By the dawn of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin had already spent most of his adult life in the pursuit of knowledge that might profit society, improve the moral and economic standing of its individual members, and, not least of all, redound to the benefit of Franklin himself. Crucially, he saw such endeavors as primarily a collective pursuit rather than as the preserve of the solitary scientific genius, secreted away in his laboratory or hunched over his lonely workbench. Even his most famous contributions to science and technology—including the kite experiment that established the identity of lightning and electricity, the lightning rod, and the so-called Franklin stove—were the products of teamwork and the free exchange of information, ideas, and observations. For Franklin, true knowledge was both useful and social.
His quest for useful knowledge and self-improvement flourished within the precincts of the study circle and subscription library, amid the mysteries of the local Masonic lodge, and inside the collegiality of the coffee klatsch, the tavern gathering, and the drinking club. He created his own secret society, primarily of fellow artisans and craftsmen out to better themselves and their position within the hierarchical bounds of prerevolutionary society. And he eagerly adopted the eighteenth-century vogue for the exchange of learned correspondence and left behind an impressive archive of letters, in an array of European languages, with many of the leading scientists of his day.*
Over the decades, Franklin relied on these types of social networks to help forge what was in effect an American movement for useful knowledge. His overlapping colonial circles encompassed such figures as John Bartram, the cantankerous Quaker farmer and stonemason who ranged far and wide, from the pine barrens of New Jersey to the swamps of the Carolinas, on botanizing expeditions; Cadwallader Colden, a New York doctor and amateur scientist who boldly set out to challenge the world-famous Isaac Newton; the mathematical prodigy, watchmaker, and self-taught astronomer David Rittenhouse, who shared Franklin’s zeal for Pennsylvania politics and American independence; the physician Benjamin Rush, surgeon general to the Continental Army, professor of medicine, and tireless campaigner on behalf of useful knowledge in American schools and colleges; and the fallen patrician-turned-apostle of American mechanization, Tench Coxe.
Fired by the potential for collective study and the exchange of information, many of these same men rallied around Franklin’s long-running efforts to create America’s first national institution, the American Philosophical Society, dedicated to the furtherance of useful knowledge. Over time, the association would also attract such prominent political figures as Washington, Hamilton, Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and John Marshall, as well as a number of foreign heroes of the revolutionary struggle: the Marquis de Lafayette, Friedrich von Steuben, and Tadeusz Kosciusko.
Thomas Jefferson later served as the Society’s president for eighteen years—a post, say friends, that he greatly preferred to that of president of the United States. Jefferson was no mere dabbler in scientific subjects. He immersed himself in the study of fossilized mammoths, found across North America, and he even turned one area of the new White House into a “bone room” to hold his collection. He outfitted his Virginia residence, the stately Monticello, with technological innovations of his own contrivance, used the latest in mathematical principles to design a more efficient plow, and personally prepared scientific instructions for the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Coast.
Initial inspiration for an American philosophical society almost certainly came from John Bartram, but it was Franklin, by now a successful newspaper publisher and astute publicist, who seized the moment. It was high time, he proclaimed in 1743, that “Virtuosi or ingenious Men residing in the several Colonies” came together in a philosophical society in order to improve the collective lot of humankind. Grandly titled a “Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America,” Franklin’s manifesto mandated that this new association—the first to draw membership from across the disparate colonies—be peopled, at a minimum, by a “Physician, a Botanist, a Mathematician, a Chemist, a Mechanician, a Geographer, and a general Natural Philosopher,” or all-around scientist, as well as three administrative officers.
The Philosophical Society was to be hosted in Franklin’s adopted hometown of Philadelphia, then the largest urban center in North America and convenient midpoint of England’s colonial territories. Distant members were encouraged to correspond with the Society and with one another through the regular exchange of letters, commentaries, and learned papers. Franklin offered his own services as the new association’s secretary, placing himself at the very hub of colonial scientific exchange, at least until “they shall be provided with one more capable.”
After a few false starts and long stretches of outright inactivity, which Franklin blamed on the lassitude of others, the philosophical society gradually began to take root. Philadelphia steadily established itself as America’s leading center of scientific inquiry and practical learning, a development that spurred other communities to form societies of their own. In the decades after 1776, nearly one hundred useful knowledge associations were founded across the former colonies, accompanied by a proliferation of journals, newspapers, and books aimed at disseminating the latest technological and scientific breakthroughs to the general public.