It was founded in 1831 by William Vernon Harcourt, after a suggestion by Sir David Brewster, who was disillusioned with the elitist and conservative attitude of the Royal Society. The first meeting was held in York on September 27 of that year. From that date a meeting was held annually at some place chosen at a previous meeting.
The Association's major emphasis in recent decades has been on the public understanding of science. Its annual meeting, now called the Festival of Science, is the largest public showcase for science in the U.K and attracts a great deal of media attention. The Association also runs a youth branch, British Association Young Scientists, which seeks to inform school students about science beyond the school curriculum, and to encourage them to consider higher education and careers in science.