American Philosophical Society

The first enduring American scientific society was formed as part of a wave of organization that swept the European and American intellectual world in the mid-eighteenth century. The first American Philosophical Society was a short-lived Philadelphia group that met from 1743 to 1746. Leading members included Benjamin Franklin, the group’s leading promoter; the inventor of the octant, Thomas Godfrey, Sr.; and plant collector John Bartram. The group revived in 1767. The new American Philosophical Society was dominated by members of the Church of England and supporters of the Proprietary Party in Pennsylvania politics. On December 20, 1768, this American Philosophical Society merged with a similar Philadelphia-based group, the American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge. The American Society, which had been meeting since 1750 but had only taken this name in 1766, was dominated by Quakers, traders, and opponents of the Proprietary Party. (At the time of the merger, it had just absorbed yet another group, the Philadelphia Medical Society, a physicians’ group founded in 1766 by John Morgan.) The new society’s official name was a compromise: American Philosophical Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge. The new society’s organization was modeled on Britain’s Royal Society, with a large, unpaid, and theoretically equal membership and a small body of elected officers. The officers were originally balanced between the members of the two former societies, but as time went on members of the Philosophical Society group clearly dominated. Franklin was more closely aligned with the original American Society group, but his stature as America’s leading scientist made him the obvious choice to be elected president at the new society’s first meeting on January 2, 1769. Since he was in England at the time, he was elected president in absentia. He held the office until his death, and dominated the society’s image outside America to Europeans it was Franklin’s Society. The society made a determined effort to recruit scientists from elsewhere in the colonies as corresponding members, focusing on the Middle and Southern colonies rather than New England. It also had corresponding members in Europe. The new society was supposed to be supported by admission fees and annual dues, both of 10 shillings, but these often went unpaid, particularly as attendance and interest in the society waned after the excitement of its founding. In addition to Franklin, leading colonial scientists among the society’s members included Bartram, who was inactive, and the young astronomer David Rittenhouse. Its unofficial leader, from the Philosophical Society group, was Thomas Bond. The American Philosophical Society, dating to the 1740s, was the first enduring scientific society in America. Its official organ, Transactions, remains the oldest scholarly publication in the country. The first edition appeared in 1771; this issue is dated 1789. (University of Chicago Library, Special Collections) The society’s first major project was the collection of astronomical observations of the transit of Venus in June. The transit is a time when Venus, as viewed from earth, crosses the disk of the sun. Getting exact measurements of the time Venus first appeared to touch the solar disk and the time it took to cross the sun’s face from as many places as possible was extremely important to astronomers. There would be no second chance for anyone alive at the time: there had been a transit in 1761, but after 1769 the phenomenon would not recur for over a century. This called forth a massive coordinated effort from Europe’s scientific societies, and provided an ideal opportunity for the new American society to prove its worth. The society applied for and received a grant from the Pennsylvania legislature for this purpose, and coordinated and collected over twenty observations by astronomers throughout the British colonies in North America. The data gathered occupied a major part of the first volume of the society’s Transactions, published in 1771. (Unofficial transactions had been published in The American Magazine, a short-lived publication belonging to society member Lewis Nicola.) Copies were sent to several European scientific societies, and distributed in Europe by Franklin. The observations favorably impressed many European astronomers. The next volume of Transactions did not appear until after the Revolution. Much of the society’s activity was devoted to economic development. It received a grant from the colonial assembly of 1,000 pounds, matched by another 1,000 pounds raised by subscription, to start a silkworm industry in Pennsylvania. The society also received 200 pounds from local merchants to examine possible routes for a canal from the Delaware to the Chesapeake. Meetings of the American Philosophical Society were suspended from 1776 to 1779 by the American Revolution, and a rival, the Boston-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was founded in 1780. Although it shared in the general decline of American science after the Revolution, the American Philosophical Society survived to become the leading scientific organization in the new United States. William E. Burns See also: Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay); Franklin, Benjamin; Philadelphia; Quakers; Science; Science and Technology (Chronology). Bibliography Bell, Whitfield J. Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society. 2 vols. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997 1999. McClellan, James E., III. Science Reorganized: Scientific Societies in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Stearns, Raymond Phineas. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970. Library Hall American Philosophical Society New Conservation Lab – AxD Portfolio – Always by Design

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