Spine titleAnother item from the generous bequest from the estate of Michael Clark is celebrated in this post: Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society.

On 28 November 1660, following a lecture at Gresham College from Christopher Wren, the first ‘learned society’ meeting took place of a group that would become known from 1663 as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’. Also in 1663, the young chaplain Thomas Sprat was elected a Fellow, on the recommendation of founding member John Wilkins. Sprat was soon commissioned to write a history of the Society.

Although Sprat seems to have had little direct interest in natural philosophy himself, this was a chance to demonstrate his literary talents and the clear, plain style he advocated for scientific writing. Almost finished by November 1664, parts of Sprat’s work were published around this time. However, The History of the Royal-Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge was first published in full in 1667, after being delayed by plague and the great fire of London. It was presented to the Society by John Wilkins on 10 October 1667. The History carries the crest and coat of arms of the Society with its motto – ‘nullius in verba’ (‘the word of no-one’, or ‘take nobody’s word for it’) – but it did not receive its official imprimatur.[1]

The work had various aims: to describe the Society’s purpose, methods and achievements; to meet criticisms of its limited productivity; and to present it as no threat to the establishment, but as beneficial to the nation and to humanity. Concerned about emphasising the productivity of the Society, a council had been set up in December 1664 charged with selecting material to include in Sprat’s work. 14 papers delivered to the Society between 1661 and 1664 were chosen, edited and prepared for the book – the focus was on the wide-reaching practical benefits of this scientific enterprise. The range of papers included ‘Direction for the observations of the Eclipses of the Moon’, ‘The History of Making Gunpowder’ and ‘A Proposal for making Wine’.

Sprat’s work was not an accurate history of the Royal Society’s founding or practices however. Instead, this was in many ways a piece of PR.[2] It was closely overseen by Wilkins and by other members of the committees set up to select and edit content. The careful selection of material to be included, or excluded, was key to its purpose, but has also caused criticism over the book’s reliability and accuracy. Essentially, Sprat’s History aimed to show the novel methods and aims which the Society stood for, to promote its activity and assert its place within the social order, and was an appeal for both moral and financial support.

Title page and frontispieceAmong the books to reach the Whipple from the collection of Michael Clark is a first edition of Sprat’s History, with some modern repairs and binding. Importantly, this includes a frontispiece only present in some copies. This shows a bust of Charles II, patron of the Society, being crowned with a laurel wreath by an angel. Seated beside the bust are the first president of the Society, William Brouncker, pointing at the dedication to Charles II, and Francis Bacon, pointing towards the title page. They are accompanied by items relating to the Society’s early history and scientific instruments, including an aerial telescope, scales, a pendulum clock and an air pump.[3] This copperplate engraving combines the great influence of Bacon (whose ideas and methods were followed by the early Fellows, although his authority was exaggerated by Sprat, disregarding many other influences) with the Society’s royal patronage. The instruments displayed highlight the experimentation and practical observations carried out by the Society’s members. Abraham Cowley composed the Preface, a poem celebrating Bacon, Sprat and the Society.

This is an important addition to the Whipple collection. The Library already holds two other copies of Sprat’s History: the 3rd edition, published in 1722 (STORE 62:3) and the 4th from 1734 (STORE 62:4). Neither of these editions contained the frontispiece.


The beneficial role of science continues to be central to the work of the Royal Society, as seen in its mission and priorities statement today:
“The Society’s fundamental purpose, reflected in its founding Charters of the 1660s, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”[4]

[1] John Morgan, ‘Sprat, Thomas (bap. 1635, d. 1713)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26173. Accessed 22 Aug 2016.

[2] ‘Sprat, Thomas.’ Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 12. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008. 580-587. Gale Virtual Reference Library. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX2830904106&v=2.1&u=cambuni&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w&asid=43eab13ac2c3bdeced30b51b91d8b6c9. Accessed 22/8/16.

[3] https://pictures.royalsociety.org/image-rs-3782. Accessed 19/8/16.

[4] https://royalsociety.org/about-us/mission-priorities/. Accessed 19/8/16.

Dear, ‘Totius in verba: Rhetoric and Authority in the Early Royal Society’ Isis 76.2 (1985), pp.144-161
Hunter, ‘Founder members of the Royal Society (act. 1660–1663)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2006; online edn, Jan 2016
Lyons, The Royal Society 1660-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1944)
Morgan, ‘Sprat, Thomas (bap. 1635, d. 1713)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008
Skouen, ‘Science versus Rhetoric? Sprat’s History of the Royal Society ReconsideredRhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 29.1 (2011), pp.23-52
‘Sprat, Thomas.’ Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 12. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008. 580-587. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
The Royal Society website: https://royalsociety.org/