Room 13: Science and Industry in the Eighteenth Century

See the portraits currently on display in Room 13 here

Room 13

© The National Portrait Gallery, London

The work of Sir Isaac Newton, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1727, revolutionised the study of physics, mathematics and astronomy. But there was no single figure of his stature to succeed him. The astronomer Edmund Halley, who in 1687 had published Newton's great work explaining the laws of gravity, Principia Mathematica, became celebrated for his work in applying Newtonian physics to the study of the orbits of the comets, while William Jones consolidated Newton's work, establishing the symbol of [pie] as the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

There was renewed interest in the study of the natural world. Sir Hans Sloane, the plant collector, succeeded Newton as President of the Royal Society; his vast and varied collections became the nucleus of the British Museum in 1754. Benjamin Stillingfleet the botanist promoted Linnaeus's system of plant classification while Erasmus Darwin produced a forerunner of the evolutionary theories of his grandson, Charles Darwin, in the 1790s. Another botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, accompanied Cook to the Pacific in 1768, later acting as George III's adviser on science and holding office as President of the Royal Society for many years.

Disease was still a serious problem. Hospitals, prisons, ships and slums were breeding grounds for tuberculosis, typhus and dysentery, due to ignorance about bacteria and such basic requirements as sterilisation. Smallpox, a dreaded killer, took many lives and brought deformity and blindness to thousands more. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's experiments with inoculation were the precursors to Dr Jenner's introduction of a successful smallpox vaccine at the end of the century. Stephen Hales, who introduced ventilation into prisons, laid the foundations for further developments in health and hygiene. There was a steady growth in the population as people lived longer and healthier lives. Notable improvements were also made in transport and agriculture (themes which are treated in the displays in Room 19).