Tag Archives: Royal Society

Jonathan Watson

Jonathan Watson (c.1718—1803), of Rendlesham in Suffolk was one of the gentleman members of the Royal Society, rather than a scientist. I really know little about his background. In 1747 he married Elizabeth Bullock, of the large and prominent local Bullock family – her brother John was to become Sheriff of Essex, as her grandfather had been before him, and their eldest son, Jonathan Josiah Christopher Watson later inherited the Bullock family manor of Faulkbourn in Essex and took the name Bullock.

In 1763, he was elected Fellow the Royal Society, his citation reading:

Jonathan Watson Esqr of Rendlesham in the County of Suffolk being a gentleman very studious of natural philosoph[y] and desirous of being made a Fellow of the Royal Society, We whose names are underwritten do certify of our personal knowledge, that we think him a fit person to be admitted to that honour

In 1764, he appeared as a subscriber to the second, enlarged, edition of John Kirby’s Suffolk Traveller, and it is presumably this link, together with the Suffolk connections, that induced him to support Joshua Kirby’s candidacy for fellow in 1767. Sometime shortly thereafter, he moved with his family to Virginia, where he apparently had inherited an estate of a couple of thousand acres from his father. A prominent landowner, he appears in the Vestry Book of Petsworth Parish as Major Jonathan Watson, and is appointed church warden and Vestry man. He was also a Justice of the Peace in Gloucester County. He evidently visited England at least once during his American period as he is recorded in the Virginia Gazette of 22 August 1771 arriving from London after a voyage of ‘nine weeks passage’.

The 1770s was a difficult time for prominent landowning loyalists and eventually he was forced to sell his holdings cheaply and return to England with his family, probably in 1775.

Another who got into difficulties at the same time was Rev. Samuel Henley, the professor of Moral Philosophy at the College of William and Mary. Henley had an eclectic background, being raised as a Dissenting Minister before veering to the Church of England just in time to be hired in England for the vacant professorship in 1770. To begin with his conservative outlook had the support of local worthies, but his eccentric theology and contentious nature finally lost him his job, apartments, books and papers in 1775. Henley was a great antiquarian, and Jonathan Watson managed to save a few prints of his; most of the rest were lost in a later fire at the college, although in the 1780s Thomas Jefferson wrote to Henley saying that he also had managed to save some papers.

Homeless and jobless, Henley sailed for England where he married Jonathan Watson’s daughter Mary Elizabeth in 1776. He was appointed as an assistant master at Harrow school and later presented as rector of Rendlesham, although he seems to have lived mostly at Harrrow.

Watson himself lived the life of a country squire, becoming a Justice of the Peace in Suffolk, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, and a Major in the East Suffolk Militia before dying at the age of 84 in 1803.


Blanco on Simpson and Publishing

Mónica Blanco has a nice article in the current issue of Historia Mathematica on Thomas Simpson and mathematical publishing in mid-18th-century London.

Thomas Simpson (1710—1761), now mostly remembered for Simpson’s rule for approximating definite integrals, wrote two books on calculus. The first, A New Treatise of Fluxions, was published in 1737, and the second, a new book rather than a second edition of the first, The Doctrine and Application of Fluxions, in 1750.

Blanco traces Simpson’s background, particularly the influences of Edmund Stone (1695?—1768) and his 1730 re-working of L’Hopital’s text, and Simpson’s friend Francis Blake (1707/8—1780). All three were Fellows of the Royal Society.

The core of Blanco’s paper is a detailed comparison of the structure and contents of Simpson’s two works, and an exploration of the reasons for the differences. However, possibly of wider interest, she also includes some general remarks on mathematical publishing and the reception of mathematical works.

Simpson’s first book appears to have been supported by subscription, although there is no list of subscribers attached to the volume, and was published by Thomas Gardner, a printer “with a dubious reputation” (68). By the time the second work appeared, Simpson was a known and successful author (he published several other mathematical works in between the two calculus books), and the project was taken on by the prominent bookseller John Nourse, whose mathematical list included the likes of Newton, Maclaurin, and Brook Taylor, putting Simpson in distinguished company. Long after Simpson’s death, Nourse brought out a second edition.



Blanco, M. Thomas Simpson: Weaving fluxions in 18th-century London. Historia Mathematica
41 (1) (2014), 38—81.

Joshua Kirby, F.R.S.

Joshua Kirby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 26 March 1767. His election card is now, as the Royal Society says on its web page, barely legible, but they do manage a transcription of his citation:

Joshua Kirby of Kew in the County of Surry [sic] Esq. Designer in Perspective to their Majesties, & Author of Brook Taylor’s Method of Perspective made easy, &c & of other considerable Improvements in that Science, being very desirous of the honor of Election into the Royal Society; We whose names are underwritten, recommend him on our personal Knowledge, as a Gentleman likely to prove a useful Member

How useful a member he was is unclear, as he seems to have had little to do with the Society, although he did sponsor two Fellows, Andrew Joseph Planta, and John Lodge Cowley. Kirby himself was proposed by:


Andreas Planta

Rev. Andreas Joseph Planta (1717—1773) had an interesting background. His family was prominent in the Grisons region of Switzerland/Italy (depending on your period), tracing their lineage back to the twelfth century, and a family of the same name and locale was also prominent in Imperial Rome. Andreas himself became a pastor in Castasegna, a rare example of an Italian-speaking Protestant parish. After a period as Professor of Mathematics at Erlangen, in 1752 or 1753 he came to London as pastor to the German Reformed Church at Savoy. In 1758 he was also appointed as a part-time assistant librarian at the British Museum and in the 1760s was engaged as a tutor in Italian to Queen Charlotte.  One of the duties of the British Museum staff was to escort visitors around the collection, and in 1765 Planta showed the Museum to the Mozart family, resulting in a gift of manuscripts of several of the young Wolfgang’s works to the collection.

In 1770 Andreas, or Andrew as he went by in England, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, his citation reading,

Andrew Joseph Planta of the British Museum MA, & Minister of the German Reformed Church at the Savoy, a Gentleman of good learning, and well versed in natural knowledge, being desirous of becoming a member of the Royal Society; we recommend him, of our Personal acquaintance, as likely to be a valuable & useful member.

His proposers, several of whom had connections to the British Museum, were:

  • Rev. Gregory Sharpe (1713—1771);
  • Gowin Knight (1713—1772), First Librarian of the British Museum;
  • Henry Baker (1698—1774);
  • Jerome De Salis (1709—1794) (the De Salis family was equally prominent in Grisons);
  • Joseph Ayloffe (1709—1781);
  • Matthew Duane (1707—1785), trustee of the British Museum;
  • Charles Morton (1716—1799), Librarian of the British Museum;
  • Samuel Harper (c. 1732—1803), under-librarian at the British Museum;
  • Mathew Maty (1718—1776), librarian at the British Museum;
  • Richard Penneck (1728—1803), Keeper of the Reading Room at the British Museum;
  • Rev. Henry Putman (1725—1797);
  • Joshua Kirby (1716—1774), and;
  • John Bevis (1695—1771).

Andreas Planta married Margarete Scartazzini Debolziani when a pastor in Castasegna. Of their children, son Joseph in turn became Librarian at the British Museum (and his son Joseph a prominent diplomat), Elizabeth was governess to the notorious Mary Bowes, and Margaret and Frederica were English tutors to the princesses.

Henry Baker

Henry Baker, FRS (1698—1774) was an interesting person. His father, a Clerk in Chancery, died when he was young, and he was largely brought up by his grandmother. He was apprenticed as a bookseller, later declaring his apprenticeship ‘as agreeable a Part of Life as any I have ever known’. Not that he became a bookseller. At the end of his apprenticeship, he went off to visit some relatives and ended up staying for nine years. What caught his interest was the 8-year-old daughter of his host, John Forster, who had been born deaf. Baker undertook to teach Jane and her two younger siblings, also born deaf, to read, write and lip-read, a task in which he was successful and instructing the deaf became his main source of income. He charged high prices and a lucrative practice. He also swore his pupils to secrecy and never revealed the details of his procedure, although it was doubtless based on that devised by the mathematician John Wallis.

It was presumably through a shared interest in the education of the deaf that Baker met Daniel Defoe, whose youngest daughter Sophia he married. They had two sons. The elder, and more colorful one, David Erskine Baker translated Voltaire’s Metaphysics of Sir Isaac Newton into English when only seventeen, was trained as an engineer on account of his mathematical skill, and joined a troupe of travelling players. His brother Henry became a lawyer.

In his youth Baker wrote poetry. Together with Defoe he founded the Universal Spectator, and in the early 1740s he got interested in microscopes. His book on microscopes, about which we will write in a separate post, was much more successful than Benjamin Martin’s Micrographia Nova, selling out a first edition of 1000 copies in only a few months. Although primarily a popularizer rather than a researcher, he used the microscope to study both crystal growth and polyps, earning him a Fellowship in the Royal Society in 1741, and its Copley Medal in 1744.

Baker was an inveterate organizer, recorder and committee member, clearly relishing the organizational tasks involved with the Royal Society, the Society of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. With these organizations he was intersecting Kirby’s orbit as Kirby was a member of these groups, too.

Most of the information in this post comes from the delightful article on Henry Baker by Gerard L’Estrange Turner.


Turner, G.L’E, 1974. ‘Henry Baker, F.R.S.: Founder of the Bakerian Lecture’. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. October 1, 1974 29 1 53-79.

Sorrenson – Perfect Mechanics

Sorrenson, Richard, Perfect Mechanics. Instrument Makers at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century, Boston: Docent Press, 2013, ix+240 pp. Amazon link.

Perfect Mechanics looks at the connections, and tensions, between the Eighteenth-Century mathematical instrument makers and the Royal Society. In this highly-readable and well-researched adaptation of a Princeton Ph.D., Sorrenson blends together over-arching themes with detailed case studies.

If the Royal Society was an elite club for philosophical gentlemen, what were mere artisans doing there? Sorrenson shows that both halves of this thesis are flawed. Although a Royal Society, and chartered by Charles II, the Society was largely neglected by indifferent sovereigns. While an interest in the workings of the society and sufficiently high rank was a guarantee of membership, the remainder of the fellows formed a more diverse group than might be imagined. While social status was an advantage, membership could be achieved through diligent study, patient observation, and significant contribution to the body of knowledge, regardless of class. While the Society depended for its continued existence on a group of (largely) landed gentry who paid their dues and took their copies of the Society’s journal of record, the Philosophical Transactions, but played little active part in the working of the organization, the active Fellows spanned a range of social class.

The Society’s mission was exploration of the modern experimental and natural philosophies, but in outlook they were more Baconian than Newtonian. Observation and experimentation were prized above abstract theorizing. “To the eighteenth-century Fellows of the Royal Society, the ideal scientific life was exemplified by those members who made careful observations of natural or artificial phenomena, gave them a mechanical explanation or demonstration where possible, avoided grand theory, and above all produced reliable and accurate facts” (35). Newton cast a long shadow. Sorrenson notes that pure mathematics makes up some 2% of all papers published in the Philosophical Transactions.

Behind the search for reliable and accurate facts lay the instruments, and the instrument makers. The eighteenth century saw the introduction of a host of observation instruments, and the refinement of others, from telescopes and microscopes, to vacuum pumps, barometers, hydrometers and clocks. Observations with these instruments greatly augmented natural human senses and as the facts became more accurate and precise, they uncovered new, unexpected phenomena. The gentlemen philosophers needed close interaction with the artisans, and here we come to the second part of Sorrenson’s analysis. While instrument makers for the regular trade could be seen just as craftsmen, working with their hands for commercial gain, those at the cutting edge of instrument design needed both a practical ability and theoretical background. A few instrument makers at the top of their profession made their own discoveries, published in the Philosophical Transactions, were awarded the Copley Medal, the Society’s highest honor, and were welcomed as Fellows. Sorrenson presents three case studies, for the early part of the century, the middle and the latter decades.

First is George Graham (1673—1751). Praised for the great mural quadrant he designed and made for Edmond Halley for the Greenwich Observatory, an instrument of unsurpassed accuracy, Graham regularly published his own astronomical observations in the Philosophical Transactions, and the great accuracy of his instruments allowed the discovery of the new phenomenon of the aberration of starlight, a discovery in which he himself played a significant part.

Graham also discovered the diurnal variation in the Earth’s magnetic field by the expedient of making a superbly accurate compass and taking careful measurements several times a day for two solid years. An exemplar of the governing philosophy of science. Graham had trained as a clockmaker under Thomas Tompion. The rate of a pendulum clock depends on the length of the pendulum, and this varies with temperature as the length of the pendulum increases in warmer weather and decreases in colder weather. Therefore a clock will not beat steady time over the year. Graham devised a way of attaching a mercury column to the pendulum to exactly counter this effect, and this is the instrument displayed behind him in the portrait above (from an engraving by J. Faber after Thomas Hudson).

Sorrenson’s second case is the Dollond family, especially John Dollond (1706—1761). The Dollonds were opticians, and, along with spectacles, the main optical instrument of the mid-eighteenth century was the telescope. Telescopes are either reflecting (using mirrors) or refracting (using lenses). When light passes through a lens, the material bends, or refracts, the light. However, the amount the light is bent depends on the wavelength, with the blue and red bending through different angles. This is the phenomenon that allows a prism to split up white light. However, in a telescope, it means that white starlight gets smeared with colored fringes, a problem known as chromatic aberration that limits the accuracy of observations. John Dollond found a way two put two lenses of different types of glass together (crown and flint) to cancel out the effect. Not only did this immediately make refractive telescopes better (and sweep the market), but Isaac Newton had investigated the issue and stated flatly that it could not be solved. Dollond had bested Newton.

The third case is Jesse Ramsden (1735—1800), who married John Dollond’s daughter, Sarah. At the height of his career, Ramsden made the best instruments available. Orders poured in from observatories and kings across Europe. His extreme accuracy was matched only by his extreme dilatoriness. If you wanted a Ramsden instrument, you had to wait. He made enormous vertical circles, one seen in the background, used by astronomers to create improved star catalogs, and he designed and built the enormous theodolite used for the first Ordnance Survey of England. Ramsden’s other claim to fame, also shown in his portrait, is the dividing engine. This apparatus allowed and journeyman or apprentice, to divide a surveying instrument with the accuracy previously only available to the most skilled craftsmen. With this, he could produce cheaper and better sextants and other instruments for the insatiable navigational market, but the price for the profession was a loss of status. From experts mixing theoretical philosophy with practical mechanics, they became machine-tool users. The delicate social balance between gentlemen and instrument makers was being lost.

Sorrenson’s argument for how the instrument makers achieved social status, and how they lost it, is carefully made. The book contains a wealth of detail (and characters) not touched on here, all told with an ease that litle academic scholarship attains. Perfect Mechanics is an important account of a crucial period of development in British science and industry showing how philosophy, economics, social manners and technology blended together.

John Bevis

John Bevis (1695—1771) was a doctor and astronomer. He was a long-time friend of Edmund Halley, took a keen interest in John Harrison’s development of the chronometer, was a friend of the mathematical instrument maker George Graham and worked closely with Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal.

Bevis went up to Christ Church Oxford in 1712, gaining his BA in 1715 and MA in 1718. He then travelled on the Continent and acquired his medical degree. He practiced as a doctor periodically, but it seems that his real love was astronomy. He was the first person to observe the Crab Nebula and last to see one planet occulting another when he witnessed Venus eclipse Mercury.

He published numerous papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1737 until his death, starting with observations on a comet. He set up a personal observatory at Stoke Newington, outside London and in the late 1730s he had an intense period of observation, filling three folio notebooks with observations in one year. Bevis prepared Halley astronomical tables for publication in the late 1740s, while also working on his gorgeous, but ill-fated, star atlas, the Uranographia. The book had 51 high-quality engraved star charts, each dedicated to a notable personage (the Princess of Wales got Virgo, Nathaniel Bliss, Professor of Geometry at Oxford, got the Triangles). Alas, it was never published as the publisher went bankrupt. Some impression were taken of the plates and a few copies exist. The Linda Hall Library in Kansas City has a fine digital reproduction of their copy. The publisher had taken (expensive) subscriptions in for several years and the fact that nothing came of the project was a sore point for Bevis for the rest of his life.

After the famous Lisbon earthquake, he prepared a compendium on The History and Philosophy of Earthquakes, and in 1759 was one of only two people known to have observed Halley’s Comet on its first predicted return. In the 1760s, he was one of the people asked to do the computations related to the test of Harrison’s chronometer after its trip to Barbados, and in 1765 he was (finally) elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, becoming its foreign secretary the following year. He was appointed to the Royal Society’s committee to plan for the Transit of Venus in 1769, and was a proponent of Captain Cook. He himself observed the transit from Joshua Kirby’s house in Kew with Kirby acting as time-keeper, publishing his observations in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. He is said to have died as a result of a fall from his telescope when checking the time after observing a transit.

See also:

Transits of Venus


Ashworth, W.B. “John Bevis and His “Uranographia” (ca. 1750)”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 125 (1) (1981), 52—73.

Wallis, R. “John Bevis, M.D., F.R.S. (1695-1771): Astronomer Loyal”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London
36 (2) (1982), 211—225.