Page images



By G. BROWN GOODE, Ph.D., LL.D., Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in charge of the U. S. National Museum.

'Early in the seventeenth century," we are told, "the great Mr. Boyle, Bishop Wilkins, and several other learned men, proposed to leave England and establish a society for promoting knowledge in the new Colony [of Connecticut], of which Mr. Winthrop,' their intimate friend and associate, was appointed Governor."


"Such men," wrote the historian, were too valuable to lose from Great Britain, and Charles the Second having taken them under his protection in 1661, the society was there established, and received the title of The Royal Society of London.'


[ocr errors]

For more than a hundred years this society was for our country what it still is for the British colonies throughout the world-a central and national scientific organization. All Americans eminent in science were on its list of Fellows, among them Cotton Mather, the three Winthrops, and Paul Dudley in New England; Franklin, Rittenhouse, and Morgan in Pennsylvania; Banister, Clayton, Mitchell, and Byrd in Virginia, and Garden and Williamson in the Carolinas, while in its "Philosophical Transactions" were published the only records of American research.'

'John Winthrop, F.R.S. [1606-76], elected Governor of Connecticut in 1657.

Elliott, "Biographical Dictionary."

3 The first meetings of the body of men afterwards organized as the Royal Society appear to have taken place during the Revolution and in the time of 95]


It was not until long after the middle of the last century that any scientific society was permanently established in North America, although serious but fruitless efforts were made in this direction as early as 1743, when Benjamin Franklin issued his circular entitled "A Proposal for promoting useful knowledge among the British plantations in America," in which it was urged "that a society should be formed of virtuosi or ingenious men residing in the several colonies, to be called the American Philosophical Society."

There is still in existence, in the possession of the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, a most interesting letter from Franklin to Governor Cadwallader Colden of New York, in which he tells of the steps which had already been taken for the formation of a scientific society in Philadelphia, and of the means by which he hoped to make it of great importance to the colonies.

Our forefathers were not yet prepared for the society, nor for the American Philosophical Miscellany which Franklin proposed to issue, either monthly or quarterly. There is no reason to believe that the society ever did any thing of importance. Franklin's own attention was soon directed exclusively to his electrical researches, and his society languished and died.


Some twenty years later, in 1766, a new organization was attempted under the title of "The American Society held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge." Franklin, Cromwell, and as early as 1645, we are told by Wallace, weekly meetings were held of "diverse worthy persons inquisitive into natural philosophy and other parts of human learning, and particularly of what has been called the New Philosophy, or Experimental Philosophy," and it is more than probable that this assembly of philosophers was identical with the "Invisible College" of which Boyle spoke in sundry letters written in 1646 and 1647. These meetings continued to be held, sometimes at the Bull-Head Tavern, in Cheapside, but more frequently at Gresham College, until 1660, when the first record book of this society was opened. Among the first entries is a reference to a design then entertained “of founding a College for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning." Dr. Wilkins was appointed chairınan of the society, and shortly after, the king, Charles II., having become a member, its regular meeting-place was appointed to be in Gresham College.

This name was adopted in 1768 to replace that first adopted in 1766, which was "The American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge, held in Philadelphia."

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

although absent in England, was elected its president, and the association entered upon a very promising career.

In the meantime the few surviving members of the first "American Philosophical Society" formed, under the old name, an organization which in many particulars was so unlike that proposed in 1743 that it might almost be regarded as new rather than a revival. Its membership included many of the most influential and wealthy colonists, and the spirited manner in which it organized a plan for the observation of the transit of Venus in 1769 gave it at once a respectable standing at home and abroad.

In 1769, after negotiations which occupied nearly a year, the two societies were united,' and "The American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge," has from that time until now, maintained an honorable position among the scientific organizations of the world.

The Society at once began the publication of a volume of memoirs, which appeared in 1771 under the name of "The American Philosophical Transactions."

From 1773 to 1779 its operations were often interrupted. In the minutes of the meeting for December, 1774, appears

1 Some insight into the scientific politics of the time may be gained by reading the following extract from a letter addressed to Franklin by Dr. Thomas Bond, June 7, 1769: "I long meditated a revival of our American Philosophical Society, and at length thought I saw my way clear in doing it, but the old party leaven split us for a time. We are now united, and with your presence may make a figure; but till that happy event I fear much will not be done. The Assembly have countenanced and encouraged us generously and kindly, and we are much obliged to you for your care in procuring the telescope, which was used in the late observations of the transit of Venus."

A copy of the finished volume of the Transactions was presented to each member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, accompanied by an address as follows: "As the various societies which have of late years been instituted in Europe have confessedly contributed much to the more general propagation of knowledge and useful arts, it is hoped it will give satisfaction to the members of the honorable House to find that the Province which they represent can boast of the first society and the first publication of a volume of Transactions for the advancement of the useful knowledge of this side of the Atlantic; a volume which is wholly American in composition, printing, and paper, and which, we flatter ourselves, may not be thought altogether unworthy of the attention of men of letters in the most improved parts of the world."

the following remarkable note in the handwriting of Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the secretaries, soon after to be one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence:

"The act of the British Parliament for shutting up the port of Boston, for altering the charters and for the more impartial administration of justice in the province of Massachusetts Bay, together with a bill for establishing popery and arbitrary power in Quebec, having alarmed the whole of the American colony, the Members of the American Philosophical Society partaking with their countrymen in the distress and labours brought upon their country, were obliged to discontinue their meetings for some months until a mode of opposition to the said acts of parliament was established, which we hope may restore the former harmony and maintain a perpetual union between Great Britain and the Americas."

This entry is especially interesting, because it emphasizes the fact that among the members of this infant scientific society were many of the men who were most active in the organization of the Republic, and who, under the stress of the times, abandoned the quiet pursuits of science, and devoted themselves to the national interests which were just coming into being.

Franklin was President from its organization until his death in 1790. He was at the same time President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and a member of the Constitutional Convention, and the eminence of its leader probably secured for the body greater prestige than would otherwise have been attainable. The society, in fact, soon assumed national importance, for, during the last decade of the century and for many years after, Philadelphia was the metropolis of American science and literature.

Directly after the Revolution, a similar institution was established in Boston-The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which was incorporated by the Legislature, of Massachusetts in 1780, and published its first Memoirs in 1785. This, like the Philadelphia society, owed its origin to the efforts of a great statesman. We find the whole history in the memoirs of John Adams, a man who believed, with Washington, that scientific institutions are the best lasting protection of a popular government.

« PreviousContinue »