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Reviving the Royal Society in the early eighteenth century

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By the end of the seventeenth century, the Royal Society was buckling under the weight of its own ambition: it was deep in debt and lacking in both confidence and members. Most histories cite the presidency of Isaac Newton as halting this decline briefly before the Society descended into a period of amateurism and antiquarianism. This paper shall posit a different explanation by outlining the range of internal administrative reforms undertaken by Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and other officers between 1700 and 1740, and their effects. Of particular importance is the conscious consolidation and expansion of the Society’s correspondence networks, and the ways in which Sloane blurred the Society’s resources with his own in order to re-establish the Society as a necessary node in scientific knowledge production. I argue that Sloane’s work as a natural history collector at the centre of many different networks is linked to a deliberate shift in the role and purpose of the Society, from ruling over matters of fact to facilitating the work of others and providing a repository of information to discuss. Rather than being a symptom of the ‘decline’ of the Royal Society in the early eighteenth century, this was a key element of its revival.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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