Sunday, February 7, 2021

George III: a Royal Passion for Science

From Science Museum:

The future King George III became Prince of Wales (and thus first in line to the throne) at the age of 12 when his father Frederick died in 1751. His intellectual thinking was very much influenced by one of his tutors in particular, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713–92). Bute introduced him to natural philosophy demonstrations and instrument collecting.

Upon ascending the throne in 1760 at the age of 22, the young King began to assemble his own collection of scientific instruments. Unlike some monarchs, who famously collected what has become known as a ‘cabinet of curiosity’ that contained fabulous but unused treasures George III had a genuine interest in natural philosophy. He was very much a product of his time and of the general sense of the education that a wealthy gentleman was required to have.

This was an era which became known as the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that spread across Europe. To varying degrees this influenced many aspects of human life including education, natural philosophy, literature, art, architecture, politics and economics.

Possibly as a consequence of Bute’s influence, George III hoped to demonstrate that he governed the nation according to reason and virtue, so that his citizens would also aspire to these values. Furthermore, both Bute and the King believed that physically using instruments and undertaking mathematical exercises helped to cultivate the rational mind.

These ideas were typical of the period. Bute’s thinking was influenced by his education in Leiden in the Netherlands and his involvement in the Scottish Enlightenment (which, while connected to the Enlightenment in England, very much emerged with its own identity and from its own networks).

People who were interested in natural philosophy in the 18th century, including King George III, did not limit themselves to one particular area, or subject specialism as we might call it today.

From the pamphlets that accompanied the numerous lectures given in London’s coffee houses, educational establishments and private houses, we can see that learning about natural philosophy included mechanics, pneumatics (the study of gases), hydrostatics (the study of fluids under pressure), optics (the study of light), mathematics and astronomy, to name just a few. Students of natural philosophy learned about all of these areas—not just one.

In London, young men attending schools to prepare them for careers as clerks or merchants, such as those attending Thomas Watts’ Academy on Little Tower Street, were also taught these subjects in addition to mathematics, surveying, bookkeeping and letter writing.

Young women were not given the same opportunities as men at this time, but some were fortunate enough to learn about natural philosophy at home and at the end of the 18th century a school was set up by Margaret Bryan to teach astronomy to girls and young women.

Instruments and demonstration equipment would have been an essential part of this teaching. George III’s collection similarly contains instruments that could be used to demonstrate each of these areas of natural philosophy, although his were made of higher quality materials and would have been more expensive.

Here we explore some of the most striking examples that were used to demonstrate mechanics, pneumatics and astronomy to the King and his household. (Read more.)

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