The National Maritime Museum is currently celebrating the life and times of Stuart London’s most celebrated diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), with an exhibition and a season of events examining the turbulent times through which he lived. The exhibition runs until 28 March 2016 and includes several loans from the collections of the Royal Society.

Pepys was born at the same time as a group of outstanding natural philosophers (today we would term them scientists) including Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, William Petty and Isaac Newton. All these gentlemen were Fellows of the Royal Society, a Fellowship centered on conducting and discussing experiments and generating knowledge.

Pepys first attended a meeting of the Society in January 1661 with the instrument maker and inventor Ralph Greatorex, whereupon he found a “great company of persons of Honour”. In this period there were over 150 Fellows (compared to 1600 today) but not all of them had great claims to understanding or advancing chemistry or physics; some were antiquaries and gentlemen who met for education and leisure.

On 8 February 1665 Pepys was proposed as a Fellow by Thomas Povey FRS, a financier and colleague on the Tangier Committee. Pepys was unanimously elected and admitted the following week. In this period the Society was open to anyone interested in its activities; funds were short and more weekly subscriptions most welcome! The origin of Pepys’s interest in the Royal Society may have been his friendship with John Creed, who became an FRS in 1663. The two discussed scientific matters and Creed accompanied Pepys to his inauguration, at which Hooke and Boyle undertook one of their famed air-pump experiments.


Robert Boyle’s air pump. Plate to ‘New experiments physico-mechanicall…’ by Robert Boyle (Oxford, 1660) RS.9913 © The Royal Society


A fortnight after election Pepys attended a meeting of the Society “where, first Mr. Hooke read a second very curious Lecture about the late Comett, among other things … Then to the meeting … Here was very fine discourses – and experiments; but I do lacke philosophy enough to understand them, and so cannot remember them”. Despite his inability to comprehend some of the concepts behind the experiments and discussions of the Society, Pepys’s enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge and the assistance he provided to the Society were admirable. In 1668 he gave the considerable sum of £40 to help construct a home for the Society, then based at Arundel House.

Pepys’s enviable book collection also reveals that he purchased all the chief scientific books published in London, including a full set of the works of Robert Boyle. The organizational skills and experience Pepys gained in other areas of his career were valued by the Society and in 1674 he was one of a small committee formed to consider its financial matters.

From the early 1600 onwards microscopes and telescopes began to reveal unknown worlds to a captivated public. As curator of experiments at the Royal Society, Robert Hooke gave weekly demonstrations and in 1665 published Micrographia, the world’s first popular work on microscopy. Pepys greatly admired Hooke, and a few weeks before his admission to the Society ordered a copy of Micrographia, finding it so captivating on receipt that he was kept awake till 2am reading it. He also ordered a fine microscope or ‘curious bauble’, and took to it with enthusiasm.


Microscopic views of the Shepherd spider. Schem. XXXI from ‘Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses…’, by Robert Hooke (London, 1665) RS.9450 © The Royal Society


In 1684 Pepys was elected President of the Royal Society, presumably chosen in part for his administrative skills and for the influence and useful contacts he could muster. As President Pepys instituted several improvements including obtaining a list of those members in arrears for their subscriptions (they faced the ultimatum to pay or leave and 60 were thus removed). He also prepared orders for the Clerks to keep minute books of meetings and to have these indexed, thereby winning the hearts of Royal Society archivists ever after. Meanwhile, in his role as senior administrator to the Royal Navy, Pepys made great efforts to ensure naval recruits and officers received the best technical training available. His position as President of the Royal Society also strengthened links between the Royal Navy and the Royal Society which would further blossom with jointly organized expeditions such as Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage (1768-71).

Arguably the most important event in the Royal Society’s history took place in this period: the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which contains Newton’s universal laws of motion and gravitation. Edmond Halley FRS, as the editor of the Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions, learned that Newton had solved the central problems of celestial mechanics and at Halley’s urging Newton agreed to arrange the manuscript for publication. However, the Society could not meet the cost of publication as it was heavily financially involved in producing a lavishly illustrated natural history of fish, De historia piscium. Pepys authorized the publication of Principia and the title page bears his name, forever linking him with Newton’s masterwork, for which Halley bore the cost of publication. Pepys also gifted what eventually amounted to the considerable sum of £63 to the Society for the production of 60 of the 187 plates for the Historia Piscium.


Illustration of a hammerhead shark, a plate sponsored by Pepys, from ‘De historia piscium’, by Francis Willughby and John Ray (Oxford, 1686) RS.9494 © The Royal Society


Pepys maintained his association with the Royal Society to the very end of his life, encouraging the East India Company to make a donation to the Society and in 1694 arranging for his nephew, John Jackson (c1672 – 1724) to be elected a Fellow. After his death Pepys’s body was autopsied by his friends Hans Sloane (who had also been his doctor) and Charles Bernard, both Fellows of the Society – just the sort of inquisitive undertaking Pepys would have approved of.


Samuel Pepys in 1689 by Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) RS.9613 © The Royal Society


A version of this post previously appeared on the National Maritime Museum’s blog. Pepys quotes from The diary of Samuel Pepys; a new and complete transcription edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews (London, 1970).


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