WILLIAM HERSCHEL AND THE BATH PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY

This is a Joint Discussion Group of the BRLSI and the William Herschel Society

Professor Francis Ring, Chairman, The William Herschel Society, on 13 January 2001

William Herschel was an active member of the Bath Philosophical Society the forerunner of the present Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution long before his discovery of Uranus from the garden of 19 New King Street in 1781. His contributions to its activities were varied from experiments on glass drops to the investigation of electricity and from considerations of "the utility of speculative inquiries" to that of "the existence of Space."

Professor Ring used many textual extracts from books and papers to describe the evolution of the Bath Philosophical Society from the `Bath Agricultural Society', formed in 1777, the brainchild of Edmund Rack. The object of this Society was to improve farming methods in the area and for "The Encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in the counties of Somerset, Wilts, Glocester (sic) and Dorset" This Society was the ancestor of the present `Bath and West Show', held near Shepton Mallet. One of its prominent members at that time was Dr William Falconer FRS, physician at Bath General Hospital and whose interests included the medical applications of Bath's hot mineral water.

Another member of the Agricultural Society, Thomas Curtis, Governor of the Bath General Hospital was the founder of the first Bath Philosophical Society in 1779. Its purpose was to discuss scientific and philosophical subjects and make experiments to illustrate them. It had a restricted membership, and its members were at liberty to discuss `the Arts and Sciences, Natural History, the History of Nations or any branch of Polite Literature', but not `Law, Physic, Divinity and Politics'. It built up a collection of books and purchased instruments, where affordable, for experimental work. Edmund Rack was elected its secretary.

Amongst its prominent members between 1779 and 1787 were William Watson, an influential friend of William Herschel, also a member, and Charles Blagdon, secretary to the Royal Society and influential in the scientific world.

Herschel was also to get to know, through this Society, Joseph Priestley, then living at Bowood House, whose discovery of oxygen is as great a landmark in chemistry as Herschel's description of our star system and other `island universes' is in astronomy. The William Herschel Society has recently contributed to the acquisition of John Herschel's copy of The History and Present State of Discoveries Relating to Vision, Light and Colour by the Herschel Museum. It was compiled by Priestley and published in 1778 with the financial support of a large list of benefactors from around the country, needed because of the high cost of paper and printing in those days. Priestley and Herschel were also founder members of a select group within the Society.

Herschel was one of its most active members, contributing 31 papers, including that which announced his discovery of a comet, later identified as a planet and now known as Uranus. No fewer than eleven members were or became Fellows of the Royal Society, although it must be pointed out that, in those days, acquaintance with one of its Secretaries (e.g. Charles Blagdon) would greatly facilitate one's election to Fellowship.

The first Bath Philosophical Society came to an end in 1787 probably due to the death of Rack that year (Curtis had died three years before) and the dispersion of many of its members, like Herschel, who moved to Dachet in 1782. There were two further attempts to resurrect it, in 1799 with Herschel and Watson as members, and in 1815, both of which were unsuccessful. It was not until 1825 that the Bath Literary and Scientific Institution was formed - but that is another story.

Professor Ring's talk gave a fascinating insight into the life and times of mid 18th century intellectual Bath and the importance of the Bath Philosophical Society to the career of William Herschel.

Richard Phillips