Changes in Specific Sciences, 1850-1877

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Changes in Specific Sciences, 1850-1877


The Specialization of the Sciences. By the 1850s two of every three American scientists were limiting themselves to specific fields, and many were focusing on subfields. In the six major areaschemistry, mathematics, physics, life sciences, earth sciences, and astronomyAmerican scientists made notable advances, and some of them acquired worldwide reputations. Yet American science, for the most part, remained less sophisticated than European science. Unlike Europeans, American scientists tended to focus on experimentation, measurement, and description rather than theory, although important exceptions existed.

Chemistry. In the mid-nineteenth century European chemists made revolutionary discoveries, establishing the atomic theory and the periodic table of the elements and making important advances in organic chemistry. American chemists, far behind the Europeans in theory, applied the new ideas to develop new or better industrial products, such as dyes, explosives, and petroleum derivatives. The economic benefits of an alliance with industry attracted some scientists to chemistry, despite the sometimes sensational and dangerous nature of chemical experimentation: some chemists were sickened or temporarily blinded by exposure to new compounds, while others died. In 1857 the chemist Frederick Genth noted that the gas NO [nitrous oxide] has made me sick and I fear it more than anything else. Explosions also threatened the safety of chemists and observers, as Harvard professor John W. Webster discovered when a fragment of copper embedded itself in the chair of an absent student. Although American manufacturers increasingly supplied chemists with equipment during this period, many scientists ordered their apparatus from Europeespecially from Germany. By the late 1860s American chemistry had become specialized under the categories organic, inorganic, analytical, and physical. Still, like most other sciences, chemistry remained oriented more to practice and experimentation than to theory and pure research.

Mathematics. Mathematics had been taught in American colleges longer than most other scientific disciplines, and by 1850 the majority of schools employed instructors who specialized in the field. Around this time

mathematics began to be taught as a tool for understanding science rather than as a purely intellectual exercise. Despite this shift, most students continued to avoid mathematics courses whenever they could. The prominent mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Peirce taught mathematics classes at Harvard with drama and flair, yet so few students enrolled in math courses that the subject was made mandatory for freshmen and sophomores in 1850. One student in the 1860s spoke of the deep-seated aversion that students held for the subject; a Columbia College trustee lamented in 1857 the inability of juniors to understand mathematics, noting that any problem dealing with time, space, quantity or proportion would be considered by them equally mysterious, incomprehensible, and disgusting. Mathematics requirements for college admission remained low throughout the period, with most colleges requiring a background only in arithmetic, beginning algebra, and, less frequently, geometry. Mathematics remained far less developed in the United States than in Europe between 1850 and 1877, although some notable advances were made in the 1870s. In 1870 Peirce published Linear Associative

Algebra, an important introduction to modern abstract algebra, and George W. Hill made key contributions in celestial mechanics. Nevertheless, mathematics did not begin to acquire a professional reputation in America until the late nineteenth century. Its slow development hindered progress in other sciences, especially physics.


Born in 1834, John Wesley Powell dedicated his life to the study of natural science. Although he attended various schools, he gained most of his knowledge of geography, geology, and ethnology through individual exertion. In the 1850s he traversed Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, collecting shells, minerals, and plants. His colleagues so admired his work that in 1859 they chose him as secretary of the Illinois Natural History Society. After the Civil War, in which he lost an arm at Shiloh, Powell received an appointment as professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan College, Bloomington. In 1867 and 1868 he led students on geological expeditions through the Rocky Mountains. They ascended Pikes Peak (which had no trails) and Mount Lincoln, both of which are more than than fourteen thousand feet in height.

In May 1869 Powell began, under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution, his most ambitious project to that time: a geographical and geological survey of the Colorado River and the Great Unknown," the Grand Canyon. It took thirteen weeks for the four boats and eleven men to complete the journey. During their nine-hundred-mile odyssey they encountered rapids, whirlpools, hostile Indians, and exhaustion. Powell described his hazardous feat in Explorations of the Colorado River of the West (1875). In 1879 he helped establish the U.S. Geological Survey, serving as its director from 1881 to 1894.

Powell was also a pioneer in the study of Native American languages, becoming director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian in 1879. He helped create an alphabet to transcribe Indian languages and organized the anthropologists who eventually produced the monumental Handbook of American Indians (1907-1910). Powell died in 1902.

Source: Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Weslev Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1954).

Physics. By the 1850s the teaching of physics had become fairly specialized. Professors lectured on electricity, meteorology, and magnetism, and publishers printed textbooks on optics and mechanics. Yet the number of physicists, as compared to other scientists, remained small through much of the mid nineteenth century, largely because American mathematics had not yet reached maturity. Like their counterparts in chemistry, the few American physicists who did exist tended to focus more on inventions than on theory, although Joseph Henry stood out as an important exception to the rule. Thus, physics remained largely undeveloped during the 1850s and 1860s. As in mathematics, however, changes began to appear in the 1870s. The number of physicists increased during the decade, and some important leaders emerged in the discipline. Among these was Josiah Willard Gibbs, whose On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, published in two installments in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1876 and 1878, ranks as one of the most significant works in theoretical physics of the nineteenth century.

Life Sciences. Nineteenth-century life scientists included naturalists, zoologists, botanists, entomologists, paleontologists, conchologists, and ornithologists. Although the largest percentage of life scientists were naturalists, paleontology experienced a wave of popularity in the late 1840s and the 1850s after the Missouri paleon tologist Hiram Prout reported discovering a titanothere jaw fragment in the South Dakota Badlands. Joseph Leidys Ancient Fauna of Nebraska, published in 1853, also attracted national and international attention to American paleontology. Fossil findings became increasingly important in the 1860s and 1870s as the debate over Darwins theory of evolution raged in the scientific community. Botanists also made significant contributions to the life sciences. Asa Gray published Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States in 1848, and in the following years he catalogued plant species throughout the northern hemisphere. Life scientists were aided by new equipment such as the achromatic microscope, which eliminated the false coloring of specimens. The leading manufacturer of the microscope, Charles A. Spencer of New York, was unsurpassed in craftmanship anywhere in the world for much of the nineteenth century. Spencers microscopes played an important part in the expansion of laboratory research, which, in turn, helped to transform the nature of American science.

Earth Sciences. The earth sciences included oceanography, geodosy, and meteorology, but in the nineteenth century geology dominated the field. The vast undeveloped lands of the western United States gave geologists ample sources for study, and for this reason the field advanced further in the theoretical area than did most other American scientific fields; by the 1840s American geology enjoyed a level of sophistication that matched that of Europe. James Dana made important theoretical contributions to the field, hypothesizing in the 1840s and 1850s on the formation of mountains. Louis Agassiz, the Swiss immigrant who came to America in 1846, had proposed in 1840 the theory of an Ice Age in which the rapid spread of glaciers had driven many species of animals to extinction. Government-sponsored geological surveys of the West by John Wesley Powell, Grove Karl Gilbert, and Clarence E. Dutton attracted worldwide scientific attention.


American paleontologists trailed Europeans in emphasizing theory, focusing instead on collecting, cataloging, and describing fossil materials. A bitter feud developed in the 1870s between the paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Dinker Cope, who repeatedly accused one another of stealing fossil specimens and of professional ineptitude. The feud lasted into the 1890s. A letter from Cope to Marsh is typical of the exchanges that occurred during this dispute:

My dear Prof. Marsh

Philadelphia 1/30 1873

I wish you had mentioned to me about missing specimens from Kansas, Wyoming etc. When the first suspicion crossed your mind that I knew anything about them. It is far more irritating to me to be charged with dishonorable acts than to lose material, species etc.

I never knew of any losses sustained by you, or specimens taken by any one, till those were sent me that you now have. Should any such come to my hands I will return them as I did the last. . . .

On the other hand some appropriative person has stolen Chlorastrolites Hyposaurus jaw etc. from me.

All the specimens you obtained during August 1872 you owe to me. Had I chosen they would all have been mine. I allowed your men Chew and Smith to accompany me and at last when they turned back discouraged, I discovered a new basin of fossils, showed it to them and allowed them to camp and collect with me for a considerable time. By this I lost several fine things. . . .

Now as to a man of honor I request of you

1st. To correct all statements and innuendos you have made to others here and elsewhere, as to my ? dishonorable conduct.

2nd. To inform me at once if others make such charges to you, about me.

Hoping you will find this much on the credit side of your account I am yours for Worth

E.D. Cope

Source: Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (New York: Hill ôc Wang, 1964).

Astronomy. Astronomy became increasingly popular with the American public in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. By the mid 1850s there were at least twenty-five permanent observatories in the country. Before 1850 most astronomers relied upon European-made equipment, but American manufacturers soon took precedence in the development of telescopes and other astronomical devices. Astronomers also began to experiment with stellar photography, although the process would not be widely used until the 1880s. The United States government offered far less financial support for astronomy than did European governments; nevertheless, Americans made significant contributions to the field and often exhibited a sense of competition with European astronomers. By 1876 Americans had discovered forty-nine asteroidsmore than had been discovered by astronomers of any other country; they had also found ten comets and about two hundred binary stars. James Danas ideas about the possibility of lunar volcanoes, Denison Olmsteads

work on the origin of meteors, and William and George Bonds studies of the physical features of planets and comets were all influential. Like other American scientists, most astronomers emphasized observation and description more than theory; but Benjamin Peirce and Sears Walker studied the orbit of Neptune, and William Ferrel developed hypotheses about the moons effect on the tides.


Robert V. Bruce, The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876 (New York: Knopf, 1987);

Sally G. Kohlstedt and Margaret W. Rossiter, eds., Historical Writings on American Science: Perspectives and Prospects (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

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Changes in Specific Sciences, 1850-1877

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