The Royal Society is celebrating its 350th birthday and Giant’s Shoulders #20 has a link to a post at physorg.com commenting on the celebrations. On Giants Shoulders I’m quoted in a footnote saying, “It wasn’t the first but…”, which I thought I ought to elucidate. My comment refers to the post title, “Ancient and modern: First science academy is 350 years old.” The claim that the Royal Society is the world’s oldest science academy is then repeated in the picture caption that opens the article.
My objections is the fact that the Royal Society is neither the first nor the oldest science society something that the author could have confirmed for himself in a couple of minutes in the Internet. There is a wonderful website sponsored by the University Of Waterloo Library called the Scholarly Societies Project that has extensive details of hundreds of scholarly societies. My readers are invited for themselves to meander through the histories of hundreds of societies from the Compagnie du Gai Sçavoir founded in 1323 to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland founded in 1849 and on to the Francis William Newman Society (FWNS) founded in 2008. For those who want a quick answer I will sketch those science societies that preceded the Royal Society.
The honour of being first seems to belong to the Accademia dei Segreti (Accademia Secretorum Natorum = Academy of the Secrets of Nature), which was founded in 1560 by Giambattista della Porta (1535? – 1615) a polymath who played a significant role in the history of optics amongst other things. Under suspicion of dabbling in the occult the society was forced by the Church to disband in 1580. The next prominent science society was also in Italy and was the Accademia dei Lincae (Academy of Lynxes) founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi (1585 – 1630). Basically a private club for a small group interested in experimental science it was most famous for inducting Galileo as a member as a reward for his telescopic observations. At the spectacular induction celebration held in Rome to honour Galileo the name telescope for the new scientific instrument was used for the first time. This society also published several of Galileo’s most important writings including The Assayer. They also intended to publish the Dialogo, Galileo’s disaster text on the Two World Systems, a plan that failed with Cesi’s death and the collapse of the society in 1530. Della Porta was also a member.
The Lynxes inspired two successors the Accademia delgi Investiganti, which existed in Naples from 1650 to 1670 and the Accademia del Cimento founded by Prince Leopold Medici and his brother the Grand Duke Ferdinand II in Florence in 1657. The society only existed for ten years but its members included Galileo’s students Torricelli, Viviani (Galileo’s first biographer) and Borelli as well as the noted biologist Francesco Redi and the Danish polymath Nicolaus Steno. In the ten years of its existence the academy conducted some very important scientific investigations.
The first scientific society north of the Alps was the Societas Ereunetica sive Zetetica (Research or Investigation Society) in Rostock, which only appears to have existed from 1622 to 1624. Now it could be that the post author made the common failure of confusing oldest with oldest surviving, as all the societies that I have mentioned up till now were all relatively short lived. However even here the Royal Society is beaten by eight years by one of its German rivals, The Leopoldina. Founded in 1652 in Schweinfurt as the Collegium Naturae Curiosorum it became the Sacri Romani Imperii Academia Caesareo-Leopoldina Naturae Curiosorum with the sponsorship of the German Emperor Leopold I in 1687. It claims the title of the oldest continuously existing leaned society in the world.
The Royal Societies claim to be the oldest is based on the fact that they developed out of a group that started meeting in Gresham College in 1645 but unlike the Leopoldina this group was informal and even ceased to meet for two years between 1658 and 1660.