Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

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The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), founded in 1826, and wound up in 1848, was a Whiggish London organisation that published inexpensive texts intended to adapt scientific and similarly high-minded material for the rapidly expanding reading public. It was established mainly at the instigation of Lord Brougham with the objects of publishing information to people who were unable to obtain formal teaching, or who preferred self-education.

An American group of the same name was founded as part of the Lyceum movement in the United States around the same period. Its Boston branch sponsored lectures by such speakers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was active from 1829 to 1947.[1] Henry David Thoreau cites the Society in his essay "Walking," in which he jestingly proposes a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.[2]

Aims[edit]

SDUK publications were intended for the working class and the middle class, as an antidote to the more radical output of the pauper presses. The society set out to achieve this by acting as an intermediary between authors and publishers by launching several series of publications. It was run by a committee of eminent persons, and had a close association with the newly formed University College London, as well as the numerous provincial Mechanics' Institutes. Its printers included Baldwin & Cradock, later succeeded by Charles Knight. The Society commissioned work and dealt with the printers, and finally distributed the publications; profits were used to continue the Society's work.

Development[edit]

While conceived with high ideals the project gradually failed, as subscribers fell away and sale of publications declined. Charles Knight was largely responsible for what success SDUK publications did have; he engaged in extensive promotional campaigns, and worked to improve the readability of the sometimes abstruse material.[3] Nonetheless many of the titles had little interest to readers, though the Penny Magazine at its peak had a circulation of around 200,000 copies a week. The Society eventually wound up in 1848, though some of its works apparently continued to be published. The archives of the Society are in the possession of the University College London.

The Society was not without opposition, and the Literary Gazette mounted a campaign on behalf of the book trade, supported by publications such as the Royal Lady's Magazine, who complained in the early 1830s that:

Few persons are aware that the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge have done, and are still doing, more to ruin the Book trade than all the change of times, the want of money, the weight of taxes, and even the law of Libel have accomplished; yet they - a committee of Noblemen and pretended Patriots - are permitted to go on in their unfeeling, nay, considering the hundreds of thousands engaged in the Book trade, we may add brutal, career, without interruption.[4]

Publications[edit]

Library of Useful Knowledge[edit]

One significant set of publications by the SDUK was the Library of Useful Knowledge; sold for a sixpence and published biweekly, its books focused on scientific topics. The first volume, an introduction to the series by Brougham, sold over 33,000 copies. However, attempts to reach the working class market were largely unsuccessful; only among the middle class was there sustained interest in popular science texts.[3]

Like many other works in the new genre of popular scientific narratives—such as the Bridgewater Treatises and Humphry Davy's Consolations in Travel—the books of the Library of Useful Knowledge focused on natural theology and imbued scientific fields with concepts of progress: uniformitarianism in geology, the nebular hypothesis in astronomy, and the scala naturae in the life sciences. According to historian James Secord, such works met a demand for "general concepts and simple laws", and in the process helped establish the authority of professional science and specialised scientific disciplines.[5]

Other SDUK publications[edit]

  • Maps, primarily in a two-volume set, and prepared to a very high standard
  • Penny Magazine
  • Penny Cyclopaedia
  • British Almanac (and associated Companion)
  • Library of Entertaining Knowledge
  • Farmers Series, which included works by William Youatt on The Dog, the horse, cattle, and sheep[6]
  • Working Man's Companion
  • Quarterly Journal of Education
  • Gallery of Portraits
  • Biographical Dictionary
  • The Stars

In popular culture[edit]

References to the Society are rare in the modern era, but within Steampunk culture, it is not entirely uncommon to refer to the Society itself and/or its better-known publications in an attempt to lend Victorian verisimilitude.

The in-house publishing organ of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is called the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information.

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.jstor.org/pss/30227545
  2. ^ Thoreau's Walking - 3
  3. ^ a b Secord, Victorian Sensation, pp 48-50
  4. ^ The Royal Lady's Magazine
  5. ^ Secord, Victorian Sensation, pp 55-62; quotation from p 55.
  6. ^  Clarke, Ernest (1900). "Youatt, William". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 63. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 

Other sources[edit]

  • Mead T. Cain, 'The Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: A Publishing History', Imago Mundi, Vol. 46, 1994 (1994), pp. 151–167.
  • Janet Percival, 'The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826-1848: A handlist of the Society's correspondence and papers', The Library of University College London, Occasional Papers, No 5 1978, ISSN 0309 3352
  • James A. Secord. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN 0-226-74410-8
  • University College London has virtually a complete set of publications and numerous letters from authors and readers and other records.

External links[edit]