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Prometheus's Fire Abstracts

Chapter 4: Experimental Science in Ireland and the Scientific Societies

J Kelham and Douglas McMillan

The authors outline the background in terms of Bacon's 'New Atlantis' and the foundation of the Royal Society in London, which was the prototype for the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Irish Academy.

There was a parallel movement aimed at disseminating scientific knowledge among tradesmen and artisans; the Dublin Society (1731), the Society of Arts (1754) and the Society of Improvers (1723) were part of this process.

The former, which later (1820) gained the Royal label, set itself initially strong technical educational objectives, and led the field in chemistry from 1787 when Richard Kirwan returned from London. Then in 1795 the Dublin Society employed as Professor of Chemistry William Higgins, who developed laboratory practice and gave lectures for some decades. The scope broadened to include geology, optics, electricity and mechanics and by the 1840s under Sir Robert Kane, a broad-based applied- science course was available under RDS auspices. This was oriented towards industrial development.

As a result of government enquiries into the RDS affairs however the applied- science teaching was transferred, along with Kane, to the Museum of Irish Industry, which Kane attempted to direct, at the same time as he was heading the new Queens College Cork.

Some light is thrown on the complex politics of the evolution of this eventually into the Royal College of Science, which then evolved into the Engineering Faculty of University College Dublin in 1926. For a time in the 1850s science students from Trinity College did their practical work with Kane in the Museum. During some of this time the RDS maintained its scientific teaching role competitively with the Museum, but over the century its teaching role declined, and it concentrated on exhibitions and in scientific publication. A scientific popularising role continues to the present day.

Through the whole period there runs a religious thread, which sometimes became acute, as when in 1836 the RDS rejected the application for membership of Dr Murray, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, precipitating a government enquiry.

(This chapter raises a number of questions suggesting a need for further research; for example perhaps, the role of Kane as 'token Catholic' in the context of the so-called 'Godless College' in Cork. RJ)

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