In 1743, Benjamin Franklin brought into being an idea originally hatched by his friend John Bartram, one of the colonies’ most distinguished naturalists. Their joint vision was a “society to be formed of Virtuosi or ingenious Men residing in the several Colonies, to be called the American Philosophical Society.” Members would correspond among themselves and with international peers, especially in other British colonies, to share discoveries that could benefit the empire or “Mankind in general.” Franklin’s intent was to focus on ways to improve practical things like animal husbandry, mining, beer brewing, mapmaking, and the like.
Some years after getting it off the ground, Franklin grew disappointed in the society, and it became inactive. Then in the 1760s younger members keen to strengthen America’s economy reinvigorated the group. They created six committees, divided by subject matter, and earned international acclaim when they charted the Transit of Venus from the Philadelphia State House yard in 1769. They also plotted possible canal routes which decades later would be used by diggers.
Another moribund period occurred during the American Revolution. The Society was re-energized in 1785, though, after Franklin returned from his ambassadorship in Paris. His European connections strengthened the group, as did his proposal—which he generously supported with a contribution and a loan—to build a headquarters.
Philosophical Hall still stands, and the society’s roughly 1,000 American and international members oversee its library of nearly 200,000 volumes and over 6 million manuscripts, including Franklin’s personal books, the journals of Lewis and Clark, and Darwin’s letters. Its membership over the centuries makes the society’s influence clear, beginning with individuals like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who was simultaneously president of the society and President of the United States), and continuing through the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Tadeusz Ko´sciuszko, Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin, John James Audubon, Thomas Edison, Linus Pauling, and Robert Frost. The society continues to award the nation’s oldest scientific prize, the Magellanic Premium, and also runs several grant and fellowship programs for scholars.
- Jonathan Lyons, The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America (Bloomsbury, 2013)
- American Philosophical Society, AmPhilSoc.org
- Benjamin Franklin profile in the Philanthropy Hall of Fame, philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/hall_of_fame/benjamin_franklin