The Making of a Medal: The Iconography and Manufacture of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, c. 1736-1742

Rebekah Higgitt, University of Kent

This paper will discuss the origins, design and creation of the Royal Society’s first prize medal, the Copley Medal, in the first half of the 18th century. Both honorary awards for science and prize medals were novel concepts in the 1730s but because they, and the idea of rewarding individual achievement, have become ubiquitous their arrival has tended to be overlooked or simply accepted as an inevitable development. As well as exploring the meaning of medals to the Society – particularly key members of its leadership, including the proposer of the scheme, Martin Folkes – I will argue that paying attention to the medal’s iconography and material nature gives important clues about the way in which experimental philosophy was conceived within the Royal Society. I will, as far as possible, also explore the Society’s engagement with the artists and artisans who had helped raise interest in medals and to whom they had to turn to make the idea of a prize medal a reality. Rather than being viewed as an idealised reward system, for which the historical focus has been on the question of who received it and why, this paper points out that the medals had to be designed, engraved and struck. The medal concept required investment of time, money, thought and skill.

The Copley medal of the Royal Society, as presented to Benjamin Franklin
The Copley medal of the Royal Society, as presented to Benjamin Franklin: left obverse, right reverse, with a decorative surround. Engraving, later than 1753. © Wellcome Collection. CC BY