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Early history of the British Science Association

The British Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in York on 27 September 1831.

Britain's success in the Peninsular War, culminating in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon, had left her in a state of exhaustion.

There had been a period of heavy inflation; there was an unrepresentative Parliamentary system that was finally to lead to the Reform Bill of 1832; it was not so long since Luddite bands of the unemployed had attacked factories which had installed labour-saving machinery; and the Patent Law exacted an oppressive tax from inventors.

Not only did post-war reconstruction in England lag behind that in other European countries, but neither the circumstances nor the ethos of the country were conducive to the prosecution of science. Indeed, in 1830 Professor Charles Babbage of Cambridge published Reflections on the Decline of Science in England.

It was to redress this balance that the British Association was founded. The prime mover was David Brewster, Editor of the Edinburgh Journal of Science and himself a scientist. He wrote of Britain at the time:

"Elevated by her warlike triumphs, she seems to have looked with contempt on the less dazzling achievements of her philosophers, and, confiding in her past pre-eminence in the arts, to have calculated too securely on their permanence. Bribed by foreign gold, or flattered by foreign courtesy, her artisans have quitted her service — her machinery has been exported to distant markets — the inventions of her philosophers, slighted at home, have been eagerly introduced abroad — her scientific institutions have been discouraged and even abolished — the articles which she supplied to other States have been gradually manufactured by themselves; and, one after another, many of the best arts of England have been transferred to other nations…”

Brewster chose York for the first meeting of the British Association “as the most central city in the three kingdoms”, and the recently founded Yorkshire Philosophical Society as the base; the Society already possessed a first-class museum and excellent gardens in the centre of York.

The first meeting was held on 26 September 1831, and the following morning William Vernon Harcourt — son of Archbishop Vernon of York and Chairman of the Philosophical Society — formally proposed the foundation of “a British Association for the Advancement of Science, having for its objects, to give a stronger impulse and more systematic direction to scientific inquiry, to obtain a greater degree of national attention to the objects of science, and a removal of those disadvantages which impede its progress, and to promote the intercourse of the cultivators of science with one another, and with foreign philosophers”.

This was the first of a series of annual meetings that has continued, broken only in some of the war years, for 150 years.

The meetings from the start attracted the country’s leading scientists, and for many years were the forum at which major advances were announced — for example, Joule’s experiments on the mechanical equivalent of heat in the 1840s, Bessemer’s steel process (1856), the discovery of the first of the inert gases, argon, by Rayleigh and Ramsay (1894), the first public demonstration of wireless transmission over a few hundred yards by Sir Oliver Lodge (1894), and J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron (1899).

Perhaps the best remembered of all meetings was at Oxford in 1860: Darwin’s The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, but his health was not good enough to allow him to go to the Oxford meeting. T. H. Huxley was there, though, and it was he who so brilliantly debated Darwinism with Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford.

Wilberforce, having refused to regard monkeys as his ancestors, turned to Huxley and asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from “a venerable ape”.

Huxley took the challenge and is reputed to have answered “If I am asked whether I would choose to be descended from the poor animal of low intelligence and stooping gait, who grins and chatters as we pass, or from a man, endowed with great ability and splendid position, who should use these gifts to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth, I hesitate what answer to make!”.

In addition to its annual meetings, the British Association for the Advancement of Science was at the forefront of the development of scientific literature, recognising that there was a need for reports on the state of science to be drawn up by experts “in order that those who pursue one branch of science may know how to communicate with the enquirer in another and so that scientific students may know where to begin their labours”.

The association also inspired the formation of similar associations for the advancement of science in other countries, as well as local scientific societies in Britain. The custom of holding its annual meetings in a wide number of cities in the UK led to the foundation, for example, of the Edinburgh Geological Society; the 1855 meeting in Glasgow was followed by the founding of the Glasgow Geographical Society; the Norwich meeting of 1868 by the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society, and so on. The activities of the British Science Association (as it is now known) have gradually changed in emphasis over the years.

Scientists, now much more numerous and specialised, have new ways of communicating their results to other specialists. Our meetings are no longer primarily a forum for scientists to discuss amongst themselves the results of recent research. However, this has given us, as the only national organisation which has retained interests which encompass all branches and aspects of science, the opportunity to develop a new and unique role.

The main objective of the British Science Association now is to develop the links between specialist scientists, scientists of other disciplines, technologists and non-scientists of all ages so that the advances in science can be understood, their technological applications exploited commercially and their implications for society as a whole examined.

This aim has led not only to changes in the annual meeting programmes, but also to the development of regional branch activities and the formation of the Young People's Programme (YPP). 28,000 young people aged 11-19 currently take part each year in the CREST (CREativity in Science and Technology) Award Scheme managed by the YPP team. Through growing participation in CREST and the CREST Star Investigators scheme designed for 5-12 year olds, the British Science Association is establishing a link with the next generation of scientists. During their lifetime the need for the services of the British Science Association will continue and probably increase.

Dr Peter Briggs' personal account of the British Science Association from 1980-2002 (known then as the BA) can be read here. More about the history of the British Science Association can be found in its archives.