What were some of the rather humorous experiments carried out by members of the British Royal Society?

Francis Bacon and the Scientific Revolution Read more from
Chapter Skeptical and Natural Philosophy

The former British comedy troop Monty Python would have had a field day with some of the early investigations conducted by the Royal Society. And King Charles II, who was very interested in experiments in general, loved to make fun of the more preposterous ones. For example, at the Philosophical Society of Oxford—hosted by founding Royal Society secretary John Wilkins (1614–1672), who had written about the “admirable contrivances of natural things” in Mathematical Marvels—there were, among Wilkins’ own collection, transparent apiaries and a hollow statue that “spoke” through a concealed pipe.

Robert Boyle (1627–1691) was considered eccentric because he doctored himself and seemed to make a hobby of collecting medical prescriptions. By the time the Royal Society had formed, alchemy had switched from being a science seeking to convert base metals into gold to one with an aim of using new medical discoveries to prolong human life. Nonetheless, in 1689 Boyle worked successfully to get Henry IV’s law against “multiplying gold” repealed.

When Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623–1673), was granted a visit to the Royal Society in 1667, she was shown experiments involving colors, the mixing of cold liquids, dissolving meat in oil of vitriol, weighing air, the flattening of marbles, magnetism, and “a good microscope.” The Duchess wrote in her own diary that the new science was useless for solving social and spiritual problems.


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