The Von Humboldt model of a university came about in the early 1800's. Von Humboldt's thought that the fundamental purpose of the university was to promote scientific inquiry and to unify teaching and research. This idea implies, of course, that the purpose of a university is to create new knowledge

However, a previous SE question touches upon the idea that the initial goal of a university was not to discover new knowledge (as was Humboldt's view) but to transmit older knowledge.

With these ideas as context, where exactly were scientific advancements pursued prior to the Von Humboldt model?

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    Strange. I thought the Academia of Plato and (less) the Semicircle or Pythagoras were among the first places to promote scientific teachings and inquiry.
    – PsySp
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 16:29
  • Maybe to be more fair, as you can see other discussing in the previous SE post, its not true that pursuing new knowledge wasn't a part of the function of a university, but it certainly wasn't the central theme.
    – User2341
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 16:36
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    I quote from wiki: In at least Plato's time, the school did not have any particular doctrine to teach; rather, Plato (and probably other associates of his) posed problems to be studied and solved by the others.
    – PsySp
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 16:39
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    The question in the title subtly deviates from the question in the main text. Which one do you want answered? Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 16:56
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    The Lucasian Chair of Mathematics was founded in 1663. Even its earliest holders seem to have valued generating new knowledge, not just communicating old knowledge. Consider endowed chairs as a source of research funding. Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 17:31

1 Answer 1


In general, there was no central source of funding for research until recently.

If you were engaged in scientific research before modern times, you usually fell into one of a few categories:

  • You had an official position, such as Royal Astronomer in the UK and other countries, that provided you with a salary in exchange for doing research.
  • You had your own independent source of wealth that allowed you to survive.
  • You worked another job, and "dabbled" in research in your "spare time."
  • You were part of the church (e.g., Gregor Mendel) and did your studies and experiments in your free time.

Industry played at most a small role in funding research, directly or indirectly.

  • When you say, "official position," you mean government funded, or what entity? Did industry have no role in research, or was all research conducted in industry?
    – User2341
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 18:39
  • Governments did not "fund research": you were appointed by the ruler, and your position was paid for directly by the state. Industry did not pay for research, as there really weren't "industries" back then.
    – aeismail
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 19:01
  • There were royal/government funded think tanks such as the Library of Alexandria and the Baghdad House of Wisdom. Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 19:06
  • I disagree that industry didn't fund research. Just to put a couple of examples, by 1800 industry had developed the steam engine and the automatic machine loom. Those innovations are due mostly to craftsmen and engineers who researched solutions to the practical problems they faced.
    – Pere
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 20:57
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    @aeismail Maybe we don't understand the same by "research" and "industry". It's true that industry found "isolated developments", but the amount of isolated developments before and during the industrial revolution is impressive, and I would qualify it as research. However, if we understand "research" as organised research as we see today in academy, industry and scientifical societies, I must agree that that didn't exist in industry by 1800.
    – Pere
    Commented Sep 16, 2017 at 21:31

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