Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/March 1902/Franklin's Philosophical Society

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MR. FREDERICK FRALEY, who died in Philadelphia on September 23, at the age of 98 years, was the president of the oldest learned society in this country, the American Philosophical Society. He occupied this office longer than any other president except Benjamin Franklin. Both Mr. Fraley and Dr. Franklin served for twenty-one years, Franklin the first president, from 1769 until 1790, and Fraley the last, from 1880 until 1901. Thomas Jefferson was president of the Society for eighteen years, or from 1797 to 1815, therefore during the entire time he was president of the United States. David Rittenhouse served it in this capacity from 1791 until his death, and some facts in the life of an organization which boasts of such early connections should be recalled by a generation to whom its history is very little known.

Behind the State House in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and liberty was proclaimed throughout the land, where the Continental Congress met, where the Constitution of the United States was framed and the American government was established, where the new Congress convened for ten years and Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Morris and the fathers of the Republic were figures passing through its doors and down its corridors, as familiar as the old porters and watchmen who now guard the relics that are displayed there to the populace, stands a detached colonial building of red brick which is almost as old as Independence Hall itself. This is the Hall of the American Philosophical Society, and it so closely abuts upon one wing of the State House that it seems to be almost a part of it. Its rooms downstairs are hired out to-day to stockbrokers, but the apartments in the two upper stories are hung with interesting portraits and filled with busts and books and relics of another day, a trust bequeathed to the living members by a notable galaxy of men who created the Society to propagate scientific knowledge in the new world.

Nearly everything of any antiquity in Philadelphia may be traced back to Benjamin Franklin. It was he, of course, who founded the American Philosophical Society. When a young man still at work at the printing trade he organized a number of his fellows into a club which he called the Junto. This band of young Philadelphians met at the homes of the members and in the city taverns to discuss scientific or 'philosophical' questions—what becomes of all the water that flows into the Mediterranean Sea, whether 'elementary fire' and the electric fluid were the same thing and other ponderous problems calculated to engage the interest of the rising generation in the eighteenth century.

It was in 1743 that Franklin, then a man of thirty-seven with several successes to his credit, announced to his friends his plans for a larger Junto. It was to be a national society 'for promoting useful knowledge among the British Plantations in America.' It was to have a president, a secretary and a treasurer who should live in Philadelphia, since this city was assumed to be more centrally located than any other in America. In Philadelphia, too, there should be always resident seven members, a physician, a botanist, a mathematician, a chemist, a mechanician, a geographer and a general natural philosopher. Into these various departments it was conceived at the time that all learning or philosophy could be brought, and Franklin proffered his own services as the Society's secretary. The body was to receive members from every part of the colonies, and they were 'to maintain constant correspondence' with each other, to the end that whatever useful information one might secure might be passed on to the others and in this way be made the common property of the people.

The founders, however, seemed not to be able to make the Society thrive. The colonies still contained too few who were interested in the propagation of useful knowledge and after a brief period of activity the members were obliged to suspend their meetings. It was not until 1767 that there were signs of awakening life, when many men of prominence in Philadelphia and its neighborhood were elected to membership. In the meantime, a rival society had become quite active, and negotiations for union were begun. A basis of agreement having been reached, in January, 1769, the two societies officially christened 'the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for promoting useful knowledge,' the cumbrous title which the body still retains, met together for the first time. Dr. Franklin was made the president of the consolidated societies, while he was still absent in England; and thus, twenty-six years after he had originated the idea, a period that had been full of progress and change for him, as well as for the American colonies, he lived to see his early hopes realized in a scientific society whose fame was soon to spread over the whole civilized world.

Although abroad almost constantly he remained president of the American philosophers until his death. He occupied the chair for the first time in 1775, but returned to Europe almost immediately to be absent for another period of nine years. Wherever he wandered, however, he was always mindful of his obligations to the Society which each year reelected him to its chief office. His personal triumphs as the American Ambassador at the court of France were all grist to the mill of the Society which gained corresponding members from the literati of Europe and exchanged its transactions with every principal scientific body in the world. Membership in a short time came to be looked upon as a mark of distinction for most of our revolutionary leaders, for Washington and the other presidents of the United States, for the Supreme Court judges, the members of the cabinet, senators and congressmen and for the various diplomatic representatives who made Philadelphia their headquarters while the city was the American capital. Strange ideas haunted the minds of the philosophers, and scientists in Europe must have chuckled with amusement when they read some of the Society's reports. Franklin's practical spirit breathes through this statement of the purposes of the Society, which was published in the first volume of the Transactions in 1771:

Knowledge is of little use when confined to mere speculation. But when speculative truths are reduced to practice, when theories grounded upon experiments are applied to the common purposes of life; and when by these agriculture is improved, trade enlarged, the arts of living made more easy and comfortable and of course the increase and happiness of mankind promoted, knowledge then becomes really useful. That this Society therefore may in some degree answer the ends of its institution the members propose to confine their disquisitions principally to such subjects as tend to the improvement of their country and the advancement of its interest and prosperity.

The writer of this salutatory fondly hoped that America would in time come to possess much likeness in the wealth of its industries to China. It lay in the same latitude as China and our climate was like the Chinese climate. "Could we be so fortunate," said the American Philosophical Society, "as to introduce the industry of the Chinese, their arts of living and improvements in husbandry, as well as their native plants, America might in time become as populous as China which is allowed to contain more inhabitants than any other country of the same extent in the world" To England no less than to her colonies the philanthropic work of the Society should make appeal, 'for if by these means the continental colonies can supply her with the rarities of China and her islands can furnish the rich spices of the East Indies her merchants will no longer be obliged in order to obtain these to traverse three quarters of the globe, encounter the difficulties of so tedious a voyage and after all submit to the insolence and exorbitant demands of foreigners.'

The trees in the wood and the bushes by the roadside were full of possibilities for these philosophers so young in scientific investigation. The persimmon and the sassafras trees, the sumach, the leaves of which the Indians mixed with their tobacco, 'to render it more aromatic and agreeable in smoking,' and many trees and plants it was surmised might yield mankind drugs and dyes and other useful products. Great store was laid by the experience of the Indians and many of their secrets the philosophers hoped to gather from them for the common benefit of man. The hopes of many protectionists of a later time who have labored strenuously to encourage the development of native industries were anticipated by the Philosophical Society. Its members early had a care for the silkworm and the mulberry tree. Franklin sounded the note in a letter written in 1770, and the venerable Peter S. Duponceau, long the president of the society, a distinguished lawyer and philologist who in his youth came hither from France to serve Baron von Steuben as his private secretary during the Revolutionary war, carried on extensive experiments in silkworm culture at his own expense. The Pennsylvania Assembly was asked to pass a bill establishing a public filature in Philadelphia. Eggs were to be distributed and bounties paid for a term of years to the most successful producers of the cocoon.

Building of the American Philosophical Society.

While the philosophers were not able to convince the legislature that public duty lay in this direction, a private association to encourage silkworm propagation was afterward organized under the auspices of the Society and it received £1,000 from the Pennsylvania Assembly in furtherance of its ends.

The wine grape also greatly appealed to the interest of the Society, which made a collection of receipts for the manufacture of wine forwarded to it by farmers and other colonists who had had experience of the vine in America. The uncleared land was well covered with wild vines, and it was assumed that by a little experimentation the colonies could be made to yield wine fruit abundantly.

In 1791 Dr. Rush thought he saw in the maple the future source of the world's sugar supply. This benevolent man hoped that the growth of the tree might be generally extended. "I cannot help contemplating a sugar maple tree with a species of affection and even veneration," said the great advocate of emancipation, "for I have persuaded myself to behold in it the happy means of rendering the commerce and slavery of our African brethren in the sugar islands as unnecessary as it has always been inhuman and unjust."

Place of Meeting in the Building of the Society.

Accounts of many interesting things crowd the early records of the Society. Franklin himself while coming home from France on his last tedious voyage diverted himself in calm weather by writing his famous letter 'on the causes and cure of smoky chimneys,' which he tells us are chimneys that instead of 'carrying up all the smoke discharge a part of it into the room, offending the eyes and damaging the furniture.' He also describes a new stove for burning pit coal, while Thomas Jefferson's interest in husbandry is evidenced by his model of 'a hand threshing machine,' invented by a Virginian, and his communication in regard to a new plowshare.

Natural history had many enthusiastic students. America was a great boneyard which before the fertilizer companies despatched their agents everywhere afforded much that was of curious concern to naturalists. Skeletons of strange animals, tusks, antlers and 'grinders' came pouring into the Society's museum. Jefferson described certain bones of a quadruped of the clawed kind' found in western Virginia. Another member put into print an Indian legend about 'the big naked bear.' Without offering any of its bones in evidence, he tells us that the bear, naked all over except for a spot of white hair upon its back, was the most ferocious of American animals. It devoured man and beast and was so large that an Indian or a common bear served it for but a single meal. Its heart was so small that the arrow could seldom find it. It could be slain only by a blow deftly dealt upon its backbone, and many who went forth to hunt this terror of the forest primeval never came back again.

Other philosophers interested themselves in living objects and we have luminous accounts of 'amphibious serpents,' 'one partridge with two hearts,' 'the numb-fish or torporific eel' and 'a living snake in a living horse's eye.' This horse had been placed on exhibition in Philadelphia by a free negro, who undertook to profit by the popular curiosity for disagreeable sights.

The Society early engaged itself in a scientific work which brought it wide recognition, and quite deservedly so. Already in 1768 Professor Ewing made a report to the philosophers in regard to an impending transit of Venus which it had been calculated would occur in the summer of the following year. Before that time the phenomenon had been observed only twice and then rather partially, the first time in 1639 and again in 1761. A reflecting telescope was imported from England through Franklin's kindly intercession. The day when it arrived proved to be perfectly clear, and the observations were so well made and were recorded in so scientific a manner that the Society at once gained a high reputation among men whose good opinion it was worth while to possess. An eminent authority in Europe at that time wrote of this achievement:

The first approximately accurate results in the measurement of the spheres were given to the world not by the schooled and salaried astronomers who watched from the magnificent royal observatories of Europe, but by unpaid amateurs and devotees to science in the youthful province of Pennsylvania.

Almost simultaneously with this manifestation of the seriousness of its mind came a proposal from the Society to undertake the surveys for a canal which should be cut to join the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. To make possible this laudable work the philosophers asked the merchants of Philadelphia to subscribe to a fund. They responded very liberally, and the Society at one time had as many as fifteen persons in its service taking levels and making surveys upon the various routes.

Autobiographical Letter of Benjamin Franklin on the Organization of the American Philosophical Society.

When the philosophy of the eighteenth century was at last broken up into parts and was followed by the special sciences, the Society suffered intellectually of course. It has not been able to make a choice of bent. In the 158 years of its existence it has published about 65 volumes of proceedings which attest to the catholicity of its interest. Divergencies of mind in the nature of the case must prevent that sympathy and congeniality which formerly existed in the membership. The Society's publications, however, are reference books for much of the excellent work done in recent years by some of the most indefatigable of American scientists, such as Leidy, Brinton, Lesley and Cope.

The Society's collections include many old prints, documents and manuscripts, the library being particularly rich in Frankliniana. The rooms are hung with oil portraits of the Society's presidents and of distinguished members. Sully's Jefferson, Peale's copy of Martin's Franklin, Peale's Rittenhouse, Stuart's Washington, Sully's Wistar and Rush and busts of Franklin, Lafayette, Condorcet, Turgot, Cuvier, Rittenhouse, Provost Smith and many other eminent members of a former day are to be seen in this little treasure house, so full of colonial memories. Most of the specimens of natural history, the old models and the like have been distributed among the museums where they can be more freely used by students. But the principal trophies still remain, such as Franklin's chair, a curious leather-covered construction stuffed with hair in which he used to sit when the Society met at his home in his last days.

Another chair in the hall is the famous Jefferson chair. It is a quaint squat chair with an arm as broad as a table and it is upon this arm that Jefferson is said to have written the Declaration of Independence, an original autograph draft of which reposes in the Society's fireproof. The chair turns round by means of some awkward, clanking machinery which exists inside it, and it is a curiosity worth stopping to view. One of the high Rittenhouse clocks which still keeps time inside its old pine case, the theodolite with which Penn laid out the city of Philadelphia, an old cell battery used by Franklin in making his electrical experiments and other interesting apparatus have come down to the Philosophical Society from a hoary past.

It now aims to invigorate its members with a new sense of their responsibilities. On Mr. Fraley's death General Isaac J. Wistar, a nephew of Caspar Wistar, who was the Society's president in 1815-18, was elected to the president's chair, and it is proposed that a general meeting shall be held at least once a year to promote social intercourse and for the presentation of papers on scientific subjects. The meeting this year has been fixed for Easter week in the city of Philadelphia, and arrangements are in progress for the reception and entertainment of the members who are expected to gather there from all parts of the country on that interesting occasion.