An American group of the same name was founded as part of the Lyceum movement in the United States around the same period. Its Boston branch sponsored lectures by such speakers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was active from 1829 to 1947. Henry David Thoreau cites the Society in his essay "Walking," in which he jestingly proposes a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.
SDUK publications were intended for the working class and the middle class, as an antidote to the more radical output of the pauper presses. The society set out to achieve this by acting as an intermediary between authors and publishers by launching several series of publications. It was run by a committee of eminent persons, and had a close association with the newly formed University College London, as well as the numerous provincial Mechanics' Institutes. Its printers included Baldwin & Cradock, later succeeded by Charles Knight. The Society commissioned work and dealt with the printers, and finally distributed the publications; profits were used to continue the Society's work.
While conceived with high ideals the project gradually failed, as subscribers fell away and sale of publications declined. Charles Knight was largely responsible for what success SDUK publications did have; he engaged in extensive promotional campaigns, and worked to improve the readability of the sometimes abstruse material. Nonetheless many of the titles had little interest to readers, though the Penny Magazine at its peak had a circulation of around 200,000 copies a week. The Society eventually wound up in 1848, though some of its works apparently continued to be published. The archives of the Society are in the possession of the University College London.
The Society was not without opposition, and the Literary Gazette mounted a campaign on behalf of the book trade, supported by publications such as the Royal Lady's Magazine, who complained in the early 1830s that:
Few persons are aware that the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge have done, and are still doing, more to ruin the Book trade than all the change of times, the want of money, the weight of taxes, and even the law of Libel have accomplished; yet they – a committee of Noblemen and pretended Patriots – are permitted to go on in their unfeeling, nay, considering the hundreds of thousands engaged in the Book trade, we may add brutal, career, without interruption.