Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

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The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) was founded in London in 1826, mainly at the instigation of Whig MP Henry Brougham, with the object of publishing information to people who were unable to obtain formal teaching or who preferred self-education. It was a largely Whig organisation, and published inexpensive texts intended to adapt scientific and similarly high-minded material for the rapidly-expanding reading public over twenty years until it was disbanded in 1846.[1]

Origins[edit]

Lecture-Hall of the Greenwich Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge at its opening on 15 February 1843

Henry Brougham considered that mass education was an essential prerequisite for political reform. In October 1824 he contributed an article on "scientific education of the people" to the Whig Edinburgh Review, in which he argued that popular education would be greatly enhanced by the encouragement of cheap publications to complement the numerous recently founded provincial mechanics' institutes. The following year a version of this article was issued as a pamphlet entitled Practical Observations upon the Education of the People Addressed to the Working Classes and Their Employers, [2] selling at least 19 editions. In April 1825 Brougham set about trying to found a society to produce cheap educational books, although it was not until November 1826 that the SDUK was formally founded.[3] One of those present at the first meeting was the philosopher James Mill, and the founding committee included many Fellows of the Royal Society and Members of Parliament, as well as twelve founding committee members of the newly formed University College London.[4]

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. Its printers included Baldwin & Cradock, later succeeded by Charles Knight. The SDUK commissioned work and dealt with the printers, and finally distributed the publications; profits were used to continue the Society's work. By using the new technologies of mass production, such as steam presses and stereotype, the Society and its printers kept costs low and were able to sell the books at much cheaper prices than was usual.[5]

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.[6]

Activities[edit]

Image of Henry Brougham's head hinging open to reveal SDUK publications.
"A Box of Useful Knowledge" (1832), artist unknown. The image portrays Brougham as Lord Chancellor, with SDUK and other publications inside.

The SDUK publishing programme began with the Library of Useful Knowledge.[7] Sold for sixpence and published fortnightly, its books focused on scientific topics. Like many other works in the new genre of popular science—such as the Bridgewater Treatises and Humphry Davy's Consolations in Travel—the books of the Library of Useful Knowledge imbued different 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.[8]

The first volume of the Library of Useful Knowledge, an introduction to the series by Brougham on the "objects, advantages and pleasures of science", sold over 33,000 copies by the end of 1829. Despite the initial success of the series, however, it soon became clear that it was too demanding for many readers, and the Society began to offer more varied and attractive publications, starting with the Library of Entertaining Knowledge (1829–38) and the Penny Magazine (1832–45), a lavishly illustrated[9] weekly that achieved unprecedented success, with sales in excess of 200,000 copies in the first year.[10] The scope and scale of the Society's activities expanded further over the following decade, and included the production of a Penny Cyclopaedia (1833–43) in 27 volumes.

Although sales of these publications may have been more among the middle- than the working-classes,[11] the Society had a significant role in pioneering "the idea of cheap, improving publications, freely and easily available, well produced and distributed on a scale hitherto unknown," and became iconic of the "March of Intellect".[12] The publisher Charles Knight bears much of the credit for the success that SDUK publications had; he engaged in extensive promotional campaigns, and worked to improve the readability of the sometimes abstruse material.[13]

The Society's continuing commitment to the high intellectual standards with which it was conceived probably contributed to its ultimate decline, as subscribers and sale of publications fell away. The Biographical Dictionary begun in 1842 was immensely ambitious and contributed to the Society's demise.[14]

Main publication series[15][edit]

Map of Naples published by SDUK
Map of Africa published by SDUK
  • Library of Useful Knowledge (1827–46)
  • British Almanac (1828–1914; and associated Companion)
  • Library of Entertaining Knowledge (1829–38)
  • Working Man's Companion (1831–32)
  • Quarterly Journal of Education (1831–35)
  • Penny Magazine (1832–45)
  • Gallery of Portraits (1832–34)
  • Penny Cyclopaedia (1833–43)
  • Library for the Young (1834–40)
  • Farmers Series, which included works by William Youatt on the dog, the horse, cattle, and sheep (1834–37)[16]
  • Biographical Dictionary (1842–44)
  • Maps, primarily in a two-volume set, and prepared to a very high standard (many drawn by W.B. Clarke, architect). The Society was a pioneer in utilising "volunteered geographic information".[17]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Thomas Love Peacock satirised the SDUK in 1831 in Crotchet Castle as the 'Steam Intellect Society':[18] 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".[19]
  • 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.
  • The Blackwood Gallery, a contemporary art gallery at the University of Toronto Mississauga, has published a series of free print and PDF broadsheets since 2018, which adopt the SDUK moniker. These publications reflect on contemporary issues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences by questioning the nature of “useful knowledge,” in dialogue with the history of the SDUK.[20]

Related societies[edit]

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.[21] In 1838 and 1839, an American Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published a fifty-volume set of books called The American School Library.[22] Henry David Thoreau cites the Society in his essay "Walking" in which he jestingly proposes a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.[23]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Smith, Harold (1974). The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826–1846: A Social and Bibliographical Evaluation. Halifax, N.S.: Dalhousie University Press.
  2. ^ Practical Observations upon the Education of the People Addressed to the Working Classes and Their Employers
  3. ^ Topham, Jonathan R. (2007). ‘Publishing 'Popular Science' in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain’ in Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, ed. by Fyfe, Aileen, and Lightman, Bernard. Chicago: Chicago University Press. pp. 160-61.
  4. ^ Smith, Harold (1974). The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826–1846: A Social and Bibliographical Evaluation. Halifax, N.S.: Dalhousie University Press. pp. 46–47.
  5. ^ James A. Secord (2000). Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 14-19.
  6. ^ The Royal Lady's Magazine
  7. ^ Library of Useful Knowledge (Baldwin & Craddock; then Charles Knight) - Book Series List, publishinghistory.com. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  8. ^ James A. Secord (2000). Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp 55–62; quotation from p 55.
  9. ^ Anderson, Patricia (1991).The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 17901860. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  10. ^ Bennett, Scott (1982). 'Revolutions in Thought: Serial Publication and the Mass Market for Reading.' In The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings, ed. Shattock, Joanne, and Wolff, Michael. Leicester: Leicester University Press. pp. 225-57.
  11. ^ Webb, R. K. (1955). The British Working-Class Reader, 1790-1848: Literary and Social Tension. London: Allen and Unwin. p. 72.
  12. ^ Smith, Harold (1974). The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826–1846: A Social and Bibliographical Evaluation. Halifax, N.S.: Dalhousie University Press. p. 37.
  13. ^ James A. Secord (2000). Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp 48–50
  14. ^ Smith, Harold (1974). The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826–1846: A Social and Bibliographical Evaluation. Halifax, N.S.: Dalhousie University Press. pp.13–14, 33.
  15. ^ Smith, Harold (1974). The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826–1846: A Social and Bibliographical Evaluation. Halifax, N.S.: Dalhousie University Press. pp. 29–36.
  16. ^ Clarke, Ernest (1900). "Youatt, William" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 63. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  17. ^ Tim St. Onge, Maps for the Masses: Geography in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Library of Congress blog, 13 July 2016.
  18. ^ B. Wilson, Decency and Disorder (London 2007) p. 377
  19. ^ T S Peacock, Nightmare Abbey and Crotchet Castle (London 1947) P. 106
  20. ^ "Publications". Blackwood Gallery. Retrieved 27 April 2020.
  21. ^ 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.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  22. ^ Barnard, Henry (1865). "The American Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge". The American Journal of Education. 15: 239–245. Retrieved 20 June 2020.
  23. ^ Thoreau's Walking – 3 Archived 4 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine

Sources[edit]

  • Patricia Anderson, The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 17901860. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
  • Ian J. Barrow, 'India for the Working Classes: The Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,' Modern Asian Studies 38 (2004): 677–702.
  • Scott Bennett, 'Revolutions in Thought: Serial Publication and the Mass Market for Reading.' In The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings, ed. Shattock, Joanne, and Wolff, Michael. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1982. pp. 225-57.
  • Mead T. Cain, 'The Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: A Publishing History', Imago Mundi, Vol. 46 (1994), pp. 151–167.
  • Valerie Gray, Charles Knight: Educator, Publisher, Writer. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Monica C Grobel, 'The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge 1826-1846' (Unpublished MA diss., 4 vols, London University, 1933).
  • Thomas Palmelund Johansen. 'The World Wide Web of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: On the Global Circulation of Broughamite Educational Literature, 1826–1848,' Victorian Periodicals Review 50 (2017): 703–20.
  • Richard Johnson, '"Really Useful Knowledge:" Radical Education and Working-Class Culture 1790–1848.' In Working-Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory, ed. by John Clarke, Chas Crichter, and Richard Johnson (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 75–102.
  • 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. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN 0-226-74410-8
  • James A. Secord. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-967526-5
  • Harold Smith. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 18261846: A Social and Bibliographical Evaluation. Halifax, N.S.: Dalhousie University Press, 1974.
  • Jonathan R. Topham, ‘Science and Popular Education in the 1830s: The Role of the Bridgewater Treatises’, British Journal for the History of Science, 25 (1992), 397-430. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007087400029587
  • Jonathan R. Topham. ‘Publishing "Popular Science" in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain.’ In Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, ed. by Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007. pp. 135-168.
  • University College London houses the archives of the Society and a virtually a complete set of publications.
  • Webb, R. K. The British Working-Class Reader, 1790-1848: Literary and Social Tension. London: Allen and Unwin, 1955.

External links[edit]