See T. Sprat, History of the Royal Society (1667, ed. by J. I. Cope and H. W. Jones, 1959); Sir Harold Hartley, ed., Royal Society: Its Origins and Founders (1960); M. Hunter, Establishing the New Science: The Experience of the Early Royal Society (1989).
The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a British multi-disciplinary institution, based in London. The name Royal Society of Arts is frequently used by others for brevity (and on the building's frieze The Royal Society of Arts - see photo), but the Society itself uses either its full name or the initials RSA (not least in the letters Fellows of the Society use after their name – FRSA). It was founded in 1754 and was granted a Royal Charter in 1847. Notable members have included Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth, Charles Dickens, Guglielmo Marconi and John Diefenbaker.
Notwithstanding its establishment credentials, the RSA has always been a radical body which has sought to challenge the status quo and change the world around it "to remove the barriers to social progress". Its founders spoke of the need to "embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce", but also of the need to alleviate poverty and secure full employment.
The RSA was founded in 1754 by William Shipley as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, originally modelled on the Dublin Society for improving Husbandry, Manufactures and other Useful Arts. In 1774, it moved into a new building near the Strand in central London which had been purpose-designed by the Adam Brothers (James Adam and Robert Adam) as part of their innovative Adelphi scheme. The address was 8 John Street (now 8 John Adam Street). The RSA is still in occupation, although it has also expanded into adjacent buildings in the intervening years (2-6 John Adam Street, plus 18 Adam Street). The original building includes the Great Room, which features a magnificent sequence of paintings by Irish artist James Barry: The progress of human knowledge and culture. The first occupant of 18 Adam Street was the Adelphi Tavern, which is mentioned in Dickens's The Pickwick Papers. The former private dining room of the Tavern contains a magnificent Adam ceiling with painted roundels by the school of Kauffman and Zucchi.
In its early years the Society offered prizes – which it called "premiums" – for people who could successfully achieve one of a number of published challenges. Captain William Bligh suffered the Mutiny on the Bounty while attempting to win a premium for shipping breadfruit from the East to the West Indies. He subsequently repeated the voyage and this time succeeded, and the Society awarded him the prize. The Society offered premiums for a very wide range of challenges including devising new forms of machinery and agricultural improvements.
The RSA hosted Britain's first exhibition of contemporary art which was a big success. As a result, the Royal Academy of Arts was formed in 1768 by Sir Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds – two early members of the RSA – as a spin-off organisation.
The National Training School for Music in London was founded by the Society in 1876. This was later succeeded by the Royal College of Music.
The RSA is probably best known for creating the RSA Examinations Board, now part of the separate OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) Board, following the Society's launch of the modern world's first public examinations in 1882.
It devised a scheme for commemorating the links between famous people and buildings by placing plaques on the walls – these continue today as "blue plaques" which are administered by a range of government bodies. The first of these plaques was, in fact, of red terracotta erected outside a former residence of Lord Byron (since demolished). The Society erected 36 plaques until, in 1901, responsibility for them was transferred to the London County Council (which changed the colour of the plaques to the current blue) and later the Greater London Council and most recently English Heritage. Similar schemes are now operated in all the constituent countries of the United Kingdom.
In 1936, the RSA awarded the first distinctions of Royal Designers for Industry (RDI or HonRDI), reserved for "those very few who in the judgement of their peers have achieved 'sustained excellence in aesthetic and efficient design for industry'". The honour gained royal endorsement in 1936, and "The Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry" was established as an association in 1937 with the object of "furthering excellence in design and its application to industrial purposes": membership of the Faculty is automatic for (and exclusive to) all RDIs and HonRDIs. The Faculty currently has 98 Royal Designers (RDI) and 45 Honorary Royal Designers (non-UK citizens who are awarded the accolade of HonRDI): the number of designers who may hold the distinction of RDI at any one time is strictly limited. The Faculty consists of the world’s leading practitioners from fields as disparate as engineering, furniture, fashion and textiles, graphics, theatre and film design. Early members include Eric Gill, Enid Marx, Sir Frank Whittle and numerous other household names.
The Society currently organises its work with five Manifesto Challenges:
It sometimes lists these as "enterprise, environment, education, communities and citizenship".
In July 2008, The RSA became a sponsor to it's flagship academy which is called The RSA Academy. The academy opened in 2008, and was just one of about 50,000 new academy's to open soon.
In the UK the RSA has to some extent been regionalised to encourage and allow fellows to a have a more localised opportunity to interact with each other and local topics of interest. The UK Regions are; East of England, East Midlands, London: North East, North West, Scotland, South East, South West, Wales & the West, West Midlands and Yorkshire. It also has a presence in Australia, Belgium, India, Ireland, Southern Africa and the USA.
Its long-term projects include delivering fresh drinking water to the developing world, and rethinking intellectual property from first principles to produce a Charter (now published as the Adelphi Charter), and it is exploring the feasibility of a UK-wide personal carbon trading system. It is also investigating schemes to manage international migration, is promoting the practice of inclusive design, and is working with artists to communicate ideas about environmental sustainability (see, for example, the RSA's WEEE Man).
The Society runs a public lecture programme which seeks to introduce new and challenging thinking. These lectures are published in its own Journal and made freely available on its website. An example of the Society's success is offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, which records the first use of the word "sustainability" in an environmental sense in the RSA's Journal in 1980. Recent lecturers include Mary Robinson, Al Gore, Hanan Ashrawi, Joseph Stiglitz, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, Daniel Dennett, Onora O'Neill, Alan Rusbridger, Karan Bilimoria, Stefan Collini, Mark Thompson, Mary Warnock, Anthony Grayling and Mark Leonard.
Each year a number of medals are awarded, including the Albert Medal, the Benjamin Franklin Medal, and the Bicentenary Medal. Medal winners include Nelson Mandela, Sir Frank Whittle and Professor Stephen Hawking.
The organisation is Incorporated by Royal Charter, is registered as a charity in England, and has more than 27,000 Fellows living in around 70 countries who support the aims of the society, and who have achieved - or who have the potential to achieve - eminence in their profession or calling. Its Patron is currently HM Queen Elizabeth II, its President is HRH Prince Philip, its Chair is Gerry Acher and its Chief Executive is Matthew Taylor.