A short history of the Society

On 9th Nov. 1802, in response to an invitation, twenty-two citizens met in the Prince of Wales Tavern, Glasgow where they set up a committee to outline the principles for a Society ‘for the improvement of the Arts and Sciences’ in Glasgow. An important consideration was the establishment of a select library of scientific books. A week later a meeting was held in the Assembly Rooms at which sixty persons subscribed to the setting up of the Glasgow Philosophical Society. On 8th Dec the Regulations were approved and a Council was elected. The first President was a Professor of Astronomy and the Vice-President was an ironfounder, thus representing the joint interests of science and industry. From the beginning it was intended that meetings would be held weekly in the winter and fortnightly in the summer and that the members would present papers on experiments and exhibit models or artefacts.

Towards the establishment of a scientific library subscriptions were made to scientific journals. In June 1803 it is minuted that Mr Roberton, the Vice-President, when in London, purchased for the society several new publications on the arts and sciences, and shortly afterwards there was a postal delivery of 71 journals. In 1812 the Regulations were amended to add a Librarian to the Council.

One of the problems of the Society was the finding of suitable rooms in which to hold meetings and to house the Library. Short leases (3/6yrs) were obtained for various places but it was not until 1831 that an agreement was reached with the Andersonian University in Ingram Street for the regular use of a room for meetings and the library books and journals were transferred to the University. This successful arrangement lasted until 1868 when the University accommodation was no longer available and an alternative was found at the new Corporation Galleries in Sauchiehall Street. This in turn lasted until 1880 when the society joined (with) the Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders to erect a new building in Bath Street. After some years this became too small for both societies and in 1906 the Engineers were bought out and they built new premises.

After the 1939/45 war many other professional societies were formed and there were other libraries for the ‘arts and sciences’. The meetings had for some time been addressed by invited speakers rather than by the members, and the expense of maintaining large premises was becoming excessive. In 1961 the building was sold, and the library of over 5000 volumes was dispersed. Since then lecture halls have been rented and since 1994 meetings have been held in Strathclyde University, the successor of the Royal Technical College which was itself formed around the old Andersonian University.

The Society has had many eminent members and became a Royal Society in 1901 when Lord Blythswood was President. Thomas Graham, when he was Professor of Chemistry at the Andersonian University, was Vice-President from 1834-1837. He later became Master of the Mint and the Graham Medal and the Graham lecture were founded in his honour. In 1859 (the) Council agreed that the Honorary Membership could be awarded to ‘distinguished men of science belonging to any part of the world’ and the total number of these was not to exceed 20 at any one time. One of the first to be elected in 1860 was Baron Leibig, a former colleague of Graham. Professor Faraday and Dr. Joule were also elected in 1860. Sir William Thomson was President when the British Association visited Glasgow in 1876 and in 1896 he was elected (as Lord Kelvin) an Honorary Member. There was a memorial lecture on his centenary in 1957 and the first annual Kelvin lecture was given by Sir Edward Appleton in 1959. Other Honorary Members included Professor Pavlov, Ronald Russ and Sir J.J. Thomson in 1923 and in 1926 Sir Arthur Evans, Professor Sir Ernest Rutherford and Professor Albert Einstein.

The post-war period has witnessed Glasgow’s decline as a centre of heavy industry, and the Society’s current programming reflects changes in the community. Although lectures on scientific development continue to feature, the social sciences, moral philosophy and the arts have been given increasing prominence. In 1978 an Arts Award lecture was added to the Graham and Kelvin medals which are given annually to scholars of particular distinction in their fields.