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A History of Science, Volume 5(of 5) by Williams

Rumford was the sole founder of the enterprise


these aims were put into effect almost from the beginning. The necessary funds were supplied solely by popular subscription and by the sale of lecture tickets (as all funds of the institution have been ever since), and before the close of the year 1800 Rumford's dream had become an actuality--as this practical man's dreams nearly always did. The new machine did not move altogether without friction, of course, but on the whole all went well for the first few years. The institution had found a local habitation in a large building in Albemarle Street, the same building which it still occupies, and for a time Rumford lived there and gave the enterprise his undivided attention. He appointed the brilliant young Humphry Davy to the professorship of chemistry, and the even more wonderful Thomas Young to that of natural philosophy. He saw the workshops and kitchens and model-rooms in running order--the entire enterprise fully launched. Then other affairs, particularly an attachment for a French lady, the widow of the famous chemist Lavoisier (whom he subsequently married, to his sorrow), called him away from England never to return. And the first chapter in the history of the Royal Institution was finished.


Rumford, the humanitarian, gone, a curious change came over the spirit of the enterprise he had founded. The aristocrats who at first were merely ballast for the enterprise now made their influence

felt. With true British reserve, they announced their belief that the education of the masses involved a dangerous political tendency. Hence the mechanics' school was suspended and the workshops and kitchens abolished; in a word, the chief ends for which the institution was founded were annulled. The library and the lectures remained, to be sure, but they were for the amusement of the rich, not for the betterment of the poor. It was the West End that made a fad of the institution and a society function of the lectures of Sydney Smith and of the charming youth Davy. Thus the institution came to justify its aristocratic title and its regal patronage; and the poor seemed quite forgotten.

But indeed the institution itself was poor enough in these days, after the first flush of enthusiasm died away, and it is but fair to remember that without the support of its popular lectures its very existence would have been threatened. Nor in any event are regrets much in order over the possible might-have-beens of an institution whose laboratories were the seat of the physical investigations of Thomas Young, through which the wave theory of light first gained a footing, and of the brilliant chemical researches of Davy, which practically founded the science of electro-chemistry and gave the chemical world first knowledge of a galaxy of hitherto unknown elements. Through the labors of these men, and through the popular lecture-courses delivered at the institution by such other notables of science as Wollaston, Dalton, and Rum-ford, the enterprise had become world-famous before the close of the first decade of its existence.

From that day till this the character of the Royal Institution has not greatly changed. The enterprise shifted around during its earliest years, while it was gaining its place in the scheme of things; but once that was found, like a true British institution it held its course with an inertia that a mere century of time could not be expected to alter. Rumford was the sole founder of the enterprise, but it was Davy who gave it the final and definitive cast. He it was who established the tradition that the Royal Institution was to be essentially a laboratory for brilliant original investigations, the investigator to deliver a yearly course of lectures, but to be otherwise untrammelled. It occupied, and has continued to occupy, the anomalous position of a school to which pupils are on no account admitted, and whose professors teach nothing except by a brief course of lectures to which whoever cares to pay the admission price may freely enter.

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