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Scientists and Society

The Royal Institution and Faraday

Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814) founded the Royal 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". (Henry Bence Jones, The Royal Institution, 1871, 121; quoted from L. Pearce Williams 1965, 320. And I shall heavily depend on Pearce William's account, which in turn depends on Bence Jones, in the following.) It is quite important for our purposes (of discussing the relationship between science and technology and the role of scientist in society) to notice these twofold goal of the Institution: (1) inventions useful to men and society, and (2) education or enlightenment of the general public.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain [Source:]

However, the Institution had the financial problem from the beginning, because the financial support was to come from the general public, wealthy people, in particular. Humphry Davy's brilliant performance gave a temporary solution, because he attracted many people from the high society, and he constructed first rate experimental facilities in the Institution and made a number of scientific discoveries. But he retired in 1812, although he was still to exert his influence on the Institution.

Davy's successor William Thomas Brande gave lectures on chemistry and earned money, but this did not solve the financial problem. According to Pearce Williams, "the immediate difficulties were overcome largely through Faraday's placing his skill as a practicing chemist at the disposal of the Royal Institution. The use of the laboratory in the researches on the alloys of steel, and more particularly, for the thousands of analyses performed by Faraday in the 1820's brought in the necessary funds to keep the R.I. going" (Pearce Williams 1965, 322).

In addition, by founding the series of lectures, "Friday evening discourses" and "Christmas lectures" in 1826, and contributing himself as a good lecturer, Faraday succeeded in improving the financial problem for the Institution. First, as an assistant, he helped Brande's lectures, preparing and performing chemical experiments; then he improved his own grammar and writing, learned oratory, and further practiced lectures at City Philosophical Society. Finally, by the discovery of electro-magnetic rotations and other discoveries in chemistry, he gained reputation as a scientist; and Faraday was ready for filling the vacancy left by Davy.

Thus it is obvious that Faraday greatly contributed to the fulfillment of the twofold goal of the Institution, solving the financial problem of the Institution at the same time; he made a number of inventions and discoveries useful to men and society, and he attracted many people, including children, teaching and enlightening them as regards the enjoyments and benefits of doing science.

Do his activities and "ethos" as scientist shed light on our problem?


April 21, 1999. (c) Soshichi Uchii