Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 60.djvu/443

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FRANKLIN'S PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY.

model of 'a hand threshing machine,' invented by a Virginian, and his communication in regard to a new plowshare.

Natural history had many enthusiastic students. America was a great boneyard which before the fertilizer companies despatched their agents everywhere afforded much that was of curious concern to naturalists. Skeletons of strange animals, tusks, antlers and 'grinders' came pouring into the Society's museum. Jefferson described certain bones of a quadruped of the clawed kind' found in western Virginia. Another member put into print an Indian legend about 'the big naked bear.' Without offering any of its bones in evidence, he tells us that the bear, naked all over except for a spot of white hair upon its back, was the most ferocious of American animals. It devoured man and beast and was so large that an Indian or a common bear served it for but a single meal. Its heart was so small that the arrow could seldom find it. It could be slain only by a blow deftly dealt upon its backbone, and many who went forth to hunt this terror of the forest primeval never came back again.

Other philosophers interested themselves in living objects and we have luminous accounts of 'amphibious serpents,' 'one partridge with two hearts,' 'the numb-fish or torporific eel' and 'a living snake in a living horse's eye.' This horse had been placed on exhibition in Philadelphia by a free negro, who undertook to profit by the popular curiosity for disagreeable sights.

The Society early engaged itself in a scientific work which brought it wide recognition, and quite deservedly so. Already in 1768 Professor Ewing made a report to the philosophers in regard to an impending transit of Venus which it had been calculated would occur in the summer of the following year. Before that time the phenomenon had been observed only twice and then rather partially, the first time in 1639 and again in 1761. A reflecting telescope was imported from England through Franklin's kindly intercession. The day when it arrived proved to be perfectly clear, and the observations were so well made and were recorded in so scientific a manner that the Society at once gained a high reputation among men whose good opinion it was worth while to possess. An eminent authority in Europe at that time wrote of this achievement:

The first approximately accurate results in the measurement of the spheres were given to the world not by the schooled and salaried astronomers who watched from the magnificent royal observatories of Europe, but by unpaid amateurs and devotees to science in the youthful province of Pennsylvania.

Almost simultaneously with this manifestation of the seriousness of its mind came a proposal from the Society to undertake the surveys for a canal which should be cut to join the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. To make possible this laudable work the philosophers asked the