Royal Society of Arts

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The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a British multi-disciplinary institution, based in London. The name Royal Society of Arts, although often used, is not approved of by the Society, although it does officially use the abbreviation derived from it.

The Society exists to deliver five Manifesto Challenges:

  • encouraging enterprise,
  • moving towards a zero waste society,
  • fostering resilient communities,
  • developing a capable population, and
  • advancing global citizenship.

It was founded in 1754 by William Shipley as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It was granted a Royal Charter in 1847. Notable members have included Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth, Charles Dickens and Guglielmo Marconi.

Notwithstanding its establishment credentials, the RSA has always been a radical body which has sought to challenge the status quo and change the world around it. Its founders spoke of the need to "embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce", but also of the need to alleviate poverty and secure full employment.

In 1774 it moved into a new building in central London, near the Strand, and purpose-designed by the Adam Brothers (James Adam, Robert Adam) as part of their innovative Adelphi scheme. The RSA is still in occupation, although it has also expanded into adjacent buildings in the intervening years. The building includes the Great Room which features a magnificent sequence of paintings by Irish artist James Barry: "The progress of human knowledge and culture".

In its early years the Society offered prizes - which it called "premiums" - for people who could successfully achieve one of a number of published challenges. Captain William Bligh suffered the Mutiny on the Bounty while attempting to win a premium for shipping breadfruit from the East to the West Indies. He subsequently repeated the voyage and this time succeeded, and the Society awarded him the prize. The Society offered premiums for a very wide range of challenges including devising new forms of machinery and agricultural improvements.

The RSA hosted Britain's first exhibition of contemporary art which was a big success. As a result, the Royal Academy of Arts was formed in 1768 by Sir Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds - two early members of the RSA - as a spin-off organisation.

The RSA is probably best known for creating the RSA Examinations Board, now part of the separate OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) Board, following the Society's launch of the modern world's first public examinations in 1882.

It devised a scheme for commemorating the links between famous people and buildings by placing plaques on the walls - these continue today as "blue plaques" which are administered by a range of government bodies. The first of these plaques was, in fact, of red terracotta erected outside a former residence of Lord Byron (since demolished). The Society instigated 36 plaques until in 1901 responsibility for them was transferred to the London County Council (which changed the colour of the plaques to the current blue) and later the Greater London Council and most recently English Heritage.

The National Training School for Music in London was founded by the Society in 1876. This was later succeeded by the Royal College of Music.

In 1908, King Edward VII granted it the right to use the term "Royal" in its name.

The Society was instrumental in the preservation of West Wycombe, purchashing the entire village and handing it over the National Trust.

More recently, the Society launched a project to exhibit works of contemporary art on an empty fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square, is working to deliver fresh drinking water to the developing world, and is rethinking intellectual property from first principles to produce a Charter. It is investigating schemes to manage international migration, is promoting the practise of inclusive design, and is working with artists to communicate ideas about environmental sustainability.

The Society runs a public lecture programme which seeks to introduce new and challenging thinking. These lectures are published in its own Journal and made freely available on its website. An example of the Society's success is offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, which records the first use of the word "sustainability" in an environmental sense in the RSA's Journal in 1980.

Each year a number of medals are awarded, including the Albert medal, the Benjamin Franklin Medal, and the Bicentennary Medal. Medal winners include Nelson Mandela, Sir Frank Whittle and Professor Stephen Hawking.

The Society is Incorporated by Royal Charter, is registered in England as a Charity, and has more than 20,000 Fellows who live in around 70 countries. Its Patron is currently HM Queen Elizabeth II, its President is HRH Prince Philip, and its Chair is Sir Paul Judge.

External links


  • RSA (
  • RSA history (



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