Armorial bearings of the BSA granted to the Association in 1937: Constellation of Libra & Balance Or
Motto: Sed Omnia Disposuisti (taken from the Wisdom of Soloman ii, 20 (‘But Thou hast ordered all things in measure and number and weight’)

The British Science Association (BSA) was founded in 1831, as the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  

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.

Babbage and Brewster 

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 was 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…

York, 1831 and beyond

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 its base.

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 and has evolved into the British Science Festival. For at least the first hundred years of the Association's history, a silk banner was commissioned to mark the occasion of the annual meeting.  The BSA is currently undertaking a special project to protect, restore and open access to this valuable collection of banners - which not only chart the history of the organisation but also are a significant contribution to the UK's banner-making textile heritage, which dates from 1820.

The proceedings from each annual meeting from 1831 - 1938 are published in bound volumes. The BSA holds a set of these at our office in London; there are also copies at the British Library and at other copyright libraries throughout the UK. The proceedings contain transcripts of each paper given and reports from various committees. After 1938, the records of the British Science Association annual meetings are less complete.  

The Association 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.

Science Communication

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”.

Over subsequent decades, the work of the British Science Association developed, diversified and evolved.
Scientists, now much more numerous and specialised, have new ways of communicating their results to colleagues, to the media and with the public. Our events are no longer primarily a forum for scientists to discuss amongst themselves the results of recent research.  

Over recent decades, the BSA has continued 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.

Our vision

Today, the BSA aims to diversify the community of people engaged with science.  Our programmes aim to encourage more people to enjoy, to participate in science, and to discuss and challenge science. Our vision is a future where science is more relevant, representative, and connected to society.

Our archive 

The majority of the British Science Association’s archive is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Over 400 items were deposited at the Bodleian in 1977, including formal papers, minute books and reports related to our Annual Meetings. We also have a number of items, predominantly reports of the Annual Meeting from 1831, held at our Head Office in South Kensington.

We are currently performing an audit of our archive collections. If you have any items related to our history that you would like to donate or think that we may be interested in, please contact Amy MacLaren

For more information about our history, please see the following publications:

The British Association: A Retrospect by O J R Howarth. The first edition, published in 1922 covers the years 1831-1922; a second edition published to coincide with the British Science Association’s centenary in 1931 covers the hundred years from 1831-1931.

To mark the BSA’s sesquicentenary in 1981, two books were published:

The Parliament of Science, Editors Roy Macleod and Peter Collins, Science Reviews Ltd, London; and Gentlemen of Science, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackeray, Oxford.