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“In the Society’s Strong Box”

A Visual and Material History of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, c. 1736–1760

In: Nuncius
Author:
Rebekah Higgitt University of Kent Centre for the History of the Sciences UK

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Abstract

It has become a commonplace that exceptional achievement, including within science, should be rewarded with prizes and that these will often take the form of a medal. The ubiquity of such awards today means that the circumstances behind their arrival tend to be overlooked, but they were novelties when first suggested at the Royal Society in the 1730s. This article traces the creation of the Copley Medal and explores the meaning of medals to the recipients, the Society and the proposer of the scheme, Martin Folkes. Paying attention to the medal’s iconography and material nature can shed light on how experimental philosophy and the role of the Royal Society were conceived by key Fellows, demonstrating their links to antiquarianism and Freemasonry. Rather than arriving as a fully formed reward system, the medal concept required investment of time, money, thought and skill, and the development of ritual, meaning and value.

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