And for one I confess that if I could find in any Italian Travels a Receipt for making Parmesan Cheese, it would give me more Satisfaction than a Transcript of any Inscription from any old Stone whatever.
– Benjamin Franklin, 1769
“Only in America.”
The words seem to trip off the tongue, emerging almost unbidden, whenever the conversation turns to the American penchant for practical know-how. Orville and Wilbur Wright; Thomas Edison; Henry Ford; or, more recently, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
“Only in America could a pair of bicycle mechanics create the modern aviation industry.” Or, “Only in America could a pair of college drop-outs fashion a billion-dollar tech empire from spare parts no one else wanted.”
What often goes unasked or only superficially investigated, lurking in the background, is the intriguing question, Why?
Traditional assessments tend to view America’s technological triumphs as the natural outgrowth of its political system and dedication to free enterprise. Our heroes are the lone inventors, the industrial systematizers, and the ingenious marketers whose technological prowess has been confirmed by great commercial success and accompanying celebrity.
This is, however, to look at the problem backwards, to write a history of the present. In fact, a powerful social movement for useful knowledge, dating back at least to the late 1720s, preceded and then made possible the American Revolution and the subsequent rise of the new nation’s characteristic political and economic systems.
This movement, which produced such figures as John Bartram, David Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush, and of course Benjamin Franklin, firmly embedded the values of the mechanic, the artisan, the engineer, and the inventor in American society. In their hands, earlier European notions of practical learning and the idea of science took on a revolutionary cast, one that anticipated the coming political resistance against the British.
The Society for Useful Knowledge tells their story.