuing empire building[17].

Instrument makers were not classed as scientists, although a few did become Fellows of the Royal Society. Their guilds (livery companies) and their apprenticeship systems provided vital links and platforms for collaboration. All of them made a significant contribution in developing new instruments and new approaches to manufacturing and finding new markets, particularly in bringing down the price and increasing the precision and reliability. Although competition from Europe was around the corner, London, in general, and the City, in particular, was renowned as the leading centre of science, evidenced by the sheer variety of instruments of the highest quality, precision and novelty. They are also a delight to the eye, as we can see for ourselves, in the gallery called Science City, not forgetting the collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, side by side in the Science Museum.

Whilst we celebrate the scientific instrument makers, the Fellows of the Royal Society and those who published and lectured, we should not forget the many ordinary (and not so ordinary) citizens whose craft, commerce and curiosity contributed so much.


1 Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550 – 1800 (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd in association with Science Museum, 2019), pp.13
2 Deborah E. Harkness, Strange” ideas and “English” knowledge natural science exchange in Elizabethan London” in Pamela Smith and Paul Findlay (editors), Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science and Art in Early Modern Europe. London (Routledge, 2002) pp. 138 – 139.
3 Ibid
4 Natural philosophy was taken to mean arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.
5 Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550 – 1800 (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd in association with Science Museum, 2019) pp.29-57
6 Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550 – 1800 (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd in association with Science Museum, 2019) pp.166
7 John Henry A Short History of Scientific Thought. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2011) pp. 146
8 Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550 – 1800 (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd in association with Science Museum, 2019) pp.65
9 Ibid pp.66-69
10 Samuel Pepys, “Saturday, 21 January 1665” in the Diary of Samuel Pepys.
11 Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550 – 1800 (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd in association with Science Museum, 2019) pp.71-78
12 Claire Tomalin Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (London: Penguin Books, 2002) pp 252 – 258
13 Ibid pp. 100
14 Ibid pp. 97-126
15 Quoted in John R. Milburn Benjamin Martin and the development of the Orrery in British Journal for the History of Science vol. 6, no 4, 1973, pp.378
16 Stephen D. Snobelen, On reading Isaac Newton’s Principia in the 18th century in Endeavour, vol.24 no 4, 1998, pp. 159.
17 Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London 1550 – 1800 (London: Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers Ltd in association with Science Museum, 2019) pp.148-149

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