A History of Diffusing Useful Knowledge

By Marc Merlin (Atlanta Science Tavern Contributor)

Cover of The Penny Magazine (1844)

The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK): a title which sounds simultaneously so noble and yet so understated that it has to be either a Monty Python concoction or the actual name of an 19th century British organization dedicated to the advancement of human civilization. It turns out that the latter is the case. The SDUK, founded in London in 1826, sought to educate citizens with limited access to formal instruction, notably with the publication of its weekly illustrated The Penny Magazine.

I’ve encountered references to the SDUK in my reading over the years, but never gave it much thought. A few months back a mention in Randal Keynes’ Darwin biography Annie’s Box brought it to my attention again. This time, though, it occurred to me that, as the Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern, I’m pretty much in the business of diffusing useful knowledge – or so I hope – and therefore I sat up and took notice. Perhaps, with the SDUK, I was staring a distant ancestor in the face? My genealogical interest was piqued.

The begats aren’t all that complicated. On this side of the Atlantic, the SDUK with the help of Josiah Holbrook spawned the Lyceum Movement in the same year as its debut in England. Lyceums, public lecture series, soon found purchase in major cities around the country. In the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded in 1829, I recognized the family resemblance I was looking for.

Although originally created for the betterment of young men for whom “the mind is active and the passions are urgent,” with the first presentations “given to those engaged in Trade and Commerce,” a calendar of lectures shows that the Boston SDUK wasted little time in expanding their program to include topics such as The Theory of MoralsNatural Philosophy, Shakespeare, and Astronomy. Hieroglyphics was on the agenda in 1833, about the same time that fascination with Ancient Egypt was capturing the imagination of many people in the region, notably Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. From the standpoint of a 19th century American public eager to learn, useful knowledge had as much to do with profound questions as with practical ones. The same is true today.

Counted among the Boston speakers were eminent thinkers of the age, including Horace Mann and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, although he did not speak before the organization, refers to the SDUK in his 1862 essay Walking and suggests an “equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.”) In a lecture in 1842 physician and poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., turned a skeptical eye on Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions. It is remarkable both that Holmes’ spot-on analysis has survived the test of time so well – we could feature it as a talk today – and that homeopathy as a purported medical practice has survived 170 years of similar withering criticism.

The genealogical trail I was looking for itself becomes somewhat diffuse with the demise of the Boston SDUK in 1847. It reemerges clearly with the first Café Scientifique, organized by Duncan Dallas in 1998 in Leeds. This kind of grassroots public science forum is our  group’s immediate forebear. As far as I have been able tell, the thirst for useful knowledge remains entirely unquenched. In addition, the capabilities of the Internet and particular social media now offer powerful tools for reaching out to an inquisitive public. I believe that a new Lyceum Movement is at hand. Long live the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge!

Marc Merlin is the Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern. When Marc isn’t busy diffusing useful knowledge he can be found biking around around Atlanta wearing a yellow jacket and a yellow helmet. He posts now and then on his own blog, Thoughts Arise.

  • librarypat

    I wish we had access to similar lecture series in our area. Several years ago, before I got a job, I attended weekly sessions aimed at seniors.They covered a wonderfully wide variety of topics. I will have to see if the college is still offering them, now that I am no longer working.
    The variety of topics covered is one of the things I like about Wonders and Marvels. Interesting tidbits to enjoy.

  • Hilary Hart

    A proud lineage, Marc! I think the Chautauqua movement (founded 1874 and thrived until WWII), which brought learning and culture to rural America, can also be included.