Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Historical Steampunkers: Huxley's X Club

Thomas Henry Huxley

Suppose you are writing a Steampunk story or drafting an adventure set in Victorian London, and you need an organization of famous and influential scientists, a limited and selective group of men dedicated to using science to advance the frontiers of knowledge and serve the common good. Your group will be small enough to keep secrets, but drawn from all branches of science, and even philosophy, so their combined knowledge and wisdom will make them a formidable force, able to divine the significance of even fragmentary clues or incomplete reports from distant stations.

Maybe you want them to monitor dangerous and nefarious activities, or support scientific missions, or even advise the crown. Whatever the purpose it serves in your story, you don’t need to invent the group. It existed. It even had exactly the name you would give it, were you writing this as an adventure story back in, say, the 1960s or 70s. It was called The X Club.

The club was a gentleman’s dining club, launched in November of 1864 by the eminent biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (pictured above). It consisted of himself and seven of his most trusted friends and colleagues, to which was added an additional member (Spottiswode) the following month, after which the club voted to close its membership at nine. Huxley originally proposed the club be named the Blastodermic Club, after the group of cells in a bird which determines the development of the entire organism. The X Club was eventually chosen as a name, perhaps (as Spencer later claimed) because it committed the members to nothing.

Huxley always claimed the club was purely social and existed only to keep close friends from drifting apart. Thomas Hirst, however, claimed that from the first what drew the group together was, “a devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogma.” It was probably no coincidence that the group met to dine at 6:00 PM on the first Thursday of each month, and then adjourned to attend the monthly meeting of the Royal Society at 8:00 or 8:30 that same evening. The group invariably presented a unified and deliberate front in the Royal Society meetings, which (in addition to their mounting scientific accomplishments) eventually made them its most influential members. Between 1873 and 1885, Hooker, Spottiswode, and Huxley alternated as presidents of the Royal Society

The nine members were:

Edward Frankland: The foremost chemist of his day. Originated the concept of valence in chemistry.

George Busk: Surgeon, zoologist, and paleontologist, Busk had formerly been the ship’s surgeon on HMS Dreadnought (the old wooden ship-of-the-line which fought at Trafaklgar, still in service decades later).

Thomas Hirst: Mathematician, specializing in geometery.

Joseph Dalton Hooker: Famous botanist and explorer, Charles Darwin’s closest friend, and Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew for twenty years.

Thomas Henry Huxley: Biologist, champion of the Theory of Evolution, and energetic advocate for scientific schooling in Great Britain. Huxley rose to prominence at a time when clergymen and wealthy amateurs dominated the scientific establishment. He was instrumental in redirecting it in more professional and scholarly directions.

John Lubbock: Biologist and archaeologist, in addition to his other pursuits as a banker and Liberal politician (a Member of Parliament from about 1870 on).

Herbert Spencer: Towering philosopher, writer, and political theorist, not to mention biologist and sociologist. Spencer wrote about evolution before Darwin’s work on the subject and coined the term, “survival of the fittest.” He was the only member of the X Club who was not a member of the Royal Society.

William Spottiswoode: Mathematician and physicist. He never finished his education at Oxford, withdrawing on the death of his father to take his place in the family printing business. He combined his interest in science and mathematics with his printing business to issue a series of pamphlets and books which gained him wide renown and opened the door to the scientific and scholarly community as a whole – an early self-publishing success story!

John Tyndall: Physicist known for his study of diamagnetism, thermal radiation, and atmospheric processes. From 1853 to 1887 he was professor of physics at the Royal Institution, taking the position previously held by Faraday.

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