Priority and Nationalism: The Royal Society's International Priority Disputes, 1660-1700
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The Royal Society of London, the English scientific society founded in 1660, was involved in a number of disputes in the seventeenth century concerning who was the first person to make an invention or discovery. These priority disputes had a significant effect on the careers of most of the prominent figures in the early Royal Society, including Newton, Boyle and Hooke. Inventions and discoveries were the foundation of the Royal Society?s reputation, and thus needed to be claimed and protected in priority disputes. The subjects of these disputes ranged from solutions to mathematical problems to high-profile experiments. Such disputes frequently pitted Fellows of the Royal Society against intellectuals from the Continent. They were occasions for polemics framed in nationalistic terms, despite the collaborative spirit with which the transnational Republic of Letters purported to operate. This thesis examines how the Royal Society?s priority disputes began, how they functioned once underway, and how they concluded. It focuses on disputes between the Royal Society and its continental rivals, seeking to determine the extent to which nationalism was a factor. It argues that Society members, who were always guided by multiple loyalties, valued their loyalties to themselves, to the Society and to the English nation more than their loyalty to the Republic of Letters. Other social factors that motivated the disputants are also explored, including honour, credibility, and the Society?s ideal of aversion to conflict. This thesis highlights patterns in the behaviour of the participants of seventeenth-century priority disputes. It draws on methodology used in the sociology of science to analyze these patterns, examining the social construction involved in invention and discovery. Case studies are used to illustrate how the participants in priority disputes redefined several entities in ways that suited their own claims to priority: the invention or discovery being disputed, the etiquette of the Republic of Letters, the distinction between invention and innovation, and priority itself. Particular attention is paid to the activities of Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, who communicated on behalf of the Royal Society through his correspondence network and the journal he edited, the Philosophical Transactions. This thesis argues that the Royal Society valued Oldenburg in part for his role in instigating priority disputes with non-English intellectuals, a role to which he was well-suited on account of his many contacts in England and on the Continent, his rhetorical skills, and his experience as a diplomat. It also analyzes the roles of experts like John Wallis and Timothy Clarke in priority disputes, arguing that Oldenburg could call upon them to defend English priority. However, it is noted that these figures (especially Wallis) sometimes abandoned the façade of English unity in favour of causes that affected them more personally, including their own priority claims. Accordingly, they employed the same polemical style in domestic priority disputes that they did in international ones. This study concludes with the suggestion that the polemics of figures like Oldenburg, Clarke and Wallis were crucial to the program of the seventeenth-century Royal Society because conflict, the idea of aversion to conflict notwithstanding, was an acknowledged and valued part of early Royal Society culture.