Vaughan, John (1756-1841)
Autograph Document Signed, as Treasurer of the American Philosophical Society, “Memorandum for the Comm. on the Magellanic Premium, Philadelphia, November 19, 1824

folio, one page, with incomplete, but related manuscript in another hand on verso, formerly folded, some creases at corners, light dust soiling and toning to text, else in very good, legible condition.

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John (1756-1841), wine merchant, philanthropist, and long-time treasurer and librarian of the American Philosophical Society.

John Vaughan’s memorandum records how the Magellanic Premium originated in 1785, the Portugese donor Jean Hyacinthe de Magellan, intended the award to be given to “the author of the best discovery or most useful improvement relating to navigation or Natural Philosophy, mere natural history only excepted”. The Society, then headed by Benjamin Franklin, formed a committee to make the terms “more precise”, notably adding “astronomy” to “navigation”. The recipients of the prize were to be chosen by ballot of Society members. The incomplete manuscript on verso, was obviously written by a lawyer (which Vaughan was not), was the opening of a detailed legalistic interpretation of Magellan’s terms and the Society’s modifications.

               That those terms were somewhat nebulous is evidenced by the early recipients, the first, being Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey politician who signed the Declaration of Independence, and designed the first official American flag. The year before Vaughan wrote this memorandum, the prize went to James Ewing, another politician, a Pennsylvanian who had been a general in the Revolutionary War. The following year, the winner was a “Naval Constructor” whose accomplishment was a means of stopping a leak in the bottom of the newly built warship USS Delaware. After that there were large gaps in the years between awards, up to the 1950s, when the prize was given more regularly.

                A for Vaughan, who diligently served the Philosophical Society as its Treasurer for over 50 years, until his death in 1841, a glowing posthumous biography of him was hurriedly shelved when it was discovered that “he had mingled the Society’s funds with his own” – perhaps not outright embezzlement, but certainly a degree of financial incompetence.

American National Biography, vol. 22, pp., 294-296