With the progress of science in the 17th century in such subjects as astronomy, anatomy, mechanics and physiology along with the multitude of inventions and the improvement of scientific instruments e.g. telescopes, microscopes, came a growing interest of science and its associated technologies. Many groups were established during the 17th century to disseminate and gain greater understanding of the developments in science and in some cases the technologies that arose from them. A number of independent, scientifically minded people and university people established a private and informal group that became known as the ‘the Invisible College’/ ‘the philosophical college’/’ the men of Gresham’. The Invisible College was based on Francis Bacon’s principles that knowledge is power and that all knowledge has been given for use, and the relief of man’s state (and not for its own sake). (See below more background to Baconian philosophy and thinking). The aim of the College was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. Sadly little is known of this group even though it is seen by many as a precursor/predecessor to the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (later called the Royal Society). An account of its founding was written by one of its original members John Wallis (1616-1703) who wrote ‘I take its first ground and foundation to have been in London about the year 1645 (if not sooner) when Dr Wilkins, Dr Jonathan Goddard –with myself and some others met weekly —– confining ourselves thereunto as Physick, Anatomy, Geometry, Astronomy, Navigation, Mechanics and Natural Experiments’. These topics reflected the interests and specialisms of many of the members e.g. Robert Moray, Robert Boyle, John Evelyn, Benjamin Worsley, Christopher Wren, Jonathan Goddard and William Petty. and a number of medical doctors. Meetings were held at a variety of locations including Goddard’s house in Cheapside, the Mitre Tavern near Wood Street. Later they met at the Bull Head Tavern and at Katherine Jones (1615-1691) house and Gresham College (1597-present) in Bishopsgate. Katherine was an intellectual in her own right as well as being Robert Boyle’s elder sister. In addition to their interest in science the group were concerned with what they termed social improvement through education, scientific advance and technology and acquiring knowledge through experimental investigation.
Even though little is known about the invisible college its influence cannot be under estimated. For example it inspired the imagination of the young Robert Boyle and fuelled his commitment, enthusiasm and interest in natural philosophy and science. Boyle was the youngest of the members becoming a member a year after its foundation. Robert Boyle is now seen as one of the founders of modern chemistry. He became aware of the invisible college when he visited London and subsequently wrote to his former tutor Isaac Marcombe extolling how the group had got him interested in natural philosophy, the mechanics and husbandry’. These studies were ‘according to the principles of our new philosophical college, that values no knowledge, but as it hath a tendency to use’. (Note the Baconian principle cited above). He invited his former tutor to attend one of the meetings of the College writing ‘bring along with you good receipts or choice books of any of these subjects that you can procure; which will make you extremely welcome at our invisible college’. In another letter letter to Francis Tallents (fellow at Magdalene College Cambridge) he wrote ‘the corner stone of the invisible, or the philosophical college, do now and then honour me with their company —men of so capacious and searching spirits, that school-philosophy is but the lowest region of their knowledge’. The group barred all ‘discussion of Divinity, of State- affairs and of News other than what concerned our business of Philosophy’).
Around 1648/49 Petty, Wilkins, Wallis and Goddard moved to Oxford and formed a branch of the Invisible College. Their decampment from London followed one of the first acts of Parliament in the early days of the Commonwealth which was the ‘purgation’ of the universities. Senior people were removed and ‘safer men’ appointed in their place. Meetings in London continued while meetings in Oxford were held at Petty’s house and later at Wadham College. Both groups continued to communicate with each other and held joint meetings whenever possible. The London group met at Gresham College until 1658 when it discontinued because of the civil war. In 1660 Monk’s army entered London and restored order and the meetings resumed in the same year. Following the Restoration the London and Oxford groups resumed their activities and at the end of 1660 it was resolved to constitute themselves as a Society of Philosophers. Later discussions proposed the establishment of a college for promoting ‘Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning’ and a set of rules were drawn up including that meetings should be held weekly and a one shilling fee paid each week to cover expenses. One important meeting was on 28th November 1660 following a lecture by Wren on astronomy held at Gresham College. Subsequently Robert Moray was mandated by the Society to approach the King to seek a more formal structure for the group and a possible Royal Charter of Incorporation to be conferred on it. Following negotiations the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was created receiving the Great Seal on 15th July 1662. So the invisible college with its two groups in London and Oxford and the support of Gresham College is now seen as the precursor for the Royal Society. Gresham College shown below in 1740 from an engraving.
More Detail about the members:
John Wallis 1616-1703. (Professor of geometry at Oxford). Samuel Foster 1616-1652. (Mathematician and Professor of anatomy at Gresham College). (See history pages of this website for more detail about Gresham College). John Evelyn 1620-1706. (Diarist, Writer). Jonathan Goddard 1617-1675. (Physician). Benjamin Worsley 1618-1673. (Physician and Experimental Scientist). John Wallis 1616-1703. (Mathematician). William Petty 1623-87. (Economist, Scientist and Philosopher). Robert Boyle 1627-1691. (Natural Philosopher, Chemist, Physicist, Inventor). Christopher Wren 1632-1723. (Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College and Architect). Robert Moray 1608/9-1673. (Scientist and spy). John Wilkins 1614-1672. (Theologian later became Bishop of Chester).George Ent 1604-1689). (Physician friend and supporter of William Harvey). Christopher Merret 1614/15-1695. (Physician and writer on Natural Philosophy). William Neile 1637-1691. (Amateur scientist particularly interested in optics). Francis Glisson 1599?-1677. (Physician, Anatomist and Physiologist).
Experimental aspects explored and considered by the Invisible College included: Circulation of blood (note friendship between Harvey and Ent), valves in the veins, the Copernican hypothesis, nature of comets and stars, improvement of the telescopes, weighing air, falling objects under gravity, barometric measurement (Torricellian experiments).
The Invisible College is important in history as it was one of the first groups that realised the importance of science and scientific research and made a major contribution to the subsequent expansion of scientific experimentation in British science and the formation of scientific societies e.g., the Royal Society.
It would be a fascinating exercise to compare the Invisible College with the Lunar Society – two amazing groups particularly their differences.
Webster. C. ‘The origins of the Royal Society.’ History of Science. VI. 1967.
Kassell. L. ‘Invisible College.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. OUP 2010.
Turner. D. M. ‘History of Science Teaching in England.’ Chapman and Hall. 1927.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Philosopher and Statesman.
Bacon stressed the importance of experiment in interpreting nature and the importance of possible evidence which might contradict any already existing thesis or view. He held that, to prepare the mind for the intuition of the true essence or nature of a thing, it has to be meticulously cleaned of all anticipations, prejudices, and idols. For the source of all error is the impurity of our own minds; Nature does not lie. His use of anticipation in his much of his writings can be equated to the concept of hypothesis.His method of scientific induction became very influential in future scientific research.