The Society for Useful Knowledge

September 6, 2013, 4:19 p.m. ET

Book Review: ‘The Society for Useful Knowledge’ by Jonathan Lyons

Benjamin Franklin did far more for science than simply fly a kite.

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 Society for Useful Knowledge

By Jonathan Lyons
Bloomsbury, 220 pages, $27

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.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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