For the three centuries after its foundation in 1660, the Royal Society was the world’s pre-eminent scientific institution. Its members and presidents included: Sir Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Sir Joseph Banks, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Hans Sloane, Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, Joseph Lister, Ernest Rutherford.
Its alumni’s achievements included designing St Pauls Cathedral, laying groundwork for classical mechanics, discovering law of gravity and three laws of motion, coining word “cell” for basic unit of life, Hooke’s law of elasticity, Boyle’s law, inventing drinking chocolate, creating basis of Natural History Museum’s collection, introducing numerous plant species to the Western World, helping popularise evolutionary theory, devising antiseptic surgery, pioneering nuclear physics.
A small group of learned men, interested in the “experimental” or “new” philosophy as it was then called, began to meet informally from about 1645 at Gresham College in Bishopsgate to attend lectures and discuss their mutual interests. They called themselves “the invisible college.” Gresham had been founded in 1579 by a bequest of Sir Thomas Gresham, who laid down in his will the subjects to be taught. These were: divinity, medicine, geometry, astronomy, rhetoric and music.
Gresham had been appointed joint General Warden of Masons in 1567, so it is therefore not surprising that he sought to imbue his new college with the principles of Freemasonry.
Unusually, the college encouraged its professors to discuss practical applications of their subjects.
The professors of geometry and astronomy, in particular, worked closely with the Royal Navy and its shipbuilders, assisting with computational techniques for navigation and the design of efficient warships. It has been suggested that the practical bias of the early Gresham professors set down a basis for the practical science of the Royal Society. No less than ten past professors of the college became Fellows of the Royal Society.
Following a lecture by Christopher Wren, twelve men met in the rooms of the Professor of Geometry at Gresham College on 28th November 1660. Half of them had lost high academic positions granted them under the Commonwealth, as they had supported Parliament against the King in the Civil War. The other half was royalists who had been reinstated after the Restoration. In spite of their political disagreements, they agreed to form a society for “experimental philosophy”, and to pay substantial fees to enable such experiments to be carried out.
Sir Robert Moray, who was well established in the new King’s good graces, was chosen as the most suitable member to seek the approval and support of the monarch. Moray had only recently returned from France, where he had been engaged on the King’s business. The King greeted him with great warmth, and established him in a suite of rooms at the Palace of Whitehall. Moray was to set up a laboratory to continue his studies in the palace, where the King could observe his experiments.
The Freemason Scientists
The thirty-five original fellows of the Society came from a variety of backgrounds. Nineteen were scientists, while the other sixteen included statesmen, soldiers, antiquaries, administrators and literary men. As originally constituted, the society was to consist of a mixture of experimenters and rich men, who while not scientists themselves, had an interest in science, and more importantly, could finance the work of the others.
The scientist members included Robert Boyle who, with Robert Hooke, explored the properties of a vacuum, and gave his name to the gas law of volume and pressure; William Petty, the father of modern statistics; Laurence Rooke, a geometrician who worked on methods for determining the longitude at sea; Christopher Wren, Gresham Professor of Astronomy and prominent architect. After the granting of the Royal Charter, the Society quickly added the antiquarian Elias Ashmole, famous amongst Freemasons as being the first accepted or speculative Freemason for whom written records exist in England.
Sir Christopher Wren was a founding member of the Society and served as its president from 1680 to 1682. According to William Preston, Wren became a Freemason in 1691, although John Aubrey, a founder of the Society and a Freemason himself, claimed Wren was already a Warden of the Craft by 1663! The Masonic records of Wren are contradictory, with some sources even stating he was a Grand Master.
Amongst other prominent members of the Royal Society, the philosopher and theorist of liberalism, John Locke, admitted to being a Freemason in a letter dated 1696. Even Benjamin Franklin, American revolutionary and prominent Freemason, was admitted to the Society. Robert Boyle was not a Mason at the founding of the Royal Society, but became one later.
Sir Isaac Newton, President from 1703 to 1727, belonged to a curious quasi-masonic society that met in Spalding. He nominated John Desaguliers as Curator of Experiments 1712. Desaguliers was the first man to demonstrate the existence of the atom. He became the Grand Master of the Freemasons in 1719, and was most influential in shaping the form that 18th century Freemasonry was to take.
The Royal Society was founded by Freemasons, and dominated by Freemasons for the first two centuries of its existence. This raises the questions of why this was so, and what did the Masons hope to gain out of it? It is difficult to give a short answer.