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The Origins of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

  • A. D. Orange (a1)

That a coherent account of the origins and early history of the British Association for the Advancement of Science has yet to be written is not altogether surprising. Even when the facts of the matter have been retrieved from the scattered papers of Babbage, Brewster, J. D. Forbes, Murchison, John Phillips, Vernon Harcourt, Whewell, and the rest, their organization into a connected whole remains a formidable business. The present paper seeks to identify the roles played in this important chapter in the chronicles of British science by David Brewster (1781–1868), the Scottish natural philosopher, and William Vernon Harcourt (1789–1871), the York clergyman. Inquiries of this kind—into the proper apportioning of the credit for a discovery, a technique, or the rise of an institution—are only saved from sterility if they make possible a better understanding of the critical events. The present review of the origins of the British Association leads to the modest but important conclusion that the organization brought into existence by Vernon Harcourt at York in September 1831 was subtly but significantly different from that which had originally been proposed by Brewster. If this is so, some of the existing accounts of the matter stand in need of revision.

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1 The most substantial treatment which has appeared in the present century is Howarth O. J. R., The British Association for the Advancement of Science: a retrospect 1831–1921 (London, 1922), pp. 143. A number of papers have attempted to relate the foundation of the British Association to a wider background: e.g. Foote G. A., ‘The place of science in the British reform movement, 1830–50’, Isis, xlii (1951), 192208; Williams L. P., ‘The Royal Society and the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science’, Notes and records of the Royal Society, xvi (1961), 221–33. There are important passages in some of the nineteenth-century volumes devoted to eminent men of science, most notably Geikie A., Memoir of Sir Roderick Murchison (London, 1875), i. 184–90; Gordon M. M., The home life of Sir David Brewster (2nd edn., Edinburgh, 1870), pp. 144–53; Shairp J. C., Tait P. G., and Adams-Reilly A., Life and letters of James David Forbes (London, 1873), pp. 75–9. A little-used source of a somewhat similar character is Harcourt E. W. (ed.), The Harcourt papers (Oxford, privately circulated, 18801905), much of vols, xiii and xiv (cited hereafter as Harcourt papers).

2 Two pamphlets composed in connexion with the jubilee meeting of the British Association at York in 1881 are of some interest in presenting opposite points of view on this matter: Hey W., Sketch of the York founders of the British Association (York, 1881), and Harrison W. W., The founding of the British Association (London, 1881).

3 Herschel John, ‘Sound’, Encyclopaedia metropolitana, iv (London, 1830), 810 n.

4 Babbage Charles, Reflections on the decline of science in England and on some of its causes (London, 1830).

5 Brewster David, ‘Charles Babbage, Reflections on the decline of science in England’, Quarterly review, xliii (1830), 305–42.

6 Babbage , op. cit. (4), pp. 140—1.

7 Ibid., pp. 53–4.

8 Todd A. C., Beyond the blaze. A biography of Davies Gilbert (Truro, 1967), contains an extended account of the reform movement in the Royal Society (pp. 207–66) and the presidential election of 1830 (pp. 240–66).

9 The Edinburgh journal of science, which Brewster edited and for which he wrote many articles, was preoccupied with the theme in 1830 and 1831.

10 Brewster , op. cit. (5), 307.

11 Ibid., 320.

12 Ibid., 324. The boards to which Brewster referred, in addition to the Board of Longitude, were the lighthouse boards and the Board of Manufactures.

13 Ibid., 325–6

14 Ibid., 326–7. The names that Brewster threw into the debate left no doubt that his remarks were directed, at least in part, against Oxford and Cambridge. In this he followed a tradition current in Edinburgh since the days of Adam Smith and perpetuated in the Edinburgh review in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Most of what Brewster had to say, whether of Oxford or Cambridge or of the Scottish universities, was true enough; the holder of a scientific chair had little opportunity to carry out research unless his salary was fixed, his duties unspecified, or his subject unpopular. ‘There is no profession so incompatible with original inquiry as a Scotch Professorship, where one's income depends on the number of pupils', he wrote to J. D. Forbes, early in 1830 (Shairp , Tait , and Adams-Reilly , op. cit. [i], p. 59). And the same was true, he believed, of many of the chairs at Oxford and Cambridge. But the desire to shout more loudly than Babbage led Brewster to assertions about the neglect of research in the universities which could not be substantiated in detail (cf. pp. 160–1). Subsequently he gave at least two extended accounts of the circumstances which led to the formation of the British Association (see notes 83 and 89), both of which were liberally illustrated by extracts from his writings of 1830 and 1831, but nowhere did he reproduce or mention his allegations on the matter of university research.

15 Ibid., 341–2.

16 Babbage Charles, ‘Account of the great congress of philosophers at Berlin’, Edinburgh journal of science, x (1829), 225–34. The account was also included as an appendix to Reflections on the decline of science in England, on pp. 213–23.

17 Johnston J. F. W., ‘Meeting of the cultivators of natural science and medicine at Hamburgh’, Edinburgh journal of science, new ser., iv (18301831), 244.

18 Brewster to Babbage , 21 02 1831, British Museum Add. MSS. 37185, f. 481.

19 Brewster to Phillips , 23 02 1831. The letter, with some other British Association correspondence, is with Phillips's papers in the Department of Geology of the University of Oxford. It is reproduced in Howarth , op. cit. (1), pp. 1314. Some extracts from Phillips's correspondence in connexion with the British Association are included in Edmonds J. M. and Beardmore R. A., ‘John Phillips and the early meetings of the British Association’, The advancement of science, xii (1955). 97104.

20 Brewster David, Notice in the Edinburgh journal of science, new ser., iv (18301831), 374.

21 Brewster David, Notice in the Edinburgh journal of science, new ser., v (1831), 180–2.

22 See, for example, Williams , op. cit. (1), 230, where Williams writes: ‘the B.A. was the direct reaction of the Royal Society reformers to their defeat [in the presidential election of 1830] by the amateurs'. This view has been briefly contested by Cannon W. F. in ‘History in depth: the early Victorian period’, History of science, iii (1964), 2038; see especially pp. 24–5. See also Morrell J. B., ‘Individualism and the structure of British science in 1830’, Historical studies in the physical sciences, iii (1971), 183204.

23 Brewster to Babbage , 14 08 1831, British Museum Add. MSS. 37186, f. 42.

24 Brewster to Babbage , 4 09 1831, Ibid., f. 74.

25 Brewster to Babbage , 16 09 1831, Ibid., f. 86.

26 Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831 (York, 1832), p. 11.

27 Ibid., p. 12.

28 Ibid., p. 9.

29 Murchison to Harcourt Vernon, 5 12 1831, in Harcourt papers (1), xiii. 269.

30 Conybeare to Harcourt Vernon, 8 03 1832, Ibid., xiii. 286.

31 The Oxford journal, 23 06 1832.

32 Forbes J. D., ‘First report … of the British Association for the Advancement of science’, Edinburgh journal of science, new ser., vi (18311832), 364.

33 Forbes J. D., Address to the British Association, delivered at Edinburgh, 8 September 1834 (n.p., n.d.), pp. 56. This item is Pamphlet P93/1 in Edinburgh University Library. Brewster's letter to Phillips in February 1831 (cited in note 19) had spoken of a society which would ‘possess no funds … and hold no property’. Forbes clearly felt it necessary to distinguish between such a body and the ‘permanent’ association which had arisen.

34 Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1844 (London, 1845), p. xxxiv.

35 Robison to Phillips , 26 05 1831 (19).

36 Robison to Phillips , 8 06 1831 (19).

37 Johnston to Phillips , 11 07 1831 (19).

38 Whewell W., ‘Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, vol. iii’, British critic, ix (1831), 7190 (passim). Whewell's ‘emoluments’ presumably referred to the college fellow ships which had been bestowed upon Wollaston and Herschel, and the Lucasian professorship held by Babbage.

39 Whewell to Forbes, 14July 1831, in Todhunter I., William Whewell, D.D., an account of his writings (2 vols., London, 1876), ii. 122.

40 ‘He [Brewster] is not, as you truly observe, to be identified with the meeting” (Whewell to Forbes, September 1831, Forbes's Papers, no. 32, University of St Andrews Library).

41 For biographical information see the article in the Dictionary of national biography; Proceedings of the Royal Society, xx (18711872), pp. xiiixviii (obituary by John Phillips); Harcourt papers, vols, xiii and xiv.

42 While most of the family were known, from the beginning of 1831, by the surname ‘Harcourt’, it is probable that William Vernon, at least originally, intended his new surname to be ‘Vernon Harcourt’. In the present paper this latter form is used, as far as possible, in relation to the period from 1831 and ‘Vernon’ for the earlier period.

43 E.g. Vernon W., “Account of the strata north of the Humber’, Annals of philosophy, xi (1826), 435–9; ‘On a discovery of fossil bones in a marl pit near North Cliff’, Philosophical magazine, 2nd ser., vi (1829), 225–32, and 2nd ser., vii. 1–9.

44 Some of them are summarized in Stokes G. G., ‘Notice of the researches of the late Rev. William Vernon Harcourt’, Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1871 (London, 1872), Transactions, pp. 3841.

45 His daughter says of the period: ‘His circumstances were extremely embarrassed. Having no private means, no regular profession, no remuneration from his inventions, his greatest literary undertaking [the Edinburgh encyclopaedia] having proved a complete failure in a pecuniary sense, and with three sons to send out into the world, his spirits often sank at his prospects'; see Gordon , op. cit. (i), pp. 156–7. Whether or not Brewster did see the British Association as a means of improving his own position, as some suggested (see p. 172, below), his condition did mend remarkably in the 1830s, with a knighthood, an annual grant from the government, and, in 1838, an appointment from the Crown as principal of the united college of St Salvator and St Leonard in the University of St Andrews.

46 The valuable preferments accorded to the family of Archbishop Vernon (Harcourt) were an easy target for some of the more radical opinion of the time; see, for example, Wade John (ed.), The extraordinary black book, or reformers' bible (2nd edn., London, 1831), p. 532. In February 1831 the Yorkshire gazette found it necessary to refute statements made in other newspapers about the income which the family derived from ecclesiastical sources; see The Yorkshire gazette, 12 02 1831.

47 The Yorkshire gazette, 10 10 1831.

48 Johnston J. F. W., ‘First meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science’, Edinburgh journal of science, new ser., vi (18311832), 4.

49 Brewster to Babbage , 16 09 1831 (25).

50 Op. cit. (26), p. 10.

51 Harcourt Vernon to Babbage , 08 1831, in Harcourt papers, xiii. 235–6.

53 Ibid., 237.

55 Babbage to Harcourt Vernon, 31 08 1831, Ibid., xiii. 239–42.

56 Herschel to Harcourt Vernon, 5 09 1831, Ibid., xiii. 244–6.

57 Whewell to Harcourt Vernon, 1 09 1831, in Todhunter , op. cit. (39), ii. 126.

58 Whewell to Harcourt Vernon, 22 09 1831, Ibid., ii. 131.

59 Geikie , op. cit. (1), i. 186.

60 Orange A. D., ‘The British Association for the Advancement of Science: the provincial background’, Science studies, i (1971), 315–29.

61 Whewell to Harcourt Vernon, 22 09 1831, in Harcourt papers, xiv. 18. Whewell wrote two letters to Vernon Harcourt bearing this date, one personal (cited in note 58) and one to be read, at his correspondent's discretion, at the York meeting.

62 Report of the British Association, 1831, pp. iiiiv.

63 See p. 171 below.

64 The negotiations, prolonged by changes in the administration in the year 1827, resulted in an act of Parliament extending to die whole country provisions which until then had related only to London for the application of Crown land to scientific and charitable use.

65 The Yorkshire gazette, 6 02 1830.

66 The more distinguished visitors were accommodated throughout the week at the archiepiscopal palace at Bishopthorpe.

67 Shairp , Tait , and Adams-Reilly , op. cit. (1), p. 77.

68 Johnston , op. cit. (48), 12.

69 Report of the British Association, 1831, p. 9.

70 Ibid. p. 10.

71 Ibid. pp. 11–12.

72 Ibid. pp. 13–15.

73 Ibid. p. 17.

74 Ibid. p. 19.

75 Ibid. p. 21. Vernon Harcourt referred particularly to the possibility of harnessing the talents and energies of the members of the provincial literary and philosophical societies.

76 Ibid., pp. 24–5.

77 Ibid., pp. 25–7; see also note 89.

78 Ibid., pp. 28–33.

79 Babbage's name was included in the list of members appended to the Report of 1831 (26), published in 1832; Herschel's was in the corresponding list in the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–1832 (London, 1833). The latter volume reproduced the report of the York meeting and added that of the Oxford meeting of 1832.

80 Geikie , op. cit. (1), i. 185.

81 Brewster to Phillips , 19 11 1831 (19).

82 Forbes, loc. cit. (33). It may be noted that the friendship of Brewster and Forbes was under some strain at this time, the two men having been rival candidates for the vacant chair of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in the winter of 1832–3.

83 Anon., ‘Report of the first and second meetings of the British Association … report of the third meeting of the British Association …’, Edinburgh review, lx (18341835), 363–94.

84 See, for example, Whewell's letters to Forbes , 14 02 1835, and to Hamilton , 12 04 1835, in Todhunter , op. cit. (39), ii. 204 and 209.

85 The Athenaeum, 8 08 1835, p. 641. Brewster is cited as the author in Houghton W. E., The Wellesley index to Victorian periodicals (Toronto, 1966), 480.

86 Ibid., p. 642.

87 Edinburgh review, lx (18341835), 371.

88 Ibid., 377.

89 Ibid., 379. It is of some interest to consider how faithfully the official report of the York meeting reproduces the substance of the speeches by Vernon Harcourt and Lord Milton. The report itself records that Vernon Harcourt ‘asked permission to revise what he had said, previous to its publication’ (Report of the British Association, 1831, p. 37). In 1851 Brewster published a new essay on the early history of the Association (North British review, xiv [18501851], 235–87), reproducing passages from the business of the opening meeting which had not appeared in the original report:

[Lord Milton] was understood to object ‘to all direct encouragement of science by the State’, and to characterize such a mode of advancing it as ‘un-English’, and calculated ‘to make men of science the servile pensioners of the Ministry’. In the discussion, however, which followed, a clear and positive claim for such national encouragement was made by Mr. Harcourt, who, in urging correct views in reference to this fundamental object of the Association, remarked,—‘I should undoubtedly be very sorry to see any system of encouragement adopted by which the men of science in England should become servile pensioners of the Ministry: and no less sorry am I to see them under the present system, when exerting the rarest intellectual faculties in the scientific service of the State, chained down in a needy dependence on a too penurious Government … As things stand at present, the deeper, drier, and more exalted a man's studies are, the drier, lower, and more sparing must be his diet … I cannot see any reason why, with proper precautions, men of science should not be helped to study for the public good, as well as statesmen to act for it; nor do I see why they should not be as independent with fixed salaries, as statesmen hold themselves to be in places revocable at will. At the present moment there is a man of science [Lord Brougham], and more than one friend, to the direct encouragement of scientific men, at the head of affairs. Our starving philosophers are indulging no unjustifiable hope that the fortunes of philosophy may be mended under the influence of the present lords of the ascendant. It cannot be wondered that they should be unwilling to have it proclaimed ex cathedra, from the midst of themselves, that there is something illegitimate in the direct encouragement of science, though they are ready enough to own that there is something in it very un-English …' (pp. 255–6; cf. Gordon , op. cit. (1), p. 148).

All of this compares oddly with Brewster's complaints in November 1831.

90 Edinburgh review, lx (18341835). 379.

91 Ibid., 381.

92 Ibid., 382.

93 Ibid., 388–9.

94 Ibid., 374.

95 Ibid., 390.

96 Ibid., 391.

97 Ibid., 390–1.

98 Report of the British Association, 1834 (London, 1835), p. xivn. An earlier and, in this case, unsuccessful attempt by Vernon Harcourt to avoid the inclusion in the official publications of the Association of any material sufficiently controversial to divide its ranks was recorded by G. B. Airy, who in October 1831 had agreed to write a report on the recent progress of astronomy: ‘Mr. Vernon Harcourt wrote deprecating the tone of my Report on Astronomy as related to English Astronomers, but I refused to alter a word’; see Airy Wilfrid (ed.), Autobiography of Sir George Biddell Airy (Cambridge, 1896), p. 97. In the report Airy, although he overtly denied the decline of science, contended that ‘in all important branches of science’ England continued to lag behind foreign countries, and that in many parts of astronomy ‘Englishmen alone of all the nations professing to support a high scientific character, have stood still’ (Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–1832 [cited in note 79], pp. 180–6 etc.).

99 Vernon Harcourt to Sabine , 1853, in Harcourt papers, xiii. 228–32.

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