Our own PD Smith in The Independent:
This year the Royal Society celebrates its 350th birthday. The “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” was founded on 28 November 1660, when a dozen “ingenious and curious gentlemen” met at Gresham College, London, after a lecture by Christopher Wren, the 28-year-old Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found “a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning.” Among the signatories of that historic memorandum were Wren, chemist Robert Boyle, clergyman and polymath John Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray, and mathematician William, Viscount Brouncker.
Today it is the longest-lived scientific society in the world and this superb collection of essays, extensively illustrated, is a fitting tribute. It has had 8,200 members, including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford and Francis Crick: people who radically transformed the way we see the world. As Bill Bryson rightly says, “this isn't just the most venerable learned society in the world, it is the finest club.”
There had been earlier scientific societies such as Prince Federico Cesi's Academy of Linceans in Italy. But the Royal Society is without doubt the most influential. In 1665 it began the tradition of publishing scientific research. Its Philosophical Transactions is the oldest scientific journal in continuous publication. From the outset, under its German-born editor Henry Oldenburg, the journal was truly international, as was the Society itself. As Bryson puts it, the Society “created modern science”. The original members gathered on Wednesday afternoons in Gresham College where they would observe experiments – conducted by Robert Hooke – and engage in debates. “They loved to talk”, says James Gleick in his essay on their limitless curiosity. Anything could be discussed apart from God or politics.