The Magazine

Lights of Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin introduces the modern world to the New World.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By PATRICK ALLITT
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A second contemporary was Benjamin Rush, a pioneering doctor who later became surgeon-general of the Continental Army. Rush, too, was raised on a farm, but studied in Edinburgh, then home of Adam Smith and David Hume and one of the centers of Enlightenment education. Rush was an effective physician by the standards of his time, an ardent supporter of the Revolution, a foe of education in the classical languages, and a devotee of experimental research. He helped Thomas Paine find a publisher for the revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense (1776) that provoked the Declaration of Independence. 

David Rittenhouse was a third of these men, little known today, but as famous as Franklin during his lifetime. Another farmer’s son, he had such an enthusiasm for mathematics that he would chalk equations on his plow handles while following his horse up and down the furrows. He became an instrument maker and developed a reputation for crafting accurate clocks, barometers, and thermometers. His masterpiece, however, was an orrery, a working model of the solar system so accurate in its placement and rotation of the sun, planets, and moons that it could be used to chart their relative positions 5,000 years back into the past or forward into the future. It caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and set off a bidding war among covetous collectors. When, during the Revolution, Rittenhouse put his mind to such practical tasks as keeping the state solvent, Thomas Jefferson fretted that this genius’s talents were being wasted on mere politics.

The greatest moment for collaborative American science came in 1769, when the planet Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun. It had happened before, in 1761, and the leather aprons had done what they could to record it, though their experimental methods were imperfect and their readings inaccurate. Recognizing that there would be no second chance after 1769—or, at least, not for more than another century—they established dozens of observation posts and made sure their instruments were perfectly calibrated. Rittenhouse got so excited that, at the climactic moment, he fainted. Nevertheless, his teams made such accurate readings that their estimate of the Earth’s distance from the Sun has remained essentially unchanged since.

A few years after this event, the Revolution began. Lyons suggests that geographical remoteness between Great Britain and the colonies, a spirit of religious independence fostered by the Great Awakening, and pragmatic work done by the societies for useful knowledge all played a role in preparing the colonists to rebel. During the war itself, he believes, Americans exhibited the qualities Franklin had nurtured, showing themselves to be flexible, adaptable, and pragmatic.

This unity of theory and practice evolved into something of a national principle, one that emphasized the practical demands of the workshop, the powder mill, the battlefield, and the naval yard over the disciplined requirements of the classroom, or the unbending demands of scientific theory.

Though well written and full of interesting anecdotes, The Society for Useful Knowledge exaggerates Anglo-American antagonisms. Lyons, perhaps to create an enhanced sense of drama, or to anticipate the impending Revolution, declares periodically that the haughty British scientific elite looked down their noses at the humble Americans, and scanted their achievements. His own stories, however, contradict the claim: Occasional slights were offset by generous tributes to the Americans’ achievements. As Lyons admits, the British lionized Franklin. John Bartram’s 40-year correspondence with Peter Collinson, a London merchant and fellow botanist, certainly reveals moments of irritability on both sides, but is easily superseded by expressions of mutual esteem and gratitude. Collinson himself predicted a magnificent future for American science.

Eighteenth-century Britain was a class-bound society, but it too was brimming with hands-on societies of practical men. Lyons is wrong when he claims that America witnessed “the rise of an independent .  .  . artisan class, something lacking at the time in Europe.” Independent artisans in Britain jump-started the Industrial Revolution. Among their useful knowledge groups was the Lunar Society, whose best-known members were James Watt, who made crucial improvements to the Newcomen steam engine, and Josiah Wedgwood, the pioneer of industrial-scale pottery manufacture. They were as eager as Franklin and his circle to blend theory and practice. Indeed, Franklin himself visited the group twice, in 1758 and 1760, and corresponded regularly with some of its members. What Lyons shows, almost despite himself, is the essential similarity of British and American attempts to put good ideas to work.