This is the olde name for Physics.

When I went to university at Aberdeen they didn't have a Physics department but a "Nat. Phil." department. If you referred to it as Physics within the hearing of department head Professor R.V.Jones you got a 5-minute lecture on the difference. Shortly after he left they did change the name.

How did new societies, academies and instruments affect natural philosophy in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe?


The emergence of societies and instrumental measurements in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries prompted a radical change in thinking and began to reshape the very essence of natural philosophy. The 1600s marked the beginning of a shift of influence toward public societies and academies, the result of which is markedly clear today. Natural philosophers found that they did not have to be directly affected by the academic disciplinary hierarchy and had sufficient independence to pursue new investigations. Meanwhile, the increasing prevalence of instruments in empirical science provided new ways to study the world. New societies and instruments allowed for a change in the ideologies of natural philosophy that massively shaped future scientific thought and development.

New institutes

In 1500 the universities reigned over European intellectual life - scientific institutions were important primarily because they changed this state of affairs. The Royal Society of London was founded in 1660 and the Royal Academy of Paris was founded six years later. These were the first societies devoted solely to science in general and provided the all important funding for more theoretical research. Societies such as this were the focus for the establishment of extensive research libraries – an indispensable resource at the time. Just as important was the social respectability and authority lent to the societies' publications by their Royal affiliation. Natural philosophy and mathematical studies that were frequently applied to disciplines such as cosmology were distinct subjects in the universities and there was little potential for overlap.

Similarly to the government-sponsored societies, nobles and royals patronising individuals became increasingly common in the late seventeenth century. Natural philosophers found private patrons useful as they allowed interdisciplinary study that was discouraged by the rigorous curricula and institutional restrictions imposed by universities. Copernicus, "the founder of modern astronomy," made his discoveries regarding heliocentricity outside the university environment and eminent natural philosophers made use of the possibility of publishing their work free from implicitly restrictive university accreditation. However, as a university education was still all but essential, most natural philosophers were influenced in some way by their hegemony and, despite professing otherwise, these institutions had predominantly exclusive membership demographics. Another important aspect of the societies and academies leading into the 1800s was the new potential for collaboration. The very nature of societies facilitated communication and the sharing of ideas. The Royal Academy had separate divisions for mathematics and physics, but the two sections were expected to meet together and discuss their ideas. Peer review was enforced and, while their main function was funding and providing a good public image for their independent publications and social legitimisation, the societies acted as forums of knowledge which began to reform the study of nature.

Empiricism and instruments

With the publishing of Novum organum, Francis Bacon outlined his ideology of empirical science in favour of the syllogisms of antiquity. Meticulously recorded experiments were central to the beginnings of the Royal Society. Even before the invention of the telescope, specialist equipment including geometrical apparatus and sighting instruments were used to make cosmological measurements. Although people such as Hobbes criticised the relevance of artificially enhanced experiences that had not come directly from the senses, the use of instruments in natural philosophy became increasingly widespread. In Dioptres, Descartes discusses new techniques to reduce optical aberration and used practical analogies in his writing that were designed for artisans such as specialist lens manufacturers rather than academics.

The frontispiece of Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society published in 1667 illustrates the emerging superiority of instrumental measurements over knowledge gleaned from books – the engraving is replete with scientific equipment and, notably, the bookcase has an instrument on top of it. Inventions such as Boyle's air-pump was elaborate and costly, but provided very important results for natural philosophers to consider and there was an idea that experimental philosophers were not to conjecture beyond experimentally produced matters of fact. Pascal produced very detailed notes on novel experiments with a mercury barometer and was able to make the conclusion that pressure varies with altitude. Forceps were also being used to aid in the natural process of birthing. While scientific instruments were initially met with not insignificant hospitality and experimental science was still in its infancy in the 1660s, by the end of the seventeenth century, the use of instruments in natural philosophy was becoming pervasive.


At the start of the sixteenth century, natural philosophers carried out their work in the universities of Europe and operated under their imposed orthodoxy. There was minimal interdisciplinary communication and different departments rarely applied their knowledge to related but historically separate topics. It is worth noting that the advent of scientific societies did little to involve women in natural philosophy and, in practise, only included the wealthy elite, but the new societies of the seventeenth century made a huge change in the ideology of science and the way natural philosophy was considered. Universities still had a large influence, but patronage provided required funding for significant progress and the vital ability to produce respectable publications. The societies were hubs of information exchange and collaboration. The use of empirical instruments was also beginning to take off and produced several significant discoveries. There was a gradual acceptance of their validity in producing common knowledge that continued into the eighteenth century. Both these changes went a long way toward aligning scientific practise with what is recognisable today.

  • Dear, Peter. Revolutionising the Sciences (Princeton, 2001).
  • Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002).
  • Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1996).

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