the royal society and ireland william molyneux, f.r.s. (1656-1698)

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  • The Royal Society and Ireland William Molyneux, F.R.S. (1656-1698)Author(s): K. Theodore HoppenSource: Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Dec., 1963), pp. 125-135Published by: The Royal SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 05:10

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  • 125


    WILLIAM MOLYNEUX, F.R.S. (I656-I698)

    By K. THEODORE HOPPEN Research Student, Trinity College, Cambridge

    [Plate 18]

    THE seventeenth century was not a period during which science can be said to have flourished in Ireland. Only in the last twenty years of the

    century did that country give any response to the New Learning, a learning which was, in England, no longer regarded as new, in the sense of revolu-

    tionary, and which was becoming accepted by the majority of thinking men. That there was any significant activity at all, in the field of science during these last two decades, was due, in the main, to William Molyneux.

    Molyneux was born in Dublin in 1656, of a distinguished and well-to-do

    family. He was sent to a Grammar school in that city, and in 1671 entered Trinity College, Dublin (I). After he had obtained his bachelor's degree he was sent by his father to London to take up the study of law at the Middle

    Temple. His career at the university had been a successful one, and on going down he had been presented with a testimonial, 'Drawn up in the strongest Terms & in an Uncommon Form, Signifying the high opinion they had conceived of his Genius, the Probity of his Manner & the Remarkable

    Progress he had made in letters' (2). Molyneux spent three years in London, but, as he puts it, 'my inclination to the Study of the law was not so strong as to make me master of the profession' (3).

    While still an undergraduate Molyneux had 'conceived a Great Dislike to the Scholastick Learning then taught in that place; [the university] And

    young as he was, he fell intirely into Lord Bacon's Methods & those prescribed by the Royal Society' (4). The young student spent most of his leisure hours reading the works of Bacon, Descartes, Gassendi, and Digby, as well as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (5). There is no evidence to suggest that he attended any meetings of the Royal Society while he was studying at the Temple but, in I680, when he was in London seeking a cure for his blind wife, he met several Fellows of the Society, of whom he mentions Sir Charles Scarborough, Walter Needham, and Richard Lower (6). It was in the same year that he applied himself 'fully to mathematical learning' (7), and within twelve months had started a long correspondence


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  • Plate 18

    [Reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Ireland


    There are no surviving portraits of William Molyneux taken from life. This engraving is in stipple by James Henry Brocas of Dublin and is dated September I803. It is taken from a portrait of William Molyneux by Robert Home in the Theatre of Trinity College, Dublin.

    [Facing page 125

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  • T26

    with the astronomer John Flamsteed, F.R.S. In common with most of the scientists of the time Molyneux was anything but a specialist. Astronomy, however, was to remain his chief interest, and his most famous scientific work dealt with the general subject of optics (8).

    Ireland, in the early I68o's did not afford many facilities to the scientific worker, and this fact forms the subject for countless complaints by Molyneux and others. In September I68I he writes to Flamsteed, 'Living here in a

    Kingdom barren of all things, but especially of the ingenious artificers, I am

    wholly destitute of instruments, that I can rely upon' (9). Thirty years before Robert Boyle had judged Ireland to be a 'barbarous country, where chemical

    spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable, that it was hard to have any Hermetic thoughts in it' (Io). Despite these difficulties

    Molyneux persevered in his scientific studies and experiments. In 1682 he joined Moses Pitt in the latter's work on the English Atlas, managing the Irish section of this immense undertaking. The Atlas was to contain detailed

    descriptions of the areas delineated, including information on climate, soils, minerals, ancient monuments, population, customs, and trade (i ). In order to gather such information, Molyneux had printed for him a sheet of queries, which was distributed around Ireland, soliciting replies concerning particular baronies and counties (12). Pitt's arrest in I685 ended the progress of this scheme, and Molyneux, who had collected 'an heap of rude materials' relating to some twenty counties, burnt all that he had written on the subject. He notes however that, 'I have still by me the rough papers of many other persons' (I 3).

    In the Spring of the year 1683 Molyneux's younger brother Thomas left Ireland to study medicine at Leyden. He interrupted his journey in London, staying there for several weeks. While he was there Thomas attended several

    meetings of the Royal Society and wrote about them to his brother in Ireland, giving a well observed description of such a meeting, and also character sketches of some of the Fellows. In a letter dated May 1683, he writes,

    'The President Sir John Hoskins, sits in a chair at the upper end of the table, with a cushion before him. The Secretary Mr Aston, a very ingenious man, at the side on his left hand, he reads the heads, one after another, to be debated and discoursed of at the present meeting; as also whatever letters, experiments, or informations have been sent in since their last meeting, of all which as they are read, the fellows which sit round the room, spake their sentiments, and gave their opinions if they think fitting' (14).

    William had asked "his brother to write him something of the characters of

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  • 127

    some of the Fellows, and he does so in a letter written the month following. Mr Flamsteed is a 'free, affable, and Humble Man, not at all conceited or dogmatical', Dr Grew is 'a very civil, obliging person', while Robert Hooke, with his usual ill-luck, is described as being 'the most ill-natured, self-conceited man in the world, . . pretending to have had all other inventions when once discovered by their authors to the world' (15).

    These letters probably suggested to William, that a similar scientific society might be founded at Dublin. In October 1683 therefore he began to look around for others who might be interested in such a project. 'I first', he writes. 'brought together about half a dozen, that met weekly in a private room of a coffee-house, on Cork Hill, merely to discourse of philosophy, mathematicks. and other polite literature, as things arose obiter, without any settled rules or forms' (I6). Soon, however, with the help of Sir William Petty and some others, the Dublin Philosophical Society was officially set up in January 1683/4, and was to meet regularly every Monday during university term. until April 1687. The new society, which appointed Molyneux its first Secretary (17), lost no time in opening a correspondence with the two scientific societies in England, the Royal Society and the Philosophical Society at Oxford. In February 1683/4, Molyneux wrote to Robert Plot at Oxford informing him of the existence of the new society at Dublin. 'We are'. he wrote, 'at present but weak and our foundation unsetled, so that we are uncertain whether our building will stand or fall, especially considering the like structure has never been offered at in this kingdom' (I8). Plot had. however, already received a letter from Dr Robert Huntington, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, and a member of the Dublin Society, complaining of the severe difficulties a scientific group laboured under in Ireland.

    Huntington, in somewhat purple prose, exclaims that, 'Here, Alas! We are destitute of all such Helps & Advantages; Scarce a place to put Or Heads in a Room big enough to hold us.... free us from Egyptian bondage, yt we man't be slaves' (I9). The Royal Society was very ready to correspond with Dublin, and Plot was instructed to tel


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