My forthcoming book, The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America, is now available for pre-order at Amazon. Release date is June 11 — in time for Father’s Day.
Franklin launched America’s first enduring learned society as early as 1743, when he announced that it was high time that “Virtuosi or ingenious Men residing in the several Colonies” begin meaningful collaboration to improve the lot of humankind.
Franklin’s manifesto, a Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America, mandated that this new association include 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 organization was to be called The American Philosophical Society, and to be hosted in Franklin’s adopted hometown of Philadelphia, then the colonies’ leading urban center.
Franklin and his collaborators were giving voice to one of the most cherished notions of the Age of Enlightenment – that the value of learning and knowledge, of information and data, is directly proportional to its practical import or utility. This same idea has left a profound mark on American society and culture and on the very idea of America itself – and through it, on the world as a whole.
Inspired by Franklin’s efforts, other communities followed suit. Similar societies for the furtherance of useful knowledge sprouted up in New York, Boston, Washington, Alexandria, Virginia, and as far south as Carolina and Mississippi and as far west as Kentucky.
Throughout the colonies, the driving force behind this movement for useful knowledge was the rising middle class — what Franklin called the “middling sorts” — who wore the leather aprons that were characteristic of artisans, craftsmen, and mechanics.
Together, they forged a new “economy of knowledge” that valued practical results and ingenious solutions over theoretical niceties and academic specialization.
This paved the way for the rebellion against British control and, then, for the rise of inventors and industrial visionaries — American icons such as Edison, Ford, and Jobs – who made the nation into an engineering and technological superpower.