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 Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth and Guglielmo Marconi.
It is probably best known for creating and running the RSA Examinations Board, now the OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) following the first public examinations in the UK in 1882.
It is well known for the "blue plaques" seen on the outside of many London buildings, commemorating famous people who have lived there. The first of these was, in fact, a red terracotta plaque erected outside a former residence of Lord Byron (since demolished) and currently displayed by the Society at its headquarters in John Adam Street. The Society instigated 36 plaques until in 1901 responsibility for them was transferred to the London County Council and later the Greater London Council and most recently English Heritage.
The National Training School for Music in London was founded by the RSA in 1876. This was later succeeded by the Royal College of Music.
More recently, the Society has had involvement in a project to exhibit works of contemporary art on the empty fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square.