My review of Jonathan Lyons’s book, The Society for Useful Knowledge has appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. Subscribers can read the piece here.
A text-only version for non-subscribers:
September 6, 2013
Book Review: ‘The Society for Useful Knowledge’ by Jonathan Lyons
Benjamin Franklin did far more for science than simply fly a kite.
By LAURA J. SNYDER
Benjamin Franklin once led a party of merry picnickers who, with electrified gilt goblets, toasted the international community of scientists studying electricity. The group then slaughtered a turkey with an electrical charge and roasted it with electrical fire. Franklin observed: “Birds killed in this Manner eat uncommonly tender.” Franklin was one of the foremost “electricians” of his day, winning the prestigious Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London for his theoretical and practical accomplishments in the field. Connections between Franklin’s scientific work and his role in early American politics have been explored in a number of biographies and scholarly studies. In “The Society for Useful Knowledge,” Jonathan Lyons takes a provocative turn: He claims that Franklin’s notion of “useful knowledge”—gleaned from the charter of the Royal Society—spread throughout the colonies and “made possible the Revolution and . . . America’s characteristic political and economic systems.”
The Royal Society, founded 46 years before Franklin’s birth in 1706, was Europe’s leading scientific body. As a young man, Franklin was struck by its exhortation “to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanic practices, Engines and Inventions by Experiments.” He drafted a “Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge” influenced by these goals and dreamed of forming his own, uniquely American, scientific society. In 1727, he launched a modest group, the “Leather Apron Club”: 12 scientifically minded men who met once a week, initially at the Indian King Tavern on Market Street in Philadelphia. Soon other local scientific societies would be formed, part of a loose social network of men circulating scientific knowledge within and among the colonies.
In Mr. Lyons’s telling, Franklin’s own scientific work, like the forming of the Leather Apron Club, was guided by the ideal of “useful knowledge,” and in detailing Franklin’s work he gives pride of place to the invention of the lightning rod. To be sure, this was an important innovation, but focusing on it fails to convey a full sense of Franklin’s accomplishments. Franklin proved that electricity was a phenomenon that occurred in nature as well as in the laboratory. He invented a theory that brought order to a bedlam of apparently unrelated facts and demonstrated that any adequate scientific system must encompass electricity and magnetism. Far from believing solely in practical science, Franklin supposed that theoretical work—as we would say, “basic research”—would be equally necessary.
Mr. Lyons introduces us to other scientific thinkers and inventors of the day, including David Rittenhouse, a young Philadelphia clockmaker who emerged as one of the leading astronomers of colonial America. Rittenhouse’s effort, in 1769, to chart the transit of Venus over the face of the sun (an event that happens in pairs of occurrences every 100 or so years) added to the legitimacy of the newly formed American Philosophical Society—Franklin’s long dreamed-of national scientific association—which had funded it. Overcome by excitement and exertion, Rittenhouse fainted in front of his telescope, nearly missing the transit.
Mr. Lyons tells an interesting, if unoriginal, story of the growth of science and scientific networks in colonial and post-colonial America. But in formulating his ambitious claim that the notion of useful knowledge “made possible the Revolution,” he overreaches. His application of the term “useful knowledge” is frustratingly fluid, encompassing anything practical, experimental, utilitarian or self-reliant, from educational policy to the kind of “common sense” expressed in Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet. Some set of ideas—scientific, philosophical, religious, political, military and economic—did inspire the American Revolution and what came after. By reducing that collection to the catchall phrase “useful knowledge,” Mr. Lyons renders his book less useful than it might have been for illuminating both Franklin and the intellectual roots of our nation.
—Ms. Snyder is the author of “The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”
A version of this article appeared September 7, 2013, on page C6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Franklin’s Bright Spark.