The American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Founded in 1780

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was established in 1779 by a group of Harvard College graduates. It was incorporated on 4 May 1780 in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States. It was established with the purpose of cultivating "every art and science." The Act to incorporate and establish the Academy was granted by an Act of the Legislature of Massachusetts. It states [4]:-
As the Arts and Sciences are the foundation and support of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce; as they are necessary to the wealth, peace, independence, and happiness of a people; as they essentially promote the honor and dignity of the government which patronizes them, and as they are most effectually cultivated and diffused through a State by the forming and incorporating of men of genius and learning into public societies for these beneficial purposes. Be it therefore enacted by the Council and House of Representatives in General Court assembled and by the authority of the same that (sixty-two persons) be, and they hereby are formed into, constituted, and made a body politic and corporate, by the name of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and that they, and their successors, and such other persons as shall be elected in the manner hereafter mentioned, shall be and continue a body politic and corporate, by the same name forever. ... And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the end and design of the institution of the said Academy is to promote and encourage the knowledge of the antiquities and the natural history of America; to determine the uses to which the various natural productions of the country may be applied; to promote and encourage medical discoveries, mathematical disquisitions, philosophical enquiries and experiments, astronomical, meteorological and geographical observations, and improvements in agriculture, arts, manufactures and commerce; and, in fine, to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.
The first President of the Academy was James Bowdoin who was governor of Massachusetts (1785-87) but also did scientific work in physics (writing a paper with Benjamin Franklin) and astronomy. The Academy was founded largely to rival the American Philosophical Society which had been established earlier in Philadelphia in 1743. However, it was the Boston Academy which eventually achieved national status.

The first five Presidents of the Academy were
1780-1790 James Bowdoin
1791-1814 John Adams
1814-1820 Edward Augustus Holyoke
1820-1829 John Quincy Adams
1829-1838 Nathaniel Bowditch

During his Presidency, John Adams was the Vice-President and then the second President of the United States. Edward Augustus Holyoke was a medical doctor. John Quincy Adams was first the United States Secretary of State and then the sixth President of the United States during his presidency of the Academy. Nathaniel Bowditch was a mathematician with a biography in this archive.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences published its Memoirs beginning with Volume 1 dated 1783. We note that, although dated 1783, the volume did not appear until 1785. The original series had four volumes published between 1785 and 1821; a second series contained nineteen volumes published between 1833 and 1946; no volumes appeared between 1947 and 1956, then in 1957 one further volume, called Series 3, Volume 24 was published.

The Preface to Volume 1 begins as follows [1]:-
Mankind have ever found a state of society subservient to their comfort and happiness. Subjected to many wants, they have been able, by an union one with another, to obtain that supply, which would have bee impractical if each individual had stood alone; and invariable experience had taught, that the social bond is the greatest security against the numberless dangers and difficulties, to which they are exposed. Hence the many political or civil institutions, that have been formed in the world, which have been greater or less blessing to the persons, who have belonged to them, in proportion as those institutions have been framed with more or less wisdom, and the members of them have been more or less virtuous and prudent. Societies for promoting useful knowledge may be highly advantageous to communities, in which they are initiated. Men united together, and frequently meeting for the purpose of advancing the sciences, the arts, agriculture, manufactures and commerce, may oftentimes suggest such hints to one another, as may be improved to important ends: and such societies, by being the repositories of the observations and discoveries of the learned and ingenious, may, from time to time, furnish the world with useful publications, which might otherwise be lost ...
This first volume of the Memoirs also contains: Statutes of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; A List of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1785, Presents Made to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences with the Names of the Donors; and James Bowdoin's Presidential Address "A Philosophical Discourse, Publickly Addressed to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in Boston, on the Eighth of November, 1780; when the President was Inducted into Office."

We list the contents of this first volume relating to mathematics and astronomy at THIS LINK.

The Proceeding of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences began publication in 1848 with the first volume recording the proceedings of the Academy from May 1846 to May 1848. At the meeting on 12 August 1846 Benjamin Peirce gave a lengthy report on the astronomical observations which had been made by the Cambridge Observatory and communicated to him by William Cranch Bond, the Director. These observations included some made by Benjamin Peirce himself. In fact the volume contains astronomical information communicated by Benjamin Peirce to almost every meeting of the Academy. At the 12 August meeting there was an interesting report on "Henry Safford, the young Vermont mathematician." Safford (1836-1901) was a calculating prodigy who was ten years old at the time. He had been examined by Benjamin Peirce who reported [2]:-
... that the mere calculating faculty is not by any means as remarkable in him as it was in Zerah Colburn, but that it is rather incidental, as a part of extraordinary reflective powers.
In fact Safford went on to study astronomy and served as director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College.

The present American Academy of Arts and Sciences is divided into five Classes, the first of which is 'Mathematical and Physical Sciences'. This Class consists of six Sections:
Section 1. Applied Mathematics and Statistics;
Section 2. Physics;
Section 3. Chemistry;
Section 4. Astronomy (including Astrophysics) and Earth Science;
Section 5. Engineering Sciences and Technologies;
Section 6. Computer Sciences (including Artificial Intelligence and Information Technologies).

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Volume 1 (Adams and Nourse, Boston, 1783).
  2. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Volume 1 (Metcalf and Co, Boston and Cambridge, 1848).
  3. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, website.
  4. Charter of Incorporation of the American Academy of Arts and Science.
  5. G E Kershaw, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in The Bloomsbury encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment (Bloomsbury, London, 2014).
  6. J Voss and N E Gratton, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in J W Guthrie (ed.), Encyclopedia of Education (Macmillan, New York, 2003), 86-87.

Last Updated September 2018