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‘A devotion to the experimental sciences and arts’: the subscription to the great battery at the Royal Institution 1808–9


A significant but neglected theme in the history of British science in the nineteenth century is the funding of institutional research. The subscription to the ‘great battery’ at the Royal Institution in 1808 and 1809 provides the first instance of named individuals prepared to commit themselves to the provision of apparatus to be used for research in the new field of electrochemistry. This paper analyses the subscribers who were deemed to be ‘enlightened’ and whom Humphry Davy subsequently described as ‘a few zealous cultivators and patrons of science’. Using information from the subscription list, a distinction is made between the individual subscriptions pledged and the sums actually paid. In contextualizing the subscription, insights are provided into the Royal Society, the contemporary scientific community and the politics of metropolitan science. The voltaic subscription represents an early example of the repercussions of the nature of research funding for institutional finances and governance.

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The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Frank A. J. L. James, Keeper of the Collections, Royal Institution of Great Britain, and Lenore Symons, Archivist, Royal Institution of Great Britain, for supplying a copy of ‘Subscription for constructing a voltaic apparatus on a great scale for pursuing new researches in chemistry and natural philosophy’, deposited in the Royal Institution Muniment Room.
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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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