Peter Anstey writes …
James Bradley (c. 1692–1762) was one of the leading English astronomers of the eighteenth century, being appointed to the Savilian Chair in Astronomy at Oxford in 1721 on the death of John Keill, before being appointed as Astronomer Royal in 1742 on the death of Edmund Halley. He announced his discovery of the phenomenon of nutation in the movement of the Earth in 1748 and was subsequently awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal.
Our interest in Bradley, however, lies in his teaching of experimental philosophy at Oxford for over thirty years. We have already discussed on this blog the roles of John Keill and Jean Theophilus Desaguliers in the teaching of experimental philosophy at Oxford (and in the case of Desaguliers in London). Keill began teaching around 1700 and was succeeded by Desaguliers in 1713. After a hiatus of three or four years it seems that John Whiteside of Christ Church began to lecture on experimental philosophy (his lectures survive in Cambridge University Library) and he was replaced in 1729 by Bradley. Bradley gave a staggering 79 (at least) courses on experimental philosophy from 1729 to 1760. Thus, apart from a short break experimental philosophy was constantly taught in Oxford University for the first six decades of the eighteenth century. This was in spite of the fact that, unlike Cambridge University, there was no Chair in experimental philosophy.
Interestingly, a register of all those who attended Bradley’s lectures from April 1746 to April 1760 survives. It is reproduced as Appendix E of volume XI of Gunter’s Early Science in Oxford (Oxford, 1937) and shows the name and college affiliation of every student who attended the lectures. Each course averaged 57 students. The lectures were given in the Old Ashmolean Museum, which today is the History of Science Museum. Happily some of Bradley’s lecture notes survive in the Bodleian Library.
Since there was no Chair in experimental philosophy at Oxford, Bradley had to secure some source of income for his lectures. We know that for his last 33 courses he charged two guineas for the first lecture and one gineau for the second lecture. It must have been a handy little earner. According to the Memoirs of Bradley, thirty-one pounds had been set aside each year for a reader in experimental philosophy by convocation in 1731 from the estate of the late Bishop of Durham, Nathaniel Crewe, but Bradley didn’t see any of this money until 1749.
Bradley’s lectures were similar in content to those of Desaguliers and of Roger Cotes and William Whiston in Cambridge. The syllabus remained fairly static for sixty years. It included the laws of nature, mechanics, hydrostatics and optics. What this shows us is that the term ‘experimental philosophy’ didn’t only refer to a method of acquiring knowledge of nature, but also to the actual knowledge acquired through the application of this method. This may not seem a particularly deep historical insight, but it does reflect the success of experimental philosophy of the seventeenth century. The teaching of natural philosophy had come a very long way from its emergence in the 1660s to the time that an average of over 50 undergraduates were signing up for courses in it from 1746!