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Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why did a medal become the prize for scientific achievement? | The Guardian

Photo: Rebekah Higgitt
Rebekah Higgitt, lecturer in history of science at the University of Kent summarizes, "The idea of a prize medal for outstanding scientific work is so ubiquitous that we rarely stop to think about it." 

The Royal Society’s Copley Medal has been awarded since 1737. This is the once awarded to Dmitri Mendeleev in 1905. 
Photo: Wikipedia

Yet it has not always been the obvious way to reward competitive achievement. It was once an innovation, and is one that tells us as much about the enthusiasms of a particular group of 18th-century gentleman as about the new world of experimental science that they sought to celebrate.

While I am always wary of claims to something being “the first” (other examples and precedents can nearly always be found, or prove more significant), there is a good claim for the Royal Society’s Copley Medal as the first prize medal. Since 1737 it has been offered for whatever scientific work was considered worth rewarding. That, of course, has changed considerably over time, but it was always presented as an honorary, annual reward for scientific merit.

'While there had previously been monetary rewards and prizes for scientific work –for example under the 1714 Longitude Act or by the French Academy of Sciences – there was no obvious and immediate precedent for a competition that was open to any field, or for a medal. In Britain it was only relatively recently that medals had been offered to reward specific naval services, commemorate events or the famous. So what led to the Royal Society commissioning a medal in the 1730s?

The answer is two-fold. Firstly, the Society’s Council members found themselves with an awkward pot of money. This was a bequest made in the will of a Fellow of the Society, Godfrey Copley, who died in 1709. This left “the sum of one hundred pounds upon trust for the Royal Society of London for improving natural knowledge to be laid out in experiments or otherwise for the benefit thereof”. Copley’s idea was that this money would help pay for the experimental demonstrations often carried out during meetings. There was no mention of medals or competitions.

The Society only received the £100 in 1717 but at this point it was decided that they should spend only the annual interest, so that they might “for ever” pay for an experiment to be performed annually at a special event. Over the next few years this money, which turned out to be £5, was usually paid to John Theophilus Desaguliers, who already regularly performed experiments for the Society at an annual cost of considerably over £5.

Source: The Guardian

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