A few hundred feet from the Philadelphia birthplace of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, an anonymous brick building houses the nation's first learned society and think tank. Little known outside of academic circles, the American Philosophical Society (APS) came to be in the mid-18th century with the daunting charge of "promoting useful knowledge." A treasure trove of rare books and manuscripts, the organizer of sophisticated cross-disciplinary meetings, the supplier of various research grants, and publisher of scholarly papers, the 258-year-old society is still working to fulfill its mission and find its niche amid numerous modern-day think tanks and funding institutions.

For the first time in 190 years, the American Philosophical Society will launch an ongoing public exhibition at its recently renovated Philadelphia building. "From the Laboratory to the Parlor: Scientific Instruments of Philadelphia, 1750-1875" will open Oct. 10 and run through March 2003. The exhibit focuses on the...

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