The Society was founded by the great Scottish physicist and natural philosopher Sir David Brewster in 1821 as an 'improving society' dedicated to the promotion of invention and enterprise. Its original name - 'The Society for the Encouragement of the Useful Arts in Scotland' - showed that it was concerned with the fields that we would now describe as science, technology, engineering and manufacture, but which were then known as the useful arts, as opposed to the fine arts.
For many years the promotion of invention and improvements of all sorts was the main business of the Society, and its meetings were the focus of a large and active cross-section of Edinburgh society - academics, gentry, professionals such as civil engineers and lawyers, and skilled craftsmen such as instrument makers, engravers and printers. The Society's published Transactions provide a fascinating record of changes in technology, and the Society's extensive archive (publicly accessible in the National Library of Scotland) is a valuable resource used by researchers.
In more recent times, the Society's meeting programme has been based on lectures given by expert and often distinguished speakers. The lectures cover a wide range of scientific and technical topics, but still with the original aim of keeping the membership informed about current concerns in science, engineering, medicine, and often with a topical edge.
Meetings of the Society are held montly, at 7pm on Monday evenings, from October or November to May or June. In addition, organised visits are made each year to a research, manufacturing or industrial establishment. Most meetings are held in the City centre.