Useful and Entertaining Hints


Philip Foner's Introduction: This interesting article appeared in the Pennsylvania Magazine for February, 1775. Through Franklin's introduction Paine had a chance to enter immediately into the intellectual circles of Philadelphia. He could also study the technical improvements of Pennsylvania, one of the most advanced colonies. In this article he reveals these influences.

"The real value of a thing, Is as much money as 'twill bring."

IN the possession of the Philadelphia Library Company is a cabinet of fossils1, with several specimens of earth, clay, sand, etc., with some account of each, and where brought from. I have always considered these kinds of researches as productive of many advantages, and in a new country they are particularly so. As subjects for speculation, they afford entertainment to the curious; but as objects of utility they merit a closer attention. The same materials which delight the fossilist, enrich the manufacturer and the merchant. While the one is scientifically examining their structure and composition, the others, by industry and commerce, are transmuting them to gold. Possessed of the power of pleasing, they gratify on both sides; the one contemplates their natural beauties in the cabinet, the others, their re-created ones in the coffer.

'Tis by the researches of the virtuoso that the hidden parts of the earth are brought to light, and from his discoveries of its qualities, the potter, the glassmaker, and numerous other artists, are enabled to furnish us with their productions. Artists considered merely as such, would have made but a slender progress, had they not been led on by the enterprising spirit of the curious. I am unwilling to dismiss this remark without entering my protest against that unkind, ungrateful, and impolitic custom of ridiculing unsuccessful experiments. And of informing those unwise or over wise pasquinaders, that half the felicities they enjoy sprung originally from generous curiosity.

Were a man to propose or set out to bore his lands as a carpenter does a board, he might probably bring on himself a shower of witticisms; and though he could not be jested at for building castles in the air, yet many magnanimous laughs might break forth at his expense and vociferously predict the explosion of a mine in his subterraneous pursuits. I am led to this reflection by the present domestic state of America, because it will unavoidably happen, that before we can arrive at that perfection of things which other nations have acquired, many hopes will fail, many whimsical attempts will become fortunate, and many reasonable ones end in air and expense. The degree of improvement which America has already arrived at is unparalleled and astonishing, but 'tis miniature to what she will one day boast of, if heaven continue her happiness. We have nearly one whole region yet unexplored: I mean the internal region of the earth. By industry and tillage we have acquired a considerable knowledge of what America will produce, but very little of what it contains. The bowels of the earth have been only slightly inquired into: We seem to content ourselves with such parts of it as are absolutely necessary, and cannot well be imported; as brick, stone, etc., but have gone very little further, except in the article of iron. The glass and the pottery manufactures are yet very imperfect, and will continue so, till some curious researcher finds out the proper material.

Copper, lead, and tin articles, valuable both in their simple state, and as being the component parts of other metals (viz. brass and pewter) are at present but little known throughout the continent in their mineral form: yet I doubt not, but very valuable mines of them, are daily travelled over in the western parts of America. Perhaps a few feet of surface conceal a treasure sufficient to enrich a kingdom.

The value of the interior part of the earth (like ourselves) cannot be judged certainly by the surface, neither do the corresponding strata lie with the unvariable order of the colors of the rainbow, and if they ever did (which I do not believe) age and misfortune have now broken in upon their union; earthquakes, deluges and volcanoes have so disunited and re-united them, that in their present state they appear like a world in ruins. Yet the ruins are beautiful. The caverns, museums of antiquities.

Though nature is gay, polite, and generous abroad, she is sullen, rude and niggardly at home. Return the visit, and she admits you with all the suspicion of a miser, and all the reluctance of an antiquated beauty retired to replenish her charms. Bred up in antediluvian notions, she has not yet acquired the European taste of receiving visitants in her dressing-room: she locks and bolts up her private recesses with extraordinary care, as if not only resolved to preserve her hoards, but to conceal her age, and hide the remains of a face that was young and lovely in the days of Adam. He that would view nature in her undress, and partake of her internal treasures, must proceed with the resolution of a robber, if not a ravisher. She gives no invitation to follow her to the cavern. The external earth makes no proclamation of the interior stores, but leaves to chance and industry, the discovery of the whole. In such gifts as nature can annually re-create, she is noble and profuse, and entertains the whole world with the interest of her fortunes; but watches over the capital with the care of a miser. Her gold and jewels lie concealed in the earth, in caves of utter darkness; and hoards of wealth, heaps upon heaps, mould in the chests, like the riches of a necromancer's cell. It must be very pleasant to an adventurous speculist to make excursions into these Gothic regions; and in his travels he may possibly come to a cabinet locked up in some rocky vault, whose treasures shall reward his toil, and enable him to shine on his return, as splendidly as nature herself.

By a small degree of attention to the order and origin of things, we shall perceive, that though the surface of the earth produce us the necessaries of life, yet 'tis from the mine we extract the conveniences thereof. Our houses would diminish to wigwams, furnished in the Indian style, and ourselves resemble the building, were it not for the ores of the earth. Agriculture and manufactures would wither away for want of tools and implements, and commerce stand still for want of materials. The beasts of the field would elude our power, and the birds of the air get beyond our reach. Our dominion would shrink to a narrow circle, and the mind itself, partaking of the change, would contract its prospects, and lessen into almost animal instinct. Take away but the single article of iron, and half the felicities of life fall with it. Little as we may prize this common ore, the loss of it would cut deeper than the use of it. And by the way of laughing off misfortunes 'tis easy to prove, by this method of investigation, that an iron age is better than a golden one.

Since so great a portion of our enjoyments is drawn from the mine, it is certainly an evidence of our prudence to enquire and know what our possessions are. Every man's landed property extends to the [center] of the earth. Why then should he sit down contented with a part, and practise upon his estate those fashionable follies in life, which prefer the superfice to the solid? Curiosity alone, should the thought occur conveniently, would move an active mind to examine (though not to the bottom) at least to a considerable depth.

The propriety and reasonableness of these internal enquiries are continually pointed out to us by numberless occurrences. Accident is almost every day turning out some new secret from the earth. How often has the plow-share or the spade broken open a treasure, which for ages, gold or silver, yet they may contain some strata of valuable earth, proper for manufactures; and if they have not those, there is a great probability of their having chalk, marl, or some rich soil proper for manure, which only requires to be removed to the surface.

I have been informed of some land in England being raised to four times its former value by the discovery of a chalk or marl pit, in digging a hole to fix a post in; and in embanking a meadow in the Jerseys, the laborers threw out with the soil, a fine blue powdery earth, resembling indigo, which, when mixed with oil, was used for paint. I imagine the vein is now exhausted.

Many valuable ores, clays, etc. appear in such rude forms in their natural state, as not even to excite curiosity, much less attention. A true knowledge of their different value can only be obtained by experiment: As soil proper for manure, they may be judged of by the planter; but as matter, they come under the enquiry of the philosopher. This leads me to reflect with inexpressible pleasure, on the numberless benefits arising to a community, by the institution of societies for promoting useful knowledge.

The American Philosophical Society, like the Royal Society in England, by having public spirit for its support, and public good for its object, is a treasure we ought to glory in. Here the defective knowledge of the individual is supplied by the common stock. Societies without endangering private fortunes, are enabled to proceed in their enquiries by analysis and experiment: But individuals are seldom furnished with conveniences for so doing, and generally rest their opinion on reasonable conjecture.

I presume that were samples of different soils from different parts of America, presented to the society for their inspection and examination, it would greatly facilitate our knowledge of the internal earth, and give a new spring both to agriculture and manufactures.

These hints are not intended to lament any loss of time, or remissness in the pursuit of useful knowledge, but to furnish matter for future studies; that while we glory in what we are, we may not neglect what we are to be.

Of the present state we may justly say, that no nation under heaven ever struck out in so short a time, and with so much spirit and reputation, into the labyrinth of art and science; and that, not in the acquisition knowledge only, but in the happy advantages flowing from it. The world does not at this day exhibit a parallel, neither can history produce its equal.


PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 10, 1775

  1. In the catalogue it is called a collection of American fossils, etc., but a considerable part of them are foreign ones. I presume that the collector, in order to judge the better of such as he might discover here, made first a collection of such foreign ones whose values were known, in order to compare by: as his design seems rather bent towards discovering the treasures of America than merely to make, a collection.-Author.