The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/American Philosophical Society, The
AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, The, is the oldest scientific society in America. Benjamin Franklin, in his ‘Autobiography,’ states that in the year 1727 “I united the majority of well-informed persons of my acquaintance into a club which we called the Junto, the object of which was to improve our understandings.” As the population of the colonies grew, Franklin saw the need of another society of larger scope and usefulness than the Junto; therefore, in 1743, he issued a circular, entitled ‘A proposal for promoting useful knowledge among the British plantations in America,’ in which he urged “that one society be formed of virtuosi or ingenious men residing in the several colonies, to be called The American Philosophical Society, who are to maintain a constant correspondence. That Philadelphia, being the city nearest the centre of the colonies, communicating with all of them northward and southward by post, and with all the islands by sea, and having the advantage of a good, growing library, be the centre of the Society.”
The proposition was favorably received, and in the following spring Dr. Franklin wrote to Gov. Cadwallader Colden, of New York, that the Society “is actually formed and had had several meetings to mutual satisfaction.” He gave a list of the members, and added that “there are a number of others in Virginia, Maryland, Carolina, and the New England colonies who we expect to join us as soon as they are acquainted that the Society has begun to form itself.”
In January 1769 this Society united with the Junto, which had in the meantime changed its name to “The American Society held at Philadelphia for promoting Useful Knowledge,” and the united societies took the fused name of “The American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge,” and elected Benjamin Franklin its first president, and he held this office by successive annual re-elections until his death in 1790.
The Society at once entered upon arrangements to carry out a notable scientific undertaking of great magnitude for those days, namely, to make observations of the expected transit of Venus in the following June — a rare phenomenon which had not occurred for 130 and would not recur for 105 years. It erected three temporary observatories and appointed a committee, of which David Rittenhouse was the head, to have charge of the observations. On the day of the eclipse the weather in northern Europe was cloudy, but in the neighborhood of Philadelphia it was perfectly clear, and a high European authority has said that “the first approximately accurate results in the measurements 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.” The results of these observations were printed in the first volume of the Society's ‘Transaction,’ published in 1771. The publication of the quarto ‘Transactions’ still continues, and in addition the society publishes ‘Proceedings’ in octavo form.
Franklin was succeeded in the presidency by David Rittenhouse, the eminent astronomer, who held the office for five and a half years, until his death in 1796, and he in turn was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson, who held the office until 1815, including the eight years of his incumbency of the Presidency of the United States. “The tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote, were his “supreme delight,” and the most exciting political duties could never withdraw him from them. Jefferson was succeeded in the presidency by Dr. Caspar Wistar, the eminent anatomist, and subsequent incumbents were Dr. Robert Patterson, Chief Justice Tilghman, Peters S. Du Ponceau, Robert M. Patterson, Dr. Nathaniel Chapman, Dr. Franklin Bache, Prof. Alexander Dallas Bache, Judge Kane, Dr. George B. Wood, Frederick Fraley, Edgar F. Smith and Dr. William W. Keen.
The membership of the Society since its foundation has included names distinguished in science on both continents. The number of members who may be elected in any one year is limited to 15 residents of the United States and three foreign residents. The election of members is held during the general meeting in April of each year. The ordinary meetings of the Society are held on the first Friday of each month, from October to May, inclusive. The Society possesses a library of over 65,000 volumes, which is specially rich in the files of the publications of the learned societies of the world, and is housed in a fire-proof building erected on Independence Square in the city of Philadelphia, on land granted to it by the State of Pennsylvania in 1785.