The Scientific Revolution in England

England encouraged free thinking in the sciences, this article explore this behaviour as the forerunner to the industrious and industrial revolution emerged. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

23 Mar 23 · 10 mins read

The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution in England

The Scientific Revolution refers to drastic changes in scientific thought that occurred in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, marking the emergence of modern science. During this period, science became its own distinct discipline, separate from philosophy and technology, based on the scientific method of systematic experimentation to study and analyse natural phenomena. This led to significant advances in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry. These advancements had a profound impact, transforming mankind’s ability to understand and manipulate the natural world.

Historians often cite the publication of Polish mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543 as marking the beginning of the scientific revolution. By demonstrating that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun, Copernicus revolutionised society’s thinking of the world. This sparked a frenzy of amazing discoveries that culminated with Isaac Newtown’s (1643-1727) theories on motion, force, and gravity some 150 years later.

These discoveries expanded upon the foundation of ancient Greek learning and science. The Greeks had believed that through reason alone they could discover how the natural world works, and so they never carried out practical experiments to test their theories. Throughout the Dark Ages, their ideas about the natural world were accepted as truth throughout Europe, despite many actually being wrong. It was not until the scientific revolution of late Renaissance period did this paradigm finally begin to shift. A new emphasis on the use of observation and scientific experimentation to prove theories now became the norm.

Nowhere was the scientific revolution more profound than in England in the second half of the 17th century. Building upon the philosophical and scientific achievements of Englishmen such as Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, and William Harvey, the Royal Society of London made significant strides in advancing scientific knowledge during this period. In doing so, the foundation was laid for the ensuing Industrial Revolution and dominance of Britain in the global economy.

Read on for a comprehensive guide to the Scientific Revolution in England, intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s tours to Britain. The significance of the Scientific Revolution is explored during our Agrarian and Industrial Britain Tour and our Canals and Railways in the Industrial Revolution Tour. Just click the links to see the full itinerary and sign up! Much of the information found in this article is drawn from Margarette Lincoln’s London and the 17th Century, as well as sources linked to throughout.

Steam Engine, Norfolk Britain
Steam Engine, a hallmark of the Scientific & Industrial Revolutions, Norfolk Britain

The Revolution Begins in England

The Scientific Revolution in England can be traced back to the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Often referred to as the ‘father of modern science’, he is famous for his pioneering thoughts on the empirical scientific method. Rather than just accepting the theories of ancient Greek philosophers, he argued for the importance of careful observation and experiment to discover general laws governing the natural world. Only by knowing the laws of nature, Bacon believed that man could triumph over his environment. Although Bacon no made major scientific discoveries himself, his method of understanding the world would gradually triumph across Europe, in turn influencing countless scientific discoveries. [BBC] [Local Histories]

Engraving From 1837 Featuring The English Philosopher, Francis Bacon. Bacon Lived From 1561 Until 1626.

Other influential English figures from early 17th century include William Gilbert (1544-1603) and William Harvey (1578-1657) Gilbert, a physician and natural philosopher, is remembered today largely for his De Magnete (1600), in which he detailed his experiments with magnets and electricity. Most significantly, he introduced the concept of Earth as a giant magnet, with its poles at either geographical pole. Meanwhile, Harvey, the court physician to both James I and Charles I, would have a major impact on the future of medicine with his ground-breaking scientific discovery that blood circulates in the human body. [BBC] [Historic UK]

The influential writings of Bacon, Gilbert and Harvey would kick-start the scientific revolution in England in the early 17th century, with a new emphasis on sharing information, experimentation, and technology. By the mid-century, following the Civil War (1642-1651), England had fully turned towards science. Both the victorious parliamentarians and defeated royalists enthusiastically embraced science and technology for its economic and social benefits. By the time the monarchy was restored to Charles II in 1660, the new science was fashionable across all strata of society in the country, from the gentlemen, to the up and coming middle classes, and even commoners. [BBC] {Maths History]

The Royal Society of London

It is with the restoration of the monarchy that science began to be institutionalised in England. The first moves came with the establishment of societies dedicated to activity influenced by Bacon’s new science. The first scientific society to be established was the Royal Society of London. Founded in 1660, it emerged out of an earlier group of philosophers and mathematicians based around Gresham College during the 1640s and 1650s. On 28 November 1660, twelve original Fellows met and resolved to form a permanent learned society dedicated to regularly discussing science and running experiments. The gatherings quickly gained Charles II’s approval, who on 15 July 1662 signed a charter to officially make the club the “Royal Society of London”. [Science Museum]

At its core, the society’s purpose was to gather all knowledge about nature, particularly that which could be used for the public good. It served as a forum where scientific ideas could be exchanged, theories discussed, and results communicated. The research conducted here would contribute to innovations in all areas of science, trade, and technology. Its members, those making the numerous discoveries, were all important figures in British science. Notable members included Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Edmond Halley (1656-1742), Sir William Petty (1623-1687) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727). [History Guide]

In its early years the Royal Society included a programme of weekly experiments. These were presided over by Hooke, the Society’s first Curator of Experiments, and then by Denis Papin, who was appointed in 1684. The experiments, which varied in their subject area, were demonstrated and performed in front of the Fellows. They included both important and trivial cases. However, as the Royal Society was low on funds it never actually built a laboratory. All experiments were performed either at Hooke’s rooms at Gresham, in private houses, and even public venues like coffee houses! [Science Museum]

Coffee House in 17th Century England

Experiments deemed important for the public to know were published in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions. Began in 1665, the publication established the important concepts of scientific priority and peer review. It now remains the oldest and longest-running scientific journal in the world. The journal has always eschewed private jargon and obscure language, aiming for universal comprehensibility so that experiments and discoveries can be reproduced by others. Lincoln writes, “This openness and wide dissemination of knowledge was essential to the success of the Society, which placed London at the hub of an international web of scientific activity.” [Britannica] [Royal Society]

The fabric of London benefited directly from the experimental philosophers, who in addition to being geniuses were mostly practical men. Wren and Hooke found great use for their talents in rebuilding London after the Fire. Hooke, as City Surveyor, also oversaw the production of a new map of London, which the mayor and aldermen commissioned to improve their administration. And Newtown improved coinage when put in charge of the Mint.

The natural philosophers also fostered close links with the artisans on whom they depended for their equipment. Soon, London became the go-to place for optical and mathematical instruments. Plus, scientific knowledge was closely linked to material culture. Hooke, for example, designed surveying, navigational and astronomical measuring instruments, while watches and clocks were prized as beautiful objects.

Robert Hooke’s microscope / Wellcome Library, London / CC BY 4.0

Still, the Society had its opponents. The highly influential philosopher Thomas Hobbes never joined, still believing that rational deduction was superior to any sense-based experimentation. Universities were also sometimes critical, having vested interests in the classical approach to learning, as opposed to the Society’s experimental methods. Still others were outraged that women were excluded from such learned bodies as the Society.

Nevertheless, the Society held prestige as a scientific institution, slowly helping to drive a wedge between knowledge and magic. Its preference for plain, objective language, particularly in Philosophical Transactions, also helped gain a readership for its work and credibility for the new scientific discipline. By the end of the Seventeenth century, it had become the leading scientific society in Europe, and it still survives today.

The Royal Observatory

Another key moment in England’s Scientific Revolution was the establishment of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675. It was founded by Charles II, who by warrant appointed the astronomer John Flamsteed as “The King’s Astronomical Observator”, with an allowance of £100 a year. This marked the beginning of government funding of science in Britain. [The Observatory]

Cristopher Wren was responsible for choosing the Observatory’s site, situated upon a steep hill in Greenwich park, which was topped by a decayed, fortified tower dating back to the fifteenth century. He is also usually credited with being the architect, but really Robert Hooke had the major role in its design and construction. He used the strong foundations of the old castle and completed the building in record time, exceeding his meagre £500 budget by less than 10 per cent. In July 1676, Flamsteed took up residence to begin his systematic observations. It would be his home for the next forty years.

Hundreds of tourists outside of the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill in Greenwich Park

The original purpose of the Royal Observatory was to improve marine navigation. At that time mariners still had no reliable method of calculating longitude (their east-west position), once they were out of sight of land. It was believed that this could be worked out by tracking the position of the Moon across the background of fixed stars. If the location of the Moon could be predicted a year or two ahead, and if tables giving this information were supplied to seamen, in theory they could work out their position at sea. With rumours the French had already come up with a way to do this, the race to find longitude became a matter of national defence.

Flamsteed was confident that he could succeed where other astronomers had failed because new pendulum clocks had made timekeeping more accurate, telescopic sights meant that star positions could be measured more exactly, and the latest instruments allowed angles to be measured with greater precision. Unfortunately, he never solved this essential problem, with that achievement going to the English clockmaker John Harrison in 1735.

Nevertheless, “The impressive Observatory,” as Lincoln writes, “was a constant reminder of the nation’s maritime ambitions”. Along with the Royal Society, it had a huge impact on the creation and dissemination of knowledge, elevating science to an esteemed position in British society.

Isaac Newton: The Culmination of the Scientific Revolution

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

The greatest figure of the 17th century’s Scientific Revolution was undoubtedly Sir Isaac Newton. Newton served as both the Master of the Royal Mint and President of the Royal Society from 1699 and 1703 respectively until his death. But it was his mathematical system of the universe that was his greatest achievement and still today one of the most significant contributions ever to science.

These ideas were put forward in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) – ground-breaking for taking observations about the universe and turning them into measured and irrefutable facts. Here, Newtown introduced the laws of gravity to explain phenomena such as why the planets were held in their orbits and why an apple fell to the earth. He also introduces his invention of calculus to study motion and change. [History Guide]

His ideas revolutionised understandings of science, replacing the ancient philosophers’ ideas of a perfect and constant cosmos with the concept of an imperfect and changing universe that could be mathematically measured. With this nature suddenly had order and meaning; the rules governing nature here on Earth were the same throughout the universe. No longer was faith paramount for the people; Human Reason alone could explain the universe. [History Guide] [Maths History]

As such, historians view Newtown’s discoveries as the culmination of the Scientific Revolution. His ideas would go on to dominate the thought of the Enlightenment during the 18th century, while the scientific strides made in the previous centuries would provide the backbone for Industrialisation that would dominate this era. Science was placed at the forefront of British society, driving the economy and thereby significantly helping Britain’s rise to prominence. [Historic UK]

Tour of England

Westminster and the Big Ben clocktower by the Thames river in London, United Kingdom, just after sunset

You can learn more about England’s Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution that followed on Odyssey Traveller’s Agrarian and Industrial Britain. This escorted tour with a tour director and knowledgeable local guides takes you on a 22 day trip to key places such as London, Bristol, Oxford & York, where Britain’s industrial history was made.

This small group tour focuses on two major elements of British history: the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It explores critical elements of these revolutions and the impact that they had on the Great Britain we know today. This is a tour designed for the mature couple or solo traveller who is looking for an adventure that combines a fascinating history with beautiful scenery and unique landmarks.

During the tour, you will visit the remnants of many of Britain’s industrial-related structures preserved in the landscape and cities of today. You will visit some of the wonders of the revolutions and key locations recognized as iconic landmarks of British history. If you want to get more out of your vacation and uncover a new side of British history, then this is the holiday for you. The Agrarian and Industrial Britain tour will give you an amazing insight into the development of what was one of the world’s greatest powers.

The Agrarian and Industrial Britain small group tour also has a sister tour: Britain’s History Through its Canals and Railways. This small groups tour of Wales, Scotland & England also traces the history of the journey that is the Industrial Revolution through a focus on Britain’s canals and railways. Knowledgeable local guides and your tour leader share their history with you on this escorted tour including Glasgow, London, New Lanark & Manchester, Liverpool and the Lake district.

Learn how the Industrial Revolution brought significant and lasting change to Britain. Discover how engineers overcame geographical obstacles using viaducts, bridges, aqueducts, tunnels, and locks. Witness first hand the ground-breaking technology and the many impressive structures that transformed Britain’s economy, some now restored for recreational purposes. Led by local guides selected for their expertise, we also provide the opportunity to examine and discuss the resulting social upheaval.

Packed to the brim with history, culture, and striking scenery, Great Britain and Ireland have a lot to offer the traveller. Our small group tour of the British isles are perfect for the mature or senior traveller who wants to explore the history of Britain and Ireland as part of an intimate guided tour with an expert local guide.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. All tours provide an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the usual tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Industrial revolution
Lambley Viaduct in South Tyne Valley.

Articles about Britain published by Odyssey Traveller:

External articles to assist you on your visit to Britain:

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