The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Francis R. Johnson

Gresham College: Precursor of the Royal Society

Journal of the History of Ideas, 1 (4)

Oct. 1940, 413-438.

Of paramount interest to all students of the history of ideas is the development, in the seventeenth century, of formally organized scientific societies from the informal gatherings of devotees of science that preceded them.  Today we can see clearly that one of the causes for the relative stagnation of science in Western Europe during the Middle Ages is that new findings - and there were many new facts of nature brought to light during this period [1] - too often perished with their discoverers or were buried in manuscripts which, being available to few other investigators, gave little impetus to further progress.  We likewise recognize that the remarkably accelerated advance of science from the seventeenth century onward was due in no small measure to the increased rapidity with which scientific information came to be transmitted not only among the scientists of separate localities and nations, but among investigators dispersed throughout the Western World.  The importance of the first permanent scientific societies in this dissemination and interchange of scientific ideas and discoveries is universally conceded, and many valuable histories have been devoted to the careers of those organizations that survived.  Insufficiently explored, however, either in the initial chapters of these histories or elsewhere, are the earlier attempts at co-operative endeavor [2] - the groups

1. For numerous illustrations of important scientific discoveries from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, see Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vols. I & II (New York, 1923), Vols. III & IV (New York, 1934); Science and Thought in the Fifteenth Century (New York, 1929).

2. A third edition has recently appeared of the invaluable pioneering survey of the contributions of the scientific societies in the seventeenth century: Martha Ornstein’s The Role of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago, 1938; the first edition was published posthumously in 1913).  A new edition at this time is a witness to the soundness of Miss Ornstein’s work within the scope that it set for itself, and a recognition of the intrinsic importance of the subject.  On the other hand, it proclaims how few works, in the interval of twenty-five years, have sought to delve more deeply into the subject that she explored.  Several of the French groups devoted to scientific inquiry have been admirably dealt with by Harcourt Brown in Scientific Organizations in Seventeenth-Century France, 1620-1680 (Baltimore, 1934).  Dorothy Stimson’s article, “Dr. Wilkins and the Royal Society,” Journal of Modern History, III (1931), 539-63, has analyzed and discussed the accounts of the [origin of the Royal Society of London.  But, for England in the early seventeenth century, we need a comprehensive and detailed study similar to Harcourt Brown’s for France.  The present article’s modest aim is to make one small contribution to this end and to indicate profitable lines of further investigation which can be followed out whenever research in English archives again becomes possible.]

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which met together without formal organization or royal charter, and thus sowed the seed and nurtured the immature plant of scientific association until it became firmly rooted.

Our concern here is with England, and the evolution there of groups promoting the association and co-operation of men sharing an active interest in science.  Historians of the Royal Society recognize that its formal establishment in 1660 and the granting to it of a royal charter in 1663 was but the culmination of a series of regular gatherings of scientifically-minded men in London and in Oxford.  The familiar accounts of the origin of the Society trace these antecedent gatherings back as far as the year 1645, when a group which included several of the Society’s later founders were meeting regularly in London after the astronomy lecture at Gresham College, and usually in the rooms of the Gresham Professor of Astronomy. [3]  The purpose of this article is to present evidence indicating that these meetings of English scientists went back to a period much earlier than 1645, and that by long tradition gatherings of this sort for the interchange of information and the witnessing of experiments had centered about Gresham College and its professors of astronomy and geometry.

The intimate connection between Gresham College and the Royal Society during the first fifty years of the latter’s existence is familiar to all who have had occasion to investigate the history, the science, or the literature of England during the late seventeenth century.  Except for a period of seven years following the great fire of London in 1666, which destroyed the Royal Exchange and resulted in the temporary housing of the former tenants of the Exchange in the Gresham College buildings, Sir Thomas Gresham’s foundation provided a meeting-place for the Royal Society and quarters for its library and scientific collections from the beginning until the year 1710, when the society purchased a building of its own.  In the literary works of the day, the early fellows of the Royal Society were colloquially known as “Greshamites” or “Men

3. The best accounts of the origin of the Royal Society are in C. B. Weld, A History of the Royal Society (2 vols.; London, 1848), I, chaps. i-iv, and in The Record of the Royal Society of London (3d ed.; London, 1912), pp. 1-22.


of Gresham.”  The Gresham College professors - not only those holding the three scientific chairs of Astronomy, Geometry, and Physic, but several others as well - were among the most active of the Royal Society’s early members.  Thus the two organizations were linked together by both membership and locality, and finally (and in consequence) by popular imagination.

The younger of these organizations, the Royal Society, was formally established in 1660.  The elder, Gresham College, began its active career in 1598, with the distinguished mathematician Henry Briggs as its first professor of geometry.  From this time on, Gresham College, with an unbroken line of enthusiastic mathematical scientists among its professors, and with its central location in London, offered an ideal rendezvous where those engaged in scientific pursuits could meet with others who shared their interests, exchange news concerning the latest investigations and discoveries, and gain the stimulus that comes from association with eager fellow-workers.  That English scientists should wait until 1645 before taking advantage of such opportunities seems inconceivable.  We should expect that the natural course of events, as each decade passed, would make Gresham College increasingly important as a gathering-place for scientists, so that by the 1640’s Englishmen interested in the “new philosophy” would have been long enough in the habit of assembling informally there to make the custom a well-established tradition.  A group having so secure an anchor as Gresham College would not require the stabilizing force of formal organization to maintain a continued existence through all the fluctuations in membership that the passage of time would bring about.  Suppose, then, that in 1645 or thereabouts, a few energetic and enthusiastic young men were admitted to the group, and this generation among the membership was the only one which survived to become the leaders in the founding of the Royal Society.  These young recruits of 1645, looking back late in life, would naturally tend to date the origin of the meetings which grew into the Royal Society from the time of their first participation in them.

The hypothesis that I have just sketched postulates the gradual and uninterrupted evolution of an informal club, if we may so call it, composed of Englishmen interested in science - a club which constantly had as its nucleus one or more Gresham professors and his friends, and which had Gresham College as its usual meeting


place.  This hypothesis is contrary to the generally accepted account, which implies that the group which Robert Boyle described as the “Invisible College” came suddenly into being about 1645, the result of the enthusiasm of a few young men for scientific investigation, combined with their desire to escape, occasionally, from the political and religious turmoils of the day.  Let us see what evidence can be offered in favor of this newly proposed hypothesis.

We may begin by examining the evidence upon which the accepted theory is based, to see whether the known facts will bear the new interpretation that is proposed.  The first official account of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal-Society of London (1667), states that the foundation of the Society was laid, not in London in 1645, but in the Warden’s (John Wilkins ‘s) lodgings at Wadham College, Oxford, in 1649. 4  Since Sprat’s History was written under the supervision of Wilkins, then secretary of the Society, this version has his authority and represents his point of view.  John Wallis, on the other hand, traces the origin of the Society to meetings at Gresham College in London about 1645.  Although the existence of such meetings is confirmed by references in Robert Boyle’s letters of October 22, 1646, and January 20, 1646/7, 5 Wallis remains our only first-hand witness for the date, the place, and the membership of the group. 6  As Miss Stimson has shown, 7 the accounts of Wilkins and Wallis may easily be reconciled by assuming that Wilkins considered the meetings at Oxford to have a superior claim to recognition because there the group was formally organized and kept minutes, and thus provided a precedent for the organization of a society in London after most of the Oxford contingent had returned to the capital.

It is to Wallis’s statements, therefore, that we must turn.  In 1678 Wallis, in a pamphlet entitled A Defence of the Royal Society:

4. Op. cit., p. 53.

5. Robert Boyle, Works, ed. T. Birch (London, 1744), I, 20.  It seems certain that Boyle refers to the same group that Wallis describes.

6. Anthony Wood, in his enlarged English translation of his Historia et Antiquitates Universitatis Oxoniensis (1674), History and Antiquities of Oxford, ed. J. Gutch (Oxford, 1786), II, Part ii, 632-33, apparently derives his information from Wallis’s Defence (1678).  The original Latin edition of 1674 does not contain the reference asserting the prior claims of the 1645 meetings against the version given in Sprat’s History.

7. “Dr. Wilkins and the Royal Society,” .JMH, III, 544-47.


An Answer to the Cavils of Doctor William Holder, [8] gave an account of the circumstances surrounding these early meetings:

I take its [the Royal Society’s] first Ground and Foundation to have been in London about the year 1645 (if not sooner) when the same Dr. Wilkins (then Chaplain to the Prince Elector Palatine, in London), Dr. Jonathan Goddard, Dr. Ent (now Sir George Ent), Dr. Glisson, Dr. Scarbrough (now Sir Charles Scarbrough), Dr. Merrit, with myself and some others, met weekly (sometimes at Dr. Goddard’s Lodgings, sometimes at the Mitre in Wood-street hard by) at a certain day and hour, under a certain Penalty, and a weekly Contribution for the Charge of Experiments, with certain Rules agreed upon amongst us.  Where (to avoid diversion to other discourses, and for some other reasons) we barred all Discourses of Divinity, of State-Affairs, and of News (other than what concern’d our business of Philosophy) confining our selves to Philosophical Inquiries, and such as related there-unto; as Physick, Anatomy, Geometry, Astronomy, Navigation, Staticks, Mechanicks, and Natural Experiments.

These meetings we removed, soon after, to the Bull-head in Cheapside and (in Term-time) to Gresham Colledge, where we met weekly at Mr. Foster’s Lecture (the Astronomy-Professor there) and after the Lecture ended, repaired sometimes to Mr. Foster’s Lodgings, sometimes to some other place not far distant, where we continued such Inquiries; and our Numbers encreased. [9]

But a more detailed account of these early meetings was given by Wallis in 1697, when, at the age of eighty, in an “account of some passages in his own life,” he set forth in these words his own recollection of the circumstances leading to the Society’s establishment:

About the year 1645, while I lived in London (at a time when, by our Civil Wars, Academical Studies were much interrupted in both our Universities:) beside the Conversation of divers eminent Divines, as to matters Theological; I had the opportunity of being acquainted with divers worthy Persons, inquisitive into Natural Philosophy, and other parts of Humane Learning; And particularly of what hath been called the New Philosophy or Experimental Philosophy.

We did by agreement, divers of us, meet weekly in London on a certain day, to treat and discourse of such affairs.  Of which number were Dr. John Wilkins (afterward Bp. of Chester), Dr. Jonathan Goddard, Dr. George

8. Dr. Holder had stated that “the first ground and foundation of the Royal Society” had been laid at Oxford in 1649.  See J. F. Scott, The Mathematical Work of John Wallis (London, 1938), p. 9.

9. Pp. 7-8.


Ent, Dr. Glisson, Dr. Merret, (Drs. in Physick), Mr. Samuel Foster then Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, Mr. Theodore Hank [Haak] (a German of the Palatinate, and then Resident in London, who, I think, gave the first occasion, and first suggested those meetings) and many others.

These meetings were held sometimes at Dr. Goddard’s lodgings in Woodstreet (or some convenient place near) on occasion of his keeping an Operator in his house for grinding Glasses for Telescopes and Microscopes; and sometime at a convenient place in Cheapside; sometime at Gresham College or some place near adjoyning.

About the year 1648, 1649, some of our company being removed to Oxford (first Dr. Wilkins, then I, and soon after Dr. Goddard) our company divided.  Those in London continued to meet there as before (and we with them, when we had occasion to be there;) and those of us at Oxford; with Dr. Ward (since Bp. of Salisbury) Dr. Ralph Bathurst (now President of Trinity College in Oxford) Dr. Petty (since Sr. William Petty) Dr. Willis (then an eminent Physician in Oxford) and divers others, continued such meetings in Oxford; and brought those studies into fashion there; meeting first at Dr. Pettie ‘s Lodgings, (in an Apothecarie ‘s house) because of the convenience of inspecting Drugs, and the like, as there was occasion: and after his remove to Ireland (tho’ not so constantly) at the Lodgings of Dr. Wilkins, then Warden of Wadham Coll.  And after his removal to Trinity College in Cambridge, at the Lodgings of the Honorable Mr. Robert Boyle, then resident for divers years in Oxford.

Those meetings in London continued, and (after the King’s Return in 1660) were increased with the accession of divers worthy and Honorable Persons: and were afterwards incorporated by the name of the Royal Society. [10]

For the years immediately preceding 1660, Wallis ‘s account needs supplementing from Sprat ‘s narrative, which gives further particulars and adds the names of those who in 1658 were active members of the London group.  Sprat says that the meetings at Oxford continued until about 1658, but in that year,

those [at Oxford] being called away to several parts of the nation, and the greatest number of them coming to London, they usually met at Gresham College at the Wednesday’s and Thursday’s lectures of Dr. Wren and Mr. Rooke; where there joyn ‘d with them several eminent persons of their common acquaintance: The Lord Viscount Brouncker, the now Lord Brereton,

10. From a letter by Wallis addressed to Dr. Thomas Smith, dated January 29, 1697; published by Thomas Hearne in his edition of Peter Langtoft’s Chronicle (2 vols.; Oxford, 1725), “The Publisher’s Appendix to His Preface,” I, clxi-clxiv.


Sir Paul Neil, Mr. John Evelyn, Mr. Henshaw, Mr. Slingsby, Dr. Timothy Clark, Dr. Ent, Mr. Hall, Mr. Hill, Dr. Crone, and diverse other gentlemen, whose inclinations lay the same way.  This custom was observed once, if not twice a week, in term-time; till they were scattered by the miserable distractions of that fatal year; till the continuance of their meetings there might have made them run the hazard of the fate of Archimedes: for then the place of their meeting was made a quarter for soldiers. [11]

To this evidence we must add one more document, the memorandum of the meeting of this group held on November 28, 1660, at which steps were taken to organize it as a scientific society.  This memorandum reads:

These persons following, according to the usual custom of most of them, mett together at Gresham Colledge to heare Mr. Wren’s lecture, viz. The Lord Brouncker, Mr. Boyle, Mr. Bruce, Sir Robert Moray, Sir Paul Neile, Dr. Wilkins, Dr. Goddard, Dr. Petty, Mr. Ball, Mr. Rooke, Mr. Wren, Mr. Hill.  And after the lecture was ended, they did, according to the usual manner, withdrawe for mutuall converse.  Where amongst other matters that were discoursed of, something was offered about a designe of founding a Colledge for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning.  And because they had these frequent occasions of meeting with one another, it was proposed that some course might be thought of, to improve this meeting to a more regular way of debating things, and according to the manner in other countryes, where there were voluntary associations of men in academies, for the advancement of various parts of learning, so they might doe something answerable here for the promoting of experimentall philosophy.

In order to which, it was agreed that this Company would continue their weekly meeting on Wednesday, at 3 of the clock in the tearme time, at Mr. Rooke’s chamber at Gresham Colledge; in the vacation, at Mr. Ball ‘s chamber in the Temple. [12]

Upon the accounts that I have just quoted at some length rests the case for the inception of the Royal Society at the informal gatherings of the year 1645, and also for the tracing of the Society’s development from the time of those gatherings until its founding in 1660.  Are these accounts inconsistent with the hypothesis that the meetings taking place in 1645 were not a new venture - that the date merely marked the accession of a few new and youthful members to a long-established coterie of scientifically-minded Englishmen?  If we analyze Wallis’s statements we observe that in both accounts he is not precise about the date - it was “1645, if not

11. History of the Royal-Society of London (1667), p. 57.

12. Quoted from the Journal-book, I, 1, in The Record of the Royal Society of London, pp. 7-8.


sooner.”  This is not surprising, since one report was written more than thirty years after the event, and the other more than fifty years afterward, when Wallis was over eighty years old.  In 1645 he was a young man of twenty-nine who, after receiving his M.A. in 1640 at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, had come to London late in 1641 as chaplain to Lady Vere.  Certainly Wallis nowhere claims to have had a share in launching the meetings of scientists that followed the weekly astronomy lecture at Gresham College.  Instead, he apparently found the group already well established before he joined their circle, since he reports, at second hand, the conjecture that Theodore Haak, who came to England in 1625, had been the first to suggest these assemblies. 13  Naturally enough, the members of this group that Wallis, many years later, recalled and included in his partial list were those who lived on to become members of the Royal Society and take a prominent part in the activities of its early years.  This, under the circumstances, was only natural.  Natural enough, also, was the fact that his list, in consequence, included men who, like himself, were in 1645 still young enough to be just reaching their prime in the 1660’s.  Of the men he mentions, both of the London and the later Oxford group, all except Samuel

13. The notion that Theodore Haak was the one who had originally inspired the meetings of this group has, so far as I can discover, Wallis’s statement in 1697 as its only source, and Wallis there does not assert it as a fact, but merely throws it out as a supposition of his own.  It may have been Haak that first introduced Wallis to the group, for Wallis at the time (1644-46) was secretary to the Westminster Assembly of Divines, and Haak was engaged in translating the Dutch annotations to the Bible for this Assembly.  That Haak, for some years, had been associated with a group of English scientists and served as a link with scientists on the continent seems certain, but that he was the prime mover in the meetings at Gresham College awaits proof.  See Harcourt Brown, Scientific Organizations in Seventeenth-Century France, chap. iii, for an account of Haak’s correspondence with Mersenne, which indicates that as early as 1639-40 Haak was acting as corresponding secretary for an informal group of English scientists which definitely included John Pell and Gabriel Plattes.  What the relations of these men were to the Gresham College circle could probably be determined by a detailed study of the Haak-Mersenne correspondence from this point of view, together with an examination of the Pell manuscripts in the British Museum.  I have not had the opportunity to make such a study, but these points in Mr. Brown’s description of the Haak material are worth noting for the clues they may give to some other investigator: 1. Haak sent Mersenne Gellibrand’s book, The Variation of the Magneticall Needle (see below, pp. 433-4).  2. There is a reference in the correspondence to a Mr. Harrison and his method of making catalogues and indices.  This may be the same person as the unidentified Harrison who assisted at Gellibrand’s magneticall experiments described below p. 433.  3. There are references to John Greaves, who at that time was Gresham Professor of Geometry, but was absent much of the time in foreign travel in the Near East pursuing Oriental studies.


Foster lived to become fellows of the Royal Society.  Of these, all except George Ent (b. 1604) and Francis Glisson (b. 1597) were young men who were under thirty or had just reached their thirty-first year. [14]

Wallis had a special reason for including Samuel Foster while omitting all others who failed to live on into the Restoration period.  Foster, a generation older than Wallis, was in 1645 professor of astronomy at Gresham College, and it was in his lodgings, after his Wednesday lecture, that the meetings of this group were customarily held.

Foster died in 1652, but the later accounts prove that the established time and place of meeting of the club, if we may call it so, were not altered.  The group continued to gather each Wednesday afternoon in term-time at the astronomy lecture of Foster successor, Lawrence Rooke, and to repair afterwards to Rooke’s lodgings for their meeting.  When, in 1657, Rooke transferred from the astronomy professorship to that of geometry, and was succeeded as Gresham Professor of Astronomy by the brilliant young Christopher Wren, then only twenty-five, the group met often twice a week, both after Wren’s lecture, on Wednesday, and Rooke’s Thursday lecture.  And it was at a regular Wednesday meeting, following Wren’s lecture, that the resolution was taken to establish an organized society to replace their regular, but hitherto informal gatherings.

Clearly, then, for the fifteen years from 1645 to 1660, the assembling of this group of persons interested in science centered, as if by long tradition, about Gresham College and its Professors of Astronomy, regardless of the incumbent at the moment.  Moreover, a careful analysis of these basic accounts of the Royal Society ‘s origin impels one to ask when the real inception of these

14. For biographical discussions concerning the relations between the men cited by Wallis as members of the group in 1645, see the excellent articles by Dorothy Stimson: “Dr. Wilkins and the Royal Society,” cited above; “Puritanism and the New Philosophy in 17th Century England,” Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, III (1935), 321-34; “Comenius and the Invisible College,” Isis, XXIII (1935), 373-88.  In these articles Miss Stimson shows that most of the young men mentioned had come from colleges at Oxford and Cambridge which were strongholds of Puritanism, and that in the religious and political struggles of the times their sympathies were with the moderates among the Puritans who supported Parliament against the King but did not succumb to the violent hatreds of the period of the civil war.  Her most recent article, appearing after this study was written, is “Amateurs [of Science in 17th Century England,” Isis, XXXI (November, 1939), 32-47.  In this article she sums up much of the material presented in the others cited above, and accepts the thesis here advanced: that the meetings mentioned by Wallis as the precursor of the Royal Society may be traced back to a period much earlier than 1645 (see pp. 36 and 40 if.).  Miss Stimson, however, does not attempt to present evidence for earlier gatherings of scientists at Gresham College, since that is not the subject of her article.]

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scientific meetings at Gresham College took place.  To this question I do not pretend to be able to give a definite answer, with a specific date.  Indeed, so gradual and so natural was the growth of an informal scientific group about the successive Gresham College professors that, even if we could call back the participants for questioning, they would probably disagree in their choice of the specific action that marked the beginning of their continued association.  We may, however, attempt to chart a few landmarks in the evolution of collaborative scientific study in England, well aware of the multitude of details that will be lacking, leaving the resulting map tantalizingly inadequate and incomplete.  But such a chart will be a rough guide for the thorough history of the antecedents of the Royal Society that may be written when English archives can again be peacefully studied by scholars.  In preparing this rather crude chart, we may best turn back to the founding of Gresham College, [15] and from there proceed forward.

Sir Thomas Gresham, the famous financial, adviser to Queen Elizabeth and the founder of the Royal Exchange, died in 1579.  In his will, dated four years earlier, he bequeathed all the revenues from the land and buildings comprising the Royal Exchange, and also his great mansion house in Bishopsgate Street, jointly to the City of London and the Company of Mercers.  In return, they were charged with supporting from the revenues of the Royal Exchange seven professors, who were to be lodged in his mansion house and there to read public lectures in their respective faculties of Law, Rhetoric, Divinity, Music, Physic, Geometry, and Astronomy.  The will reserved to his wife, for so long as she should live, the use of the mansion house and all the revenues from the Exchange.  Since Lady Gresham did not die until December of 1596, the City of

15 The account of the founding of Gresham College is based primarily upon John Ward’s preface to his Lives of the Professors of Gresham College (London, 1740).  Ward was a professor of rhetoric at Gresham and had full access to the records of the college in producing this work, which had the official approval of Gresham College.


London and the Mercers’ Company did not come into possession until 1597, and it was not until Michaelmas term of 1598 that the seven professors were installed in full possession of Gresham’s mansion house, now become Gresham College, and commenced the reading of their lectures.

The opening of Gresham College was the culmination of a long effort in Elizabethan England to bring about the establishment of a permanent, endowed foundation which would offer instruction and further research in the mathematical sciences and provide a convenient rallying point for all who were concerned with promoting progress in the practical application of these sciences to useful works.  Lectureships in medicine had, early in the sixteenth century, been founded at Cambridge and Oxford, [16] and a lectureship in surgery in connection with the Royal College of Physicians had been founded by John, Baron Lumley, in 1583.  But for astronomy and geometry, the first enduring recognition came with the creation of professorships in those subjects in Sir Thomas Gresham’s foundation.  Not until 1619 were the Savilian Professorships of Astronomy and Geometry established at Oxford, and the early incumbents of these Savilian Professorships were chosen from men then holding chairs at Gresham College.  For example, the first two Gresham Professors of Geometry, Henry Briggs and Peter Turner, became in turn the first two Savilian Professors of that subject, and John Greaves, the third Gresham professor, became the second Savilian Professor of Astronomy.

Since in the Gresham professorships of astronomy and geometry England received the first enduring institution dedicated to the mathematical sciences, and one which served as a rallying point for all who were interested in those subjects, it will not be out of place, before proceeding, to consider and dismiss briefly the other organizations which have been proposed as precursors of the Royal Society.  Weld mentions only three English precursors. [17]  The first is the Society of Antiquaries supposedly founded in 1572 by Archbishop Parker and dissolved by James I in 1604.  Its interests were antiquarian and philological, and its aims, though allied to the scientific movement, were not identical with it.  The second of

16. In 1518 Thomas Linacre founded lectureships in medicine at Merton College, Oxford, and St. John’s College, Cambridge.

17. Op. cit., I, 15-23.


Weld’s societies was the abortive scheme of Edmund Bolton for founding a Royal Academy in England, first broached in 1617 to please the vanity of James I.  As the plan developed - it was never completed, and was dropped after the death of King James - membership in the academy was to be limited to the nobility and wealthy gentry - a group composed entirely of dilettantes rather than of serious scientific workers.  The third organization mentioned by Weld is worthy of more consideration than Bolton’s scheme.  This is Sir Francis Kynaston’s Musaeum Minervae, a college to be erected in Covent Garden for the education of the youth of noble families.  Kynaston received in 1635 a royal license for its founding, and this license names the men who were to hold its six professorships of Medicine, Languages, Astronomy, Geometry, Music, and Fencing.  The Constitutions of the Musaeum Minervae, a rare pamphlet giving further details concerning this academy, was published in 1636.  But, being designed solely for the education of noble youth adhering to the Royalist party, it died an early death amid the turmoil of the times, and left no discernible mark of its influence.

As precursors of the Royal Society none of these, except perhaps the first, can claim any real significance.  The two latter contributed nothing to the advancement of science, and their real interest lies solely in their being examples of attempts to secure royal patronage for an educational institution in which scientific instruction was ostensibly to be given some place.  Compared with Gresham College, which was a center of scientific activity in London from the beginning of the seventeenth century, these societies are not deserving of a moment’s consideration. 18

Of far greater import, however, was the success of John Dee, in the period beginning with the accession of Elizabeth and continuing until Dee’s departure for the continent in 1583, in gathering about him a group of friends and pupils which, in effect, constituted a sort of scientific academy.  Courtiers like Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Edward Dyer came to Dee’s house at Mortlake to receive in-

18. Another early proposal for an educational institution allotting an important place to science was Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s plan, drawn up in 1572, for an Academy for the education of the Sons of nobles and gentlemen; see MS Lansdowne 98 (1), printed in Early English Text Society, Extra Series, VIII (London, 1869), 1-12.  This is not mentioned by Weld.


struction in science. [19]  Lord Burghley and the Queen herself visited and consulted him.  Thomas Digges, the first modern astronomer to portray an infinite, heliocentric universe with the stars scattered at varying distances throughout infinite space, was successively a ward, pupil, and intimate friend and co-worker of Dee’s.  Among the others who were associated with Dee and received scientific instruction and advice from him were almost all the names famous in Elizabethan exploration and discovery - Richard Chancellor, William and Stephen Borough, Martin Frobisher, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, John Davis, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  Dee, through his acquaintance and correspondence with the most eminent scientists on the continent, such as Gemma Phrysius, Mercator, Ortelius, and Orontius Finaeus, kept the English group in constant touch with new ideas and discoveries originating abroad.  His own library of scientific books and manuscripts, consisting in 1583 of over 4,000 volumes, was always at the disposal of Dee’s fellow-scientists.  Nor must one forget the great collection of scientific instruments that Dee possessed, including the huge radius astronomicus that he had designed in collaboration with Richard Chancellor and which Thomas Digges had doubtless used in making a set of observations on the new star of 1572 which were far more accurate than any others save Tycho Brahe’s.

As a coterie of scientific workers maintaining active co-operation among themselves, providing instruction for others, and keeping in close touch with scientific activity abroad, the group centering about John Dee must be ranked as the earliest ancestor of the Royal Society to contribute significantly to its patrimony.  Less important than Dee’s group, yet of greater moment than the societies, actual and proposed, mentioned by Weld, is the Mathematical Lecture established in London in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada.  Whereas earlier efforts to obtain public endowment for a lecture had been unavailing, the national crisis stirred a slothful government to sudden, energetic action.  On the plea that some mathematical instruction was urgently needed for the untrained officers of the militia mustered for the defense of London, the wealthy merchants of the city, inspired by Thomas Smith, later the first governor of the East India Company, were persuaded to contribute to the

19. For a further account of the group centering about John Dee and its importance to science in sixteenth-century England, see Francis R. Johnson, Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England (Baltimore, 1937), pp. 134-40 and passim.


sum necessary to support such a lecture for two years.  Thomas Hood, a Londoner and a graduate of Cambridge, was chosen as lecturer.  When the two-year term expired, however, the crisis was over, and, although funds were finally raised to continue the lectures for another two years, they were abandoned thereafter. 20

These early institutions and informal societies for the advancement of scientific learning have been described at this length because they deserve a place which they have not hitherto received in the accounts of the forerunners of the Royal Society.  We now return to the Royal Society’s immediate ancestry, and to the institution which contributed, far more than any other, to its ultimate development - Gresham College.

In his will, Sir Thomas Gresham had provided that the professors of his foundation should be unmarried, should occupy his mansion house and have free use of its gardens and all other appurtenances, and that each professor should receive an annual stipend of fifty pounds, a handsome salary in those days. 21  The Mercers’ Company was, charged with the original selection and the payment of the professors of law, physic, and rhetoric, and the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London with the selection and payment of the professors of divinity, music, geometry, and astronomy.

Soon after the death of Lady Gresham brought this benefaction under their control, the City of London and the Mercers’ Company sent out letters to Oxford and Cambridge Universities asking for the. recommendation of suitable candidates for the posts that had been placed in their charge.

In the final choice of the seven original professors, the two universities were equally represented (John Bull, the first music professor, was a graduate of both).  The first professor of astronomy was Edward Brerewood, an Oxford man.  The first geometry professor was Henry Briggs, a graduate of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and one of the ablest mathematicians of the day.  His contribution to the development of logarithms is familiar to all, for it was he who saw the great practical advantage of using the number ten as a base, and devoted his energies to computing the Briggsian tables of logarithms, and to popularizing the use of logarithms throughout the scientific world.

20. For a detailed account of Hood’s Mathematical Lectureship, see Johnson, op. cit., pp. 198-205.

21. Ward, op. cit., preface.


To Briggs, more than to anyone else, was due the immediate establishment of Gresham College as a meeting place of scientists and a clearing-house for scientific information.  The comfortable and spacious quarters of the Gresham professors, the central location of the college in London, and the eminence of Briggs himself all contributed toward this end.  Briggs was the friend and the collaborator of most of the noted scientists of his day. Thomas Blundeville, Sir Thomas Chaloner, William Barlowe, Marke Ridley, Edward Wright, and William Gilbert were among the leading English scientists with whom Briggs was associated.  The relations of this group may be traced in the scientific publications of the day, and in other contemporary records.

Gilbert acknowledges help from Barlowe in the research on magnetism that was set forth in his De Magnete. [22]  Edward Wright, whose great work was the reform of the theory of navigation and the correction of Mercator’s projection, [23] contributed an important preface to Gilbert’s work.  Blundeville, in a work of his own published in 1602, [24] included an appendix by Gilbert, describing two magnets he had invented, and Briggs, to this appendix, contributed a table which he had calculated for the use of these magnets.  Both Wright and Briggs co-operated in making Napier’s invention of logarithms known to English mathematicians.  Wright translated Napier’s book on logarithms into English immediately, [25] and Briggs added a special preface to the work, together with a short treatise of his own on the methods of interpolation when using the tables.  In this preface, Briggs mentions his teaching “the meaning and the use of this booke at Gresham house.” [26]

22. See William Barlowe, Magneticall Aduertisements (London, 1616), sigs. N4r-N4v.

23. Certaine Errors in Nauigation (London, 1599).

24. The Theoriques of the seuen Planets (London, 1602).  Blundevile had also, in his Exercises (London, 1594), published an advance notice of Wright’s correction of Mercator’s projection, which Wright first published in Certaine Errors of Nauigation (1599).

25. A Description of the Admirable Table of Logarithmes (London, 1616).  Napier’s work first appeared in 1614.

26. A Description of the Admirable Table of Logarithmes, sig. A6r.  Briggs also prepared tables which were appended to Edward Wright’s Certaine Errors in the second edition (London, 1610).


Another noted member of this group was William Bedwell, one of the most learned men of his day, the father of Arabic studies in England, and one of the Westminster Company of translators who prepared the King James version of the Bible.  Bedwell was also a mathematical scholar, and published a number of mathematical works and translations, chief among these being a translation of Peter Ramus’s geometry, greatly enlarged by Bedwell himself. 27  In 1601 Bedwell became rector of St. Ethelburga’s in Bishopsgate Street, close by Gresham College.  Thus a friendship with Briggs born of common interests, which probably had begun at Cambridge - for the two were contemporaries there 28 - was cemented and continued throughout both their lives.  In 1606 Briggs sent to Mr. Clerke of Gravesend a description of a special type of ruler invented by Bedwell. 29  His correspondence was probably with the John Clerke who, in 1636, after the death of both Briggs and Bedwell, published his friend Bedwell’s book, dedicating it to John Greaves, who had become professor of geometry at Gresham College in 1631, just a year before Bedwell’s death.  This preface indicated that Greaves ‘s short but happy friendship with Bedwell dated from the time Greaves came from Oxford to London in 1630 to assume his duties at Gresham College. 30   Bedwell, in his own preface, mentions his friendship with Briggs, and states that Briggs had examined the work and had repeatedly urged him to publish it. 31

Still another distinguished member of the Gresham College circle in Briggs’ time, and later, was the famous mathematician William Oughtred, who made important contributions to mathematical notation and invented the rectilinear and circular slide rules.  By his private teaching Oughtred greatly furthered the progress of mathematical knowledge in England, and he numbered among his pupils Seth Ward and John Wallis.  Oughtred, from 1610 to his death, in 1660, was rector of Albury, near Guildford in Surrey, and on each of his journeys to London visited his friends at Gresham College.  In a pamphlet published in 1633, he describes a visit made in 1618:

27. Via Regia ad Geometriam (London, 1636).

28. Briggs took his B.A. in 1581 and his M.A. in 1585 at St. John’s and remained as a Fellow of his college.  Bedwell proceeded B.A. in 1585, M.A. 1588 at Trinity.

29. Ward, op. cit., p. 129.

30. Via Regia ad Geometrium, sigs. A3r-A4r.

31. Ibid., author’s preface.


In the Spring 1618 I being at London went to see my honoured friend Master Henry Briggs at Gresham Colledge: who then brought me acquainted with Master Gunter lately chosen Astronomic reader there, and was at that time in Doctour Brooks his chamber.  With whom falling into speech about his quadrant, I shewed him my Horizontall Instrument: He viewed it very heedfully: and questioned about the projecture and use thereof, often saying these words, it is a very good one.  And not long after he delivered to Master Briggs to be sent to me mine owne Instrument printed off from one cut in brasse: which afterwards I understood he presented to the right Honourable the Earle of Bridgewater, and in his booke of the Sector printed sixe yeares after, among other projections he setteth down this. [32]

Oughtred is writing nearly fifteen years after his visit, and gives the erroneous impression that in 1618 Gunter was already Gresham Professor of Astronomy.  It is worth noting, therefore, that Oughtred found Gunter, who was not elected professor until the following March, occupying rooms in Gresham College.

From the early years of the seventeenth century there is evidence of a close association, in scientific investigations, of the Gresham College professors and the sea captains, the shipbuilders, and the administrative officials of the English Navy.  Briggs, in 1609, served with Sir Thomas Chaloner in judging a controversy between two factions among the shipwrights over some innovations in design which Phineas Pett had introduced. [33]  John Clerke, whom we have seen as the friend and correspondent of Bedwell and Briggs, is probably the John Clerke who, in 1628, is found sharing with one John Cowper the grant of the office of Surveyor and Keeper of His Majesty’s Armoury in the Tower and at East Greenwich. [34]

In 1619, just before Briggs left Gresham College to become the first Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, Edmund Gunter was chosen Gresham Professor of Astronomy.  Gunter must have begun, at Brigg’s instigation, the work of calculating the logarithms of the trigonometric functions even before his election, for his

32. The just Apologie of Wil: Oughtred, against the slaunderous insimulations of Richard Delamain, in a Pamphlet called Grammelogia, or the Mathematicall Ring (London, 1633), sigs. B3v-B4r.

33. The Autobiography of Phineas Patt, ed. W. G. Perrin, Navy Records Society Publications, Vol. 51 (London, 1918), pp. lxxxii and 59 if.

34. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, Charles I, Vol. CXIX, No. 33 (October 27, 1628).


Canon Triangulorum was published early in 1620.  After Briggs’s departure for Oxford, Gunter became the central figure of the Gresham College scientific circle, and continued so until his death in December, 1626.  With Gunter, the association of Gresham College and its circle with a group of navy officials stationed at the naval base across the Thames at Deptford continued.

The key figure uniting the two groups was an able mathematician and scientist, John Wells, who, from 1606 until his death late in the year 1635, held the important office of Keeper of His Majesty’s Naval Stores at Deptford.  He was a friend and fellow-worker successively of Briggs, Gunter, and, finally, Henry Gellibrand, who, in 1626, succeeded Gunter as professor of astronomy at Gresham College.  The only scientific work that Wells published was an excellent book on the construction of all sorts of dials, which was issued in 1635, shortly before Wells’s death.  In his preface Wells states:

This tract of Dyalling was written for mine owne private delight and exercise, above thirteene yeeres since, as divers of my friends know: wherein I have beene the more curious, to handle every kind of Plane; not with any thought, or purpose, ever to print the same, but to keepe it by me, for satisfaction to my selfe, and friends whensoever there should be cause to use it.  Yet shortly after the Worke was finished, occasion to make use of it, drew on occasion for my friends to take notice thereof: amongst the rest, my two late worthy friends, Master Henry Briggs, (iustly stiled by a Reverend Divine our English Archimedes) and Master Edmund Gunter, Astronomie Lecturer of Gresham Colledge, desired to peruse it; and finding that the Arithmeticall part was performed by Logarithmes of both kinds, and therefore might serve instead of uses for the Chiiads and Canon, compiled by them, did earnestly sollicite mee to print the same: but they both dying, this motion of theirs died with them.

Of late it hath beene againe revived, by the request of other Friends; but especially by the encouragement of my much respected, and learned Friend Master Henry Gellibrand, who hath annexed his approbation of that, which in my owne opinion 1 never thought worthy of so much esteeme.  I have therefore at length (yeelding to the importunitie of Friends) consented to let it passe to the publike view.  If any benefit grow from it, let him have the honour, that is the Authour of all good gifts, and let my Friends share in the thankes, that have in a manner extorted it out of my hands. [35]

35. Sciographia (London, 1635), sigs. 5v-6s.


It was in tracking down John Wells, the friend and collaborator of three successive Gresham College professors, that most of the evidence concerning the activities of the Gresham College circle during the quarter-century preceding 1645 was unearthed.  It will therefore be profitable to trace Wells’s career briefly.  Though he does not appear in the Dictionary of National Biography, and there is no record of his having attended either university, he was a man of considerable importance in the seventeenth century.  The information concerning his career that I have been able to collect comes from the Calendar of State Papers, the histories of the British Navy, the county histories of Kent, and the references to him in the works of Gresham professors.  Whether or not he came from a family long connected with naval affairs I do not know. Certain it is that his wife, Catherine Wallinger, whom he married in 1610 36 belonged to the same family as Benjamin Gonson, Sr., who was Treasurer of the English Navy from 1549 to his death in 1577, when he was succeeded by Sir John Hawkins. 37  Our first record of Wells, however, consists in the grant, on May 10, 1606, to him and Antony Lewis, jointly, of the office of Keeper of the Naval Stores at Deptford Strand, Chatham, and Portsmouth for life. 38

In 1615 a new grant of this office was issued, this time to John Wells alone. 39  As Keeper of His Majesties Stores at the Navy

36. See the registers for St. Nicholas Parish, Deptford, in Hasted’s History of Kent, corrected and enlarged by Hewry H. Drake, Pt. I: The Hundred of Blackheath (London, 1886), p. 40.

37. Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, ed. Philip Bliss (London, 1813-17), III, 1155, under “Benjamin Wells” (the son of John Wells), gives an account of Benjamin’s father, “the famous mathematician of Deptford.”  Wood states that John Wells married Catherine Wallinger, daughter of Thomas Wallinger, Esq., by Benedicta Gonson, his wife.  Benjamin Gonson, Sr.’s mother was named Benedicta, and one of his daughters, Catherine, married Sir John Hawkins.  Catherine Wallinger’s mother may have been a daughter of Benjamin Gonson, Jr., the brother of Lady Hawkins.  Benjamin Gonson, Jr. was twenty-six when his father died in 1577 (Hasted’s History of Kent, p. xix).  Of his other sisters, Anne married Abraham Fleming, an important writer of scientific treatises in Elizabeth’s reign, and Thomazine, after the death of her first husband, Captain Edward Fenton, married Christopher Browne of Sayes Court, Deptford, and was therefore the grandmother of the wife of John Evelyn.  Evelyn, who was a member of the Royal Society group at the time of the Society’s founding, was from 1652 on settled at Sayes Court.

38. State Papers, Domestic, James I, Vol. XXI, No. 21 (May 10, 1606).

39. Ibid., Vol. LXXX, No. 5 (January 17, 1615).


Yard at Deptford, often called East Greenwich, Wells had the use there of a fine house with a spacious garden second in size and value only to the adjacent house reserved for his immediate superior, the Treasurer of the Navy. 40  Here at Deptford Wells’s associates were the high naval officers, the mariners who constantly brought back from distant lands data that would be scientifically valuable to anyone who could elicit and make use of it, and finally the naval architects from the adjacent shipyards.  Among these master shipwrights would be Phineas Pett, Edward Stevens, Hugh Lydiard, and Henry Goddard, the father of the Jonathan Goddard who was one of the group mentioned by Wallis as meeting at Gresham College in 1645.  Nearby, also (after 1622, at least), would be John Clerke, who has already been mentioned in connection with Briggs and Bedwell, and was Keeper of the Armoury at Greenwich. [41]

Most important, however, was the association of Wells and his naval friends with Briggs, Gunter, and Gellibrand, in turn.  The State Papers carry no record of his association with Briggs, so here we must rely upon Wells’s own statements.  But certainly through such a man as Briggs’s friend, Edward Wright, who was the foremost authority of the day on navigation, the Gresham professors would quickly be made acquainted with the navy group. [42]

In Gunter’s case, however, the State Papers give ample evidence of intimate association and collaboration with Wells and his shipwright friends.  Gunter, Wells, Phineas Pett, Hugh Lydiard and Edward Stevens worked out together a more accurate method of calculating the tonnage of ships, and the State Papers for the years 1626 to 1628 are filled with records of their proofs of its

40. There is a plan of Deptford made in 1623, to which additional remarks by John Evelyn have been joined, printed in Hasted’s History of Kent, facing p. 18.  It shows the Storekeeper’s house and garden in the lower left (northwest) corner, next to the Treasurer’s house.  Sayes Court Manor House, then owned by Evelyn’s father-in-law, and later the residence of Evelyn, was diagonally across the lane from the Storekeeper’s house.  After John Wells’s death in 1636 his son, John Wells, Jr., who had taken his B.A. at St. Alban’s Hall, Oxford, in 1632, succeeded him in the office, and apparently retained the post until 1663 (see State Papers, Domestic, Charles II, Vol. LXXXII, No. 100 [Oct., 1663]).

41. State Papers, Domestic, James I, Vol. CXXXI, No. 10 (June 4, 1622).

42. Edward Wright died in 1615, and Briggs moved to Oxford as Savilian professor in 1619, so that the association between Gresham College and the naval authorities at Deptford was established in the early years of the seventeenth century.


superiority and of the campaign to secure its adoption. 43

After Gunter’s death in December, 1626, an equal intimacy sprang up between Wells and Gunter’s successor at Gresham College, Henry Gellibrand.  Gellibrand’s most notable contribution to science was the proof of the secular variation of the magnetic needle - the “variation of the variation.”  Gellibrand, with Wells and several others, made the observations which led to the discovery of the secular variation in the garden of Wells’s house at Deptford.  There they repeated the observations that Wells and Gunter had made in the same place twelve years earlier, in 1622.  Finding a difference of more than two degrees between his and Gunter’s determination of the variation, and a difference of seven degrees between his determination and that made by William Borough in 1580, Gellibrand demonstrated that the variation near London had been gradually decreasing.  But let us turn to Gellibrand’s own report of his experiment, published in his pamphlet The Variation of the Magneticall Needle in 1635:

Thus hitherto (according to the Tenents of all our Magneticall Philosophers) we have supposed the variation of all particular places to continue one and the same: So that when a Seaman shall happly returne to a place where formerly he found the same variation, he may hence conclude, he is in the same former Longitude.  For it is the Assertion of Mr. Dr. Gilberts Variatio vnicuiusq; Loci constans est, that is to say, the same place doth alwayes retaine the same variation.  Neither hath this Assertion (for ought I ever heard) been questioned by any man.  But most diligent magneticall observations have plainely offred violence to the same, and proved the contrary, namely that the variation is accompanied with a variation.  For whereas in the year 1580 Mr. Burrows (a man of unquestionable abilities in the Mathematiques) found the variation at Limhouse neere London to be 11 gr. 15 mm. or neere one point of the Compasse; In the yeare 1622 Mr. Gunter sometimes professor of Astronomic in Gresham Colledge, found the variation in the same place to be but 6 gr. 13 mm.  And my selfe this present yeare 1634 with some friends had recourse to Diepford (where Mr. Gunter had heretofore made the same observations with those of Limehouse) and found it not much to exceed 4 degrees. 44

Gunter’s results had been printed in his The Description and Use of the Crosse-Staffe (1623) 46  Gellibrand, after giving in detail

43. State Papers, Domestic, Charles I; see XXVII, 67; XXIX, 7 & 10; XXXVIII, 30; XXXIX, 63; LV, 39; LVII, 42, 43, & 45; LIX, 24 & 26; LXXXVIII, 63.  See also M. Oppenheim, A History of the Administration of the Royal Navy, 1509-1660 (London, 1896), pp. 266-67.

44. Pp. 6-7.

45. P. 66.


Gunter ‘s experiment to determine variation in 1622, continued:

I deny not the Artifice to be very nice and subtle, and that an error may unawares easily insinuate it selfe, which together with this great discrepance, moved some of us to be overhasty in casting an aspersion of error on Mr. Burrows observations, (though since upon noe just grounds) till an acquaintance of ours [marginal note: Mr. John Marr], lately applying Mr. Gunter’s owne Needle to the side of the Cubicall Stone of his Majesties Diall in White Hall garden, could not finde the variation so great as 6 gr. 15 mm: formerly found; whereupon resolving with some friends to make an experiment hereof, we went to Diepford the last yeare 1633 the day of the Sunnes entrance into the summer Solstice, to the very same place where Mr. Gunter heretofore had made observation, and found it much lesse then five degrees; And afterwards calling into Question the Insufficiency of our Instruments, that all scruple might be quite taken away, we had recourse this presente yeare 1634 Jun. 12, stilo vet: to the same Garden of our learned and ingenuous friend Mr. John Welles, with a Quadrant of six foote Radius for solar Altitudes, continually rectified with great care, and a Horizontall Quadrant of two foote Radius, for the determining of the Magneticall Azimuthes, exactly set to the Magneticall meridian, and in paralellisme to the Horizon; (otherwise great error might ensue) with two Needles of twelue inches in length, well touch’t with good Magnetts; And for the better satisfaction, took with us also the very same Needle wherewith Mr. Gunter made the foresaid observations, in length ten Inches; all three most accurately respecting the same Magneticall Meridian as we then proved.  And least there might arise some diversity in the variation through the touches of severall stones, I caused the one Needle first touch’t by a very good Magnet, to be retouch’t by another as good if not better, and the same wherewith most of our sea compasses are touch’t, and yet found no difference betweene them. [46]

Gellibrand then proceeds to record and tabulate his data.  In the margin, opposite his table of “Observations made at Diepford An. 1634 Iunij 12 before Noone,” Gellibrand has: Testibus ab sociis D [omin]is Wells, Harrison, Marr, Butler, Hopton, Hocknell.’’

Who were the other men in this group participating in this experiment?  So far I have been able to discover very little about them.  John Marr was a gentleman of Greenwich, who died in 1652 or shortly before, since his will was probated in that year. [47]  He was a student of magnetism, for we find other contemporary refer-

46. The Variation of the Magneticall Needle, p. 16.

47.  Hasted’s History of Kent, p. 113.


ences to his expert knowledge of that subject.  Captain Thomas James, in his book recounting his voyage in 1631 in search of the Northwest Passage, mentions, among the instruments taken on the voyage, Gunter’s Crosse-Staffe, tables calculated according to directions given in Gunter’s book The Description and Use of the Crosse-Staffe (1623), a log line divided according to the method of Snellius and approved by Gunter, and “four speciall Needles, (which my good friends Master Allen and Master Marre gave mee) of sixe inches diameter: and toucht curiously, with the best Loadestone in England.” [48]

The Butler in the group was probably the Robert Butler who in 1633 published a mathematical work entitled The Scale of Interest, or Proportional Tables.  Hopton I am unable to identify satisfactorily.  There was a family of that name prominent in the navy in the sixteenth century, and also there was an able mathematical writer, Arthur Hopton, who died about 1614.  Wells’s friend may have been related to one of these.  The other two names have so far eluded identification.

The noted sea-captain and explorer Thomas James, whom we have already mentioned, should be added to this group of Gellibrand’s friends and collaborators.  Before James left on his famous voyage seeking the Northwest Passage, Gellibrand arranged with him to take simultaneous observations of the eclipse of the moon on October 29, 1631, Gellibrand at Gresham College and James wherever he might be in the northern regions of the New World.  Gellibrand added “An Appendix touching Longitude” to James’s Strange Voyage, in which he compared the two sets of observations and from them calculated by a more exact mathematical method than would have otherwise been possible the precise longitude of James’s position near Hudson’s Bay.

The meetings and scientific investigations of Gellibrand and his associates at Gresham College and Deptford in the early 1630’s contributed notably to the advancement of science.  Could it be that Anthony Wood’s statement [49] that Gellibrand “suffer’d conventicles (being himself a puritan) to be kept in his lodgings” at Gresham was based upon a report that confused these scientific gatherings with clandestine Puritan meetings?  In view of the pre-

48. Thomas James, The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captaine Thomas James (London, 1633), sigs. Q1r-Q1v.

49. Athenae Oxonienses, ed. Bliss, II, 622.


ponderantly Puritan sympathies of the members of the succeeding Gresham College group of the next decade, 50 the supposition is at least plausible.  An unostentatious assembly of a small group of men known to be of the Puritan party might well be suspected of having religion rather than scientific inquiry as its aim. [51]

Wells died in 1635, [52] and Gellibrand less than two years later. [53]  The State Papers contain a document dated May 22, 1636, referring a petition of one Capt. Marmaduke Neilson to a commission composed of Sir James Galloway, John Selden, Henry Gellibrand and William Oughtred, “to consider and certify whether they hold the petitioner able to perform the particulars mentioned in his petition.” [54]  We have already observed the long standing association of Oughtred with the professors of Gresham College and their group.  The commission with Oughtred is the last record we have of Gellibrand’s activities.

Wells was succeeded as Storekeeper of the Navy at Deptford by his son, John Wells, who was then twenty-four years of age. [55]  The younger Wells held this office throughout the Commonwealth period, 56 although for a time he was forced to share the post with John Davies and had great difficulty collecting his salary during the troubled years. [57]

50. See the articles by Dorothy Stimson cited above, note 14.

51. Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses, 1500-1714 (Oxford, 1891), II, 556, notes that Gellibrand’s father, Henry Gellibrand of St. Paul’s Cray, Kent, proceeded B.A. from Magdalen Hall, Oxford, in 1584 and later established himself as a physician in London.  An Edward Gellibrand, probably the uncle of the mathematician, proceeded B.A. at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1573, and later became the minister of the English Church at Middleburgh, Holland, where he died in 1601.

52. See the petition of his son, dated December 14, 1635 for the grant of the patent for his late father’s post, State Papers, Domestic, Charles I, Vol. CCCIV, No. 10. Drake, in Hasted’s History of Kent, notes that Wells’s will is to be found in P.C.C., 68 Pile, 1636.  Anthony Wood is certainly in error in stating, Athenae Oxonienses, ed. Bliss, III, 1155, that Wells relinquished his office to his son and retired to Bembridge in Hampshire.

53. Gellibrand died February 9, 1636/7. See Ward, op. cit., p. 83.

54. State Papers, Domestic, Charles I, Vol. CCXXI, No. 75.

55. The younger John Wells was born December 1, 1611 (see Hasted’s History of Kent, p. 39).  His petition to succeed his father in his office as Storekeeper of the Navy was granted April 5, 1636 (State Papers, Domestic, Charles I, Vol. CCCXVIII, No. 24.

56. See note 40 above.

57. See State Papers, Domestic, Charles I, Vol. DVII, No. 86 (May 24, 1645); Vol. DXVIII, No. 8 (February 8, 1648).


Gellibrand’s successor as Gresham Professor of Astronomy was Samuel Foster, in whose rooms Wallis first became acquainted with the group which he credits with being the “first begetters” of the Royal Society.  One member of this group was young Jonathan Goddard, one year junior to Wallis.  Born in 1617 at East Greenwich in Kent, the son of Henry Goddard, John Wells’s associate and close neighbor, Jonathan Goddard, after completing his studies at Cambridge, returned to London in 1640 to take up the practice of medicine.  It is not surprising to find him, five years later, meeting with a group at Gresham College.  When, in 1660, the Royal Society was established, Goddard had for five years been Gresham Professor of Physic. [58]

Foster, in 1652, was succeeded by Lawrence Rooke, and it was in Rooke’s, or Wren’s rooms that the group was meeting in 1658 to 1660.  But Rooke, also, was from Deptford, where he was born in 1622, the year in which Gunter and Wells took observations on the magnetic variation in Wells’s garden.  His biographer states that after receiving his M.A. at Cambridge in 1647, he retired to his estate in Kent, but in 1650 he went to Oxford and settled in Wadham College, for the sake of Dr. Wilkins, who was then warden. [59]  But Wilkins did not go from London to Oxford until 1648, so that it is entirely possible that association with Wilkins in London, at the Gresham College gatherings, may have inspired Rooke to follow him to Oxford.

With this we bring to a close our narrative of the circle of scientific enthusiasts who gravitated about the successive Gresham professors during the half-century preceding the establishing of the Royal Society.  In spite of the many obvious gaps in the evidence - gaps which research in English archives should some day remove

58. An eminent mathematician and scientist of the day who may well have met with the group at Gresham College in the 30’s and 40’s, was Edmund Wingate, whom Samuel Foster appointed his literary and scientific executor, and who saw many of Foster’s works through the press after the latter’s death in 1652.

In the 20’s Wingate had been in France, as English tutor to Henrietta Maria, and had been responsible for making his friend Gunter’s work, especially his slide rule, as improved by Oughtred, known to the French mathematicians.  He is mentioned as the friend of many who were definitely in the Gresham College circle, including Briggs, Gunter, and Oughtred.  Since he died in 1656, he would not be one whom Wallis would remember as among those who became original members of the Royal Society.

59. Ward, op. cit., p. 90.


- the outlines of the story stand out in clear relief.  They picture a steady growth, from the very beginning of the seventeenth century, of association and collaboration among English scientists under the sponsorship of the Gresham professors of geometry and astronomy, and a close liaison throughout this period between the Gresham circle and prominent officials, captains, and shipbuilders of the English navy.  Without formal organization, but with the stability that only a secure and permanent foundation like that of Sir Thomas Gresham could supply, this circle, ever recruiting new members as the older ones passed on, entitles the Gresham College professors and their associates to the distinction of being named the true precursors of the Royal Society.

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