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Society for the Diffusion Useful Knowledge

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Back to Main Article: Mary Somerville

Contents

Founding


Mary Somerville's first commissioned work, a rendition of Laplace's Mechanique Celeste for less advanced readers, was requested by Lord Brougham, a member of the House of Commons and eventually Lord Chancellor (1830-1834), who was also an advocate for compulsory education in Great Britain and a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in London. Lord Brougham believed that widespread education was not only a social good but a matter of national security. He wrote in one 1834 speech that

"It is highly useful to the community that the true principles of constitution, ecclesiastical and civil, should be well understood by every man who lives under it... The peace of the country, and the stability of the Government, could not be more effectually secured than by the universal diffusion of this kind of knowledge." [1]

He recognized that the two chief obstacles to greater education of the working class were want of money and want of time [2], but argued that there was "no class of the community so entirely occupied with labour as not to have an hour or two every other day at least... or so poor as not to have the means of contributing something towards purchasing this gratification." [3] Although such assumptions were probably insensitive to the conditions of many poor families, Lord Brougham certainly did not expect individuals to bear the burden of self-betterment alone. He reasoned that through more prolific and targeted publication, the formation of local groups dedicated to education, and philanthropy, the working class might be adequately enlightened. The organization that he helped found, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowlege (SDUK), worked for the accomplishment of all these provisions.

Publication


Lord Brougham noted that providing cheap editions of philosophical and scientific works was essential to promoting knowledge among the middle and lower classes, and that such publications were especially scarce in Great Britain "where, with all our expertness in manufactures, we have never succeeded in printing books at so little as double the price required by our neighbors on the continent."[4] He argued that not only academic but political works ought to be published in greater numbers and disseminated among all classes. But many of these classic works would be too long or too rigorous for most working-class readers even if they were affordable, so Lord Brougham wished editions of them to be prepared for such readers, works that would not go into tremendous detail on the findings of a given field but give the reader a broad appreciation of its history and the issues at hand. Here is where Mary Somerville's assignment fits in-- Lord Brougham felt "a most essential service will be rendered to the cause of knowledge by him who shall devote his [or her] time to the composition of elementary treatises on the Mathematics, sufficiently clear and yet sufficiently compendious."[5] Mary Somerville's finished Mechanism of the Heavens was by no means appropriate for the uneducated working-class reader (excepting, perhaps, the Introduction), yet it's popularity indicates its success in reaching an audience of readers that the original academic work did not.
Lord Brougham claimed that the weekly savings of almost any laborer would be nearly enough, at the very least, to purchase one of the many educational magazines which had come into print, such as the Mechanics' Magazine or The Chemist. [6] The SDUK's own contribution to this type of affordable publication was the Penny Cyclopædia (1833-1843), which was intended to "give such general views of all great branches of knowledge, as may help to the formation of just ideas on their extent and relative importance, and to point out the best sources of complete information." [7] Weekly publications of this nature in addition to cheap editions of important works were essential to Lord Brougham's and the SDUK's goals for public education.

Local Organizations


For those families that could not afford to accumulate a small library of important works on their own, Lord Brougham recommended a collaborative effort. Parish Libraries or Cottage Libraries, to which many households would make contributions within thier means to obtain use of the materials, sprang up in many parts of England and Scotland.[8] Other organizations, which took a more active role in educating the working class, also arose in the mid-1800s. Mechanics' Institutes, organizations intended to educate manual workers, had their own lending libraries and held public lectures on topics in science.[9] The Mechanical Institution in London was founded in 1817, and several such organizations appeared in the U.S., although most of them ended up being absorbed into research institutes, universities, and libraries. In Britain, however, the SDUK provided central organization for such groups, which gave many of them longer lives than their American counterparts, although they had disappeared altogether by the late 1800s.[10]

Philanthropy


While they existed, such groups were funded to a large extent by wealthy patrons who donated books and funded lectures.[11] These generous members of the upper class were "planting the light of science among the most useful and industrious class of the community" as Lord Brougham desired, in an effort to "elevate the views and refine the character of the great mass of mankind."[12]

Related Links


Link to an SDUK publication at Google Books

Link to Speeches of Lord Brougham at Google Books

References

  1. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.110
  2. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.104
  3. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.103
  4. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.105
  5. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.116
  6. "Publishing, History of." Encyclopedia Britannicahttp://search.eb.com/eb/article-28686 2010
  7. "Publishing, History of." Encyclopedia Britannicahttp://search.eb.com/eb/article-28686 2010
  8. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.112
  9. "Mechanics' Institutes." Encyclopedia Britannicahttp://search.eb.com/eb/article-28686 2010
  10. "Mechanics' Institutes." Encyclopedia Britannicahttp://search.eb.com/eb/article-28686 2010
  11. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.151
  12. Speeches of Henry Lord Brougham, Upon Questions Relating to Public Rights, Duties, and Interests.Vol. III Adam and Charles Black. Edinburgh. 1838. p.150m 117


Back to Main Article: Mary Somerville

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