Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

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The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), was founded in 1826, mainly at the instigation of Lord Brougham,[1] with the object of publishing information to people who were unable to obtain formal teaching, or who preferred self-education. 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 wound up in 1848.

An American group of the same name was founded as part of the Lyceum movement in the United States in 1829. Its Boston branch sponsored lectures by such speakers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was active from 1829 to 1947.[2] Henry David Thoreau cites the Society in his essay "Walking," in which he jestingly proposes a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.[3]


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.


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.[4] 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.[5]


Library of Useful Knowledge[edit]

One significant set of publications by the SDUK was the Library of Useful Knowledge;[6] 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.[4]

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 A. 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.[7]

Other SDUK publications[edit]

Map of Naples published by SDUK

In popular culture[edit]

  • Thomas Love Peacock satirised the SPUK in 1831 in Crotchet Castle as the 'Steam Intellect Society':[9] a vicarage is almost set on fire by a "cook taking it into her head to study hydrostatics, in a sixpenny tract, published by the Steam Intellect Society".[10]
  • In the Notes to Anthony Trollope's book, Framley Parsonage, published by Oxford University Press as a World's Classic in 1980, P. D. Edwards writes that Trollope's character, Lord Boanerges, "may have been modelled in some respects on Lord Brougham.... founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge".
  • 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; while many communities in North America have established Societies for Learning in Retirement which are partially modelled along the same lines with the goal of disseminating knowledge amongst people who, although retired, are still interested in continuing to learn.



  1. ^ B. Hilton, A Mad, Bad, & Dangerous People? (Oxford 2008) p. 174
  2. ^ Helen R. Deese and Guy R. Woodall (1986). "A Calendar of Lectures Presented by the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1829–1847)". Studies in the American Renaissance: 17–67. JSTOR 30227545.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. ^ Thoreau's Walking – 3 Archived 4 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b Secord, Victorian Sensation, pp 48–50
  5. ^ The Royal Lady's Magazine
  6. ^ Library of Useful Knowledge (Baldwin & Craddock; then Charles Knight) - Book Series List, Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  7. ^ Secord, Victorian Sensation, pp 55–62; quotation from p 55.
  8. ^ Clarke, Ernest (1900). "Youatt, William" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 63. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  9. ^ B. Wilson, Decency and Disorder (London 2007) p. 377
  10. ^ T S Peacock, Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle (London 1947) P. 106


  • 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]