The Royal Canadian Institute (RCI) is the oldest scientific society in Canada. It was founded in Toronto in 1849 by a small group of civil engineers, architects and surveyors led by Sandford Fleming (1827-1915). Fleming eventually became one of the most prominent Canadians of his time, responsible for the planning and building of the transcontinental railway and for the concept of standard time. (Click here for a brief video about him.)
By its Royal Charter of Incorporation granted on 4 November 1851, the Canadian Institute (as it was then called) was charged with the “encouragement and general advancement of the Physical Sciences, the Arts and Manufactures…and more particularly for promoting…Surveying, Engineering and Architecture…” The Institute was also to commence “…the formation of a Museum …to promote the purposes of Science and the general interests of society.” In 1914 the Canadian Institute received permission to add the prefix Royal to its name.
In 1850 the Institute opened its membership “…to those whose pursuits or studies were of a kindred character”, not limited to surveyors, engineers and architects. Members gave and heard papers on a wide range of subjects at weekly meetings held, originally, in the Hall of the Mechanics’ Institute. Selected papers and abstracts were published in the Canadian Journal, later the Proceedings and then the Transactions of the Institute. These scientific journals (1852-1969) were the first in Canada to be widely distributed internationally. Reciprocal exchanges with 485 similar organizations produced an extensive library that by 1911, with 34,000 volumes, was one of the largest collections ofscientific literature in Canada. In 1948 the library was purchased for a nominal sum by the University of Toronto, thus ensuring its preservation and wider accessibility.
Although the introduction of the telegraph in 1843 permitted, for the first time, the rapid collection of meteorological observations, the British government decided to close its magnetic observatory in Toronto and transfer its director, Capt. John Henry Lefroy (President of the Institute 1852-3), back to England. Largely through the efforts of the Institute the observatory was saved and taken over in 1853 by the provincial government. The Institute’s publication of meteorological data from this observatory and others was the impetus for the establishment in 1871 of the Canadian Meteorological and Time Service, now Environment Canada’s Atmospheric Environment Service.
The Institute was the first scientific body to promote Sandford Fleming’s concept of universal or standard time and the establishment of the longitude at the observatory in Greenwich, England, as a universal prime meridian. Fleming presented his ideas formally for the first time to members of the Institute on 19 February, 1879. Two of his papers “Time reckoning” and “The selection of a prime meridian to be common to all nations, in connection with time-reckoning”, appeared in the Proceedingsfor 1879. Vigorously supported by the Institute, the concept was adopted at the Washington International Time Conference in 1884.
Through its Royal Charter (1851), the Institute was committed to establish a museum. Over the years, collections donated or purchased by the Institute were occasionally displayed, particularly provincial archaeology, mineralogy and ornithology. In 1885 the Natural History Society of Toronto joined the RCI. Soon afterward, a Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, the first museum of its kind in the province, was opened in the Institute’s Richmond Street headquarters. With this display and the publication of an Annual Archaeological Report, the Institute made a major contribution to public appreciation of museums. The collections were transferred to the Royal Ontario Museum in 1924.
Long concerned with the vital importance of conservation, the Institute strongly supported Alexander Kirkwood’s idea of setting aside the Ottawa Huron district as a national park. The Act that created Algonquin Park (the first provincial park in Canada) in 1893 incorporated the design proposed by the Institute.
As knowledge became more specialized, the Institute formed sections that often became independent organizations. For example, in 1888 the Photographic Section became the Toronto Camera Club which is still operating successfully more than a century later. The Institute’s Sociological Committee, dedicated to the collection and dissemination of information about Canada’s native people, urged the Superintendent of Indian Affairs to publish Canada’s Indian Treaties (1891). The Sociological committee evolved into the Canadian Indian Research and Aid Society (1890) with the broad aim of bringing “the cause of Indians more prominently before the public” and of promoting the ideal that Indians “manage their own affairs”.
In 1897 the Institute held a joint meeting with the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The meeting and subsequent train journey across Canada to observe natural phenomena, such as the now famous Burgess Shale, gave recognition to Canadian science by one of the then most prestigious scientific societies in the world.
A far-reaching early achievement of the RCI was the establishment in 1914 of a Bureau of Science and Industrial Research to promote closer cooperation between science and industry. The Bureau and several RCI members substantially influenced the creation of the federal government’s Honorary Advisory Council on Scientific and Industrial Research (1916), forerunner of the National Research Council (1917) and the National Scientific and Engineering Research Foundation. The RCI also played a part in establishing the NRC Laboratories in Ottawa (1927) and the Ontario Research Foundation (1928).
A widening interest in nature encouraged the Institute in 1946 to join with the Toronto Field Naturalists in co-sponsoring the Audubon Screen Tours that, for many years, were one of the most popular educational activities in Toronto.
In the 1960s, the RCI raised student awareness and participation in science with summer programs, mentorships, and prizes for high school essays. In 1989, the Youth Science Association(YSA) was founded under the sponsorship of the RCI to promote interest, awareness and knowledge of science among high school and university students. The initiative for its founding came about primarily through the leadership of Dr. John Percy (RCI President 1985-6) and John H. McFadyen (RCI President 1988-9).
The Institute’s membership greatly increased in 1855 when the Athenaeum brought its library, museum and members to boost the total to 500 (about 2% of Toronto’s population at the time). By 1900 the residential districts of Toronto had moved north of College Street, and attendance at the Institute’s weekly meetings (on Richmond Street) dwindled to about 30. Audiences rapidly increased in 1913, when free lectures open to the public were given on Saturday evenings in buildings on and around the University of Toronto’s St. George campus.