American philosophical society

Alternative names
Active 1775
Active 1787
English, French

History notes:

Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society in 1743 in Philadelphia, patterning it after the Royal Society of London. It's purpose was the promotion of the study of science and the practical arts of agriculture, engineering trades, and manufactures. Subjects of today's "philosophy" were generally excluded from the societies of the 17th and 18th centuries and the word "philosophy" meant to them "love of knowledge," and was essentially the equivalent of today's "science." Interest in the Society waned after the first few years, then revived with a creation of the American Society. At their first meeting on Jan. 2, 1769, Benjamin Franklin was elected their president, and was re-elected annually until his death in 1790, even though he was frequently absent in Europe. This photocopy was made from the original document, owned by Spotswood Hunt, which he loaned to William Madison Randall Library for an exhibit in May, 1969.

From the description of American Philosophical Society membership certificate, 1786 / American Philosophical Society. (University of North Carolina, Wilmington). WorldCat record id: 45038009

Founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, the American Philosophical Society was the first learned society in the United States. For over 250 years, the Society has played an important role in American cultural and intellectual life. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Society fulfiled the role of a national academy of science, national library and museum, and even patent office. Early members in the Society included Thomas Jefferson, David Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush, Stephen Peter Du Ponceau, George Washington, and many other figures prominent in American history.

The American Philosophical Society originated in the mid-eighteenth century, when it was felt a suitable piece of civilization had been carved into the wilderness to allow the pursuit of matters regarding natural philosophy. "Natural philosophy" at that time referred scientific and technological investigations in the broadest sense. The concept of the Society was based on scholarly societies in Europe, such as the Royal Society of London. The membership was comprised of doctors, lawyers, clergymen, artisans, tradesmen, and merchants with an interest in science. By improving methods of agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation the Society hoped to encourage America's economic independence. The Society's place among other international scholarly societies was secured in the 1760s when David Rittenhouse plotted the transit of Venus on a platform behind Independence Hall using one of his telescopes and publishing his findings in the first volume of the Society's Transactions . After a brief lapse during the American Revolution, the Society continued to elect members and became an active participant in the development of the young nation.

During the nineteenth century the Society began to collect important documents of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods under the direction of the Literary and Manuscript Committee. As the Society's membership grew and diversified, so did the Society's interests. Many members in the early 1800s (such as Jefferson, DuPonceau and Benjamin Smith Barton) were interested in the origins and ethnography of Native Americans. The Society's growing Library therefore became a repository for documents on Native American linguistics and ethnography. Based on their vast scientific knowledge, members of the Society were asked to serve as scientific advisors to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the U.S. Exploring Expedition (or Wilkes Expedition), and the Stephen Long Expedition. The Society also encouraged advances in science and technology through its awarding of the Magellanic Premium. In 1838 the Society increased its publications to include the Proceedings . During the latter half of the century, the Society's primary interests were in the fields of American paleontology, geology, astronomical and meteorological observations, and Indian ethnology.

The twentieth century's advances in transportation and communication brought a new vigor to the Society as members from outside the Philadelphia region played an increasingly active role in the Society's administration. The Society continued to support advancements in "useful knowledge," which grew to include the humanities and social sciences, through its publications and new grant program. During World War II the Society broadcast weekly radio programs on science to Europe. The Society also grew physically. During the second half of the twentieth century Library Hall was constricted to house the growing collection of manuscripts and printed material, and the purchase and renovations of Franklin Hall and Richardson Hall provided a state-of-the-art meeting facility and additional space for staff and collections. Through its annual meetings, grant programs, publications, and Library the Society continues to encourage the discussion and advancement of "useful knowledge."

From the guide to the American Philosophical Society Archives, 1743-1984, (American Philosophical Society)

In 1895, Henry Phillips left a portion of his estate to the American Philosophical Society to support research in archaeology and philology, to which supplementary bequests were added in 1903 by his aunt, Emily Phillips, and uncle, Henry M. Phillips. Originally used to acquire books in these subject areas, the increasing strength of the APS collections for Native American languages combined with a critical need for support for primary research led to a gradual change in the use of the Phillips Fund.

Since the 1930s, the APS had provided grants to support research on Native American languages, but in 1941, a Special Committee on the Future Policy of the Library recommended tapping the Phillips Fund for this purpose. Following approval of the Committee on the Library in 1944, the first grant under the Phillips Fund was awarded in the fall, 1945, supporting Zellig Harris of the University of Pennsylvania in his research on the Cherokee language. Since the 1960s, the results of Phillips grants -- including field notes, audio and visual recordings, dissertations, and published and unpublished works -- have been sent to the Library for inclusion in its collections.

The Phillips Fund currently provides grants for research in Native American linguistics and ethnohistory, and the history of studies of Native Americans, in the continental United States and Canada. Grants are not made for projects in archaeology, ethnography, psycholinguistics, or for the preparation of pedagogical materials.

From the guide to the Phillips Fund for Native American Research Collection, 1960-present, (American Philosophical Society)


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