6. The Académie Royale des Sciences

In 1666 Huygens’s choice of a career as an investigator of nature was rewarded in spectacular fashion. The French King, Louis XIV, invited him to Paris to take on the leadership of the scientific academy the King wished to found. This was a great honour, which was also financially rewarding: the King promised Huygens a yearly salary of 6000 livres.

Huygens himself had been present at the cradle of the Academy. With several Parisian colleagues, such as the astronomers Adrien Auzout and Pierre Petit, he shared his dissatisfaction with the level of scientific research in Paris. On one hand, too many incompetent cooks spoiled the broth, and on the other there was a lack of funds and means. Meetings therefore often got stuck in endless and aimless discussions. Several influential men therefore urged the King to found a formal organization for science.

Such academies, or learned societies, were a common phenomenon at the time. They were local societies that usually sprang up spontaneously and promoted learning and the arts. And they existed in any number of areas and with various aims: purification of a language, poetry, etc. For the rising new sciences, they were of vital importance, precisely because science did not yet have a clear social place and function: only under protection of such groups could science carve out a social niche.

The French Académie Royale des Sciences was not the first scientific academy in Europe. But because the French King thought that a scientific academy would fit in well with his designs to give government more prestige and authority, and therefore brought to bear his full resources (including finances) on it, it was the first academy where something approaching professional science was practiced. There was, of course, also a disadvantage: the academy was strongly dependent on the political desires of the monarch.