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Reference group
Founders of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (act. 1799–1810) formally established the institution at a meeting held on 7 March 1799 at the Soho Square house of the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks. At that meeting fifty-eight men agreed to form an ‘Institution For diffusing the Knowledge, and facilitating the general Introduction, of Useful Mechanical Inventions and Improvements; and for teaching, by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments, the application of Science to the common Purposes of Life’ (Royal Institution, minutes of managers' meetings, vol. 1) and contributed the substantial sum of 50 guineas to become the founding proprietors of what was initially called the ‘Institution’ in deliberate imitation of the famous Istituto delle Scienze e delle Arti in Bologna.

The men who came together to form the institution had known one another during the previous decade in a number of overlapping contexts including membership of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, the Board of Agriculture, and connections with the East India Company. In addition a significant number of them were associated with the evangelical revival centred on the Clapham Sect. Thus an interest in the way science could aid philanthropy, agricultural improvement, industrial processes, and imperial expansion, at a time of the war against France and when the social effects of major industrialization were beginning to be felt, came together to provide strong motivation to found the institution.

Those founders included the member of parliament and anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, the naval officer George Elphinstone, Viscount Keith, and the substantial landowners William Cavendish, fifth duke of Devonshire, George John Spencer, second Earl Spencer, and Francis Russell, fifth duke of Bedford. In addition to Banks the only other individuals involved who could be fairly described as men of science were Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, and Henry Cavendish. The meeting elected a committee of managers, comprising Banks, Spencer, Rumford, Thomas Bernard, George Douglas, seventeenth earl of Morton (1761–1827), John Coxe Hippisley, Richard Clark, Richard Joseph Sullivan, Thomas Pelham, Samuel Glasse, and George Wyndham, third earl of Egremont. The managers first met in Banks's house two days after their election.

The two tasks of the early institution that took priority were to gather more proprietors and find a building in which to deliver the institution's programme. Right from the start 21 Albemarle Street, which was on the market as its owner, John Mellish, had been killed by a highwayman on Hounslow Heath, was seen as a potential home for the new institution. The institution acquired the building for £4850 and the first meeting of managers was held there on 22 June 1799. This building, which the Royal Institution has occupied ever since, was a gentleman's town house which had been built in stages during the eighteenth century. There was thus a considerable amount of construction work to be undertaken to convert such a building into a scientific institution with lecture theatres, laboratories, libraries, and display areas. With the advice of the architects and proprietors John Soane and Henry Holland, Rumford took charge of overseeing this work, which was executed by Thomas Webster as clerk of works. A new third floor was constructed to provide accommodation for artisans, a project close to Rumford's interests. A temporary lecture room was quickly created on the first floor and on 11 March 1800, just over a year after its founding, the chemist Thomas Garnett delivered the first lecture in the Royal Institution. To the design of Webster the semicircular two-tiered lecture theatre, which at times would hold more than a thousand people, was erected at the northern end of the building.

All this construction work required money, which at this point could only be supplied by new proprietors and subscribers to lectures. This doubtless explains why the lecture programme was established so quickly in order to demonstrate the usefulness of the Royal Institution and thus encourage support. To aid recruitment, in June 1799, George Finch, earl of Winchilsea [see under White Conduit cricket club] (a lord of the bedchamber to George III) was elected the first president. Using his influence he was able to report to the managers on 29 June that the king had agreed to be patron of what could thus be called the Royal Institution. The charter was granted in January 1800, by which time the unifying and patriotic ‘Great Britain’ had been added to the name.

However, all was not well. Financial problems led to Garnett not being paid on time, which resulted in his resignation and replacement by Thomas Young. Young was not an inspiring lecturer and he lasted only one season. At Rumford's instigation the Royal Institution appointed the 22-year-old Humphry Davy. Davy had made his name by discovering, under Thomas Beddoes at the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol, the physiological properties of a number of gases. One of these was nitrous oxide, which Davy found, when inhaled, to have pleasurable effects and which was consequently popularly named laughing gas.

At this time chemistry was mainly a French science and it was rare for a major chemical discovery to be made in England. Thus Davy's work gained widespread attention and it was a major contribution of Rumford to the Royal Institution to secure his appointment in 1801. For reasons that are still unclear Rumford abruptly left England at the peace of Amiens in the following year, and went to live in France, where he later married Lavoisier's widow and lived unhappily ever after.

The Royal Institution now fell increasingly under the influence of Davy, who began a tradition of scientific research at the Royal Institution that had not been envisaged by the founders. But he also followed the original agenda of the Royal Institution, particularly in lecturing and the provision of practical scientific advice. He was an enormously attractive lecturer who filled the lecture theatre with his spectacular, not to say dangerous, demonstrations of chemical experiments, illustrated in James Gillray's famous caricature showing the administration of laughing gas to Hippisley. But it was not just Davy's lectures that attracted the audiences at the Royal Institution in its early years. Figures such as the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the musician Samuel Wesley, the chemist John Dalton, and the author and wit Sydney Smith all attracted audiences, and Smith's lectures on moral philosophy were possibly more popular than Davy's.

But lectures were not sufficient to secure the future of the Royal Institution and Davy continued with the utilitarian programme of the Royal Institution by providing lectures to the Board of Agriculture and investigating ways of improving the tanning process for leather. In this latter project he concluded that the process already used by tanners could not be improved by its scientific understanding. This failure of science to improve a practical process highlighted a key problem that the Royal Institution faced: its proclaimed aim of using scientific knowledge and methods to improve technical and agricultural processes was simply not achievable. This led to a funding crisis, culminating in 1810, the result of which was a major reordering of how the Royal Institution was administered. Davy was a key figure in persuading the proprietors to relinquish their rights of ownership in the institution. Instead they became members who either paid an annual subscription or compounded as life members, both of which ensured that there would be a basic stream of income. Although the Royal Institution was to have further financial crises and the details of its administrative structure would change, the settlement of 1810, which remained in effect until the 1980s, put the institution on a sure foundation that allowed it to become and remain one of the key scientific institutions in Britain.

Frank A. J. L. James


H. B. Jones, The Royal Institution: its founder and its first professors (1871) · M. Berman, Social change and scientific organization: the Royal Institution, 1799–1844 (1978) · M. Berman, ‘The early years of the Royal Institution, 1799–1810: a re-evaluation’, Science Studies, 2 (1972), 205–40 · F. A. J. L. James, ed., ‘The common purposes of life’: science and society at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (2002) · J. Golinski, Science as public culture: chemistry and enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820 (1992) · D. Knight, Humphry Davy: science and power, 2nd edn (1998) · K. D. C. Vernon, ‘The foundation and early years of the Royal Institution’, Proceedings of the Royal Institution, 39 (1963), 364–402 · F. A. J. L. James and A. Peers, ‘Constructing space for science at the Royal Institution of Great Britain’, Physics in Perspective, 9 (2007), 130–85