Hare, Robert (1781-1858)

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Hare, Robert (1781-1858)

Nineteenth-century professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and early advocate of Spiritualism. Among his scientific discoveries was the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. He wrote more than 150 scientific papers as well as additional papers on various political and moral questions.

Hare was born in Philadelphia January 17, 1781, and studied at the University of Philadelphia, where he filled the chair of chemistry from 1818 to 1847. As a high-ranking scientist of the day, he was one of the first scientific authorities to denounce early American Spiritualism in the press. In 1853 he wrote that he considered it "an act of duty to his fellow creatures to bring whatever influence he possessed to the attempt to stem the tide of popular madness which, in defiance of reason and science, was fast setting in favour of the gross delusion called spiritualism." So at age 72 he began his investigations and devised a number of instruments that, contrary to his expectations, conclusively proved, he believed, that a power and intelligence other than that of those present was at work.

His first apparatus was a wooden board about four feet long, supported on a fulcrum about a foot from one end, and at the other end attached by a hook to a spring balance. A glass vessel filled with water was placed on the board near the fulcrum; a wire gauze cage attached to an independent support, not touching the glass at any point, was placed in the water. The medium would affect the balance by simply placing his hand into the wire cage. The medium Hare tested was Henry Gordon. The balance showed variations of weight amounting to 18 pounds. This apparatus had similarities to that used later by Sir William Crookes to test the medium D. D. Home.

A second apparatus consisted of a revolving disk attached to a table in such a manner that the movements of the table actuated the pointer, which ran around the letters of the alphabet printed on the circumference of the disk and spelled out messages. The disk was arranged so that the medium could not see the letters. Hare's book Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestation, published in 1855, sums up the results:

"The evidence may be contemplated under various phases; first, those in which rappings or other noises have been made which could not be traced to any mortal agency; secondly, those in which sounds were so made as to indicate letters forming grammatical, well-spelt sentences, affording proof that they were under the guidance of some rational being; thirdly, those in which the nature of the communication has been such as to prove that the being causing them must, agreeably to accompanying allegations, be some known acquaintance, friend, or relative of the inquiry.

"Again, cases in which movements have been made of ponderable bodies of a nature to produce intellectual communications resembling those obtained, as above-mentioned, by sounds.

"Although the apparatus by which these various proofs were attained with the greatest possible precaution and precision, modified them as to the manner, essentially all the evidence which I have obtained tending to the conclusions above mentioned, has likewise been substantially obtained by a great number of observers. Many who never sought any spiritual communications and have not been induced to enrol themselves as Spiritualists, will nevertheless not only affirm the existence of the sounds and movements, but also admit their inscrutability."

The book, the second part of which describes the afterlife as depicted by the communicators, passed through five editions. Reaction was quick to set in against its influence. The professors of Harvard University passed a resolution denouncing Hare and his "insane adherence to a gigantic humbug." He was howled down by the American Association for the Advancement of Science when, in Washington in 1854, he tried to address members on the subject of Spiritualism. He finally paid for his convictions by resigning from his chair.

A. D. Ruggles, a professional medium who often wrote in languages unknown to him, was one of the subjects with whom Hare experimented. Later Hare himself evidently became a medium, as deduced from a letter he wrote to John Worth Edmonds, which contains this paragraph: "Having latterly acquired the powers of a medium in sufficient degree to interchange ideas with my spirit friends, I am no longer under the necessity of defending media from the charge of falsehood and deception. It is now my own character only that can be in question." The revelations Hare believed he received from the otherworld he took at face value. There was no careful sifting or criticism, and the belief that they apparently came from spirits appears to have attested their credibility for Hare. This simplistic acceptance of Spiritualism diminished Hare's reputation, especially among his former colleagues, in his later years. He died in Philadelphia May 15, 1858.


Hare, Robert. Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations. New York: Partridge & Britten, 1855. Reprint, Elk Grove, Wis.: Sycamorte Press, 1963.

Hare, Robert

views updated May 23 2018

Hare, Robert

(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 17 January 1781; d. Philadelphia, 15 May 1858)


During his youth and until he was thirty-seven years old, Hare helped manage the family brewery in Philadelphia. He learned chemistry by independent study and by attending lectures of James Woodhouse at the University of Pennsylvania. While operating the ’brewery he was also professor of natural philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania medical school from 1810 to 1812.

The brewery failed around 1815 and Hare attempted, without success, to manufacture illuminating gas in New York City. Early in 1818 he became professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the College of William and Mary for a few months, then professor of chemistry at the University of Penniylvania medical school until 1847.

After he retired. Hare wrote a novel. Standish the Puritan, under the pseudonym EIdred Grayson; investigated the cause of accidental explosions of niter; and lectured and wrote on spiritualism, in which he came to believe.

Hare made his major contribution at the age of twenty, when he was still an amateur scientist. Seeking a means of producing high temperatures, he hit upon the idea of burning a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. He devised a gasholder and oxyhydrogen blowtorch which produced a higher temperature than previously obtainable by any means. The torch made possible the melting of platinum and other substances with high melting points and formed the basis of the Drummond light and limelight.

A skillful craftsman. Hare devised ingenious apparatus for research and demonstration. His lecture hall was perhaps the best equipped, in the United States, He developed the calorimotor, the deflagrator, and an electric furnace in which he produced graphite, calcium carbide, and other substances.

Few American chemists of the early nineteenth century taught more students than Hare. As a professor in the country’s largest medical school for twentynine years, he transmitted chemistry to a proportionately large segment of the medical profession, A number of his pupils became teachers of chemistry.


I. Original Works. Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, III , 177–182, lists 127 of Hare’s articles. His books are Memoir of the Supply and Application of the Blow-Pipe... (Philadelphia, 1802); Minutes of the Course of Chemical Instruction in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1822), which evolved into Compendium of the Course of Chemical Instruction... (Philadelphia, 1828; 4th ed., 1840); and Engravings and Descriptions of a Great Part of the Apparatus Used in the Chemical Course of the University of pennsylvania, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1828).

II. Secondary Literature. Edgar F. Smith, The Life of Robert Hare an American Chemist (1781–1858) (Philadelphia, 1917), with portrait, is the standard life of Hare but lacks references to all sources; Edgar F. Smith, Chemistry in America Chapters From the History of the Science in the United States (New York, 1914), pp. 152–205, with portrait, reprints Hare’s Memoir... of the Blow-Pipe. See also Wyndham D. Miles, “Robert Hare,” in Eduard Farber, ed., Famous Chemists (New York, 1961), pp. 420–423, with portrait.

Wyndham Davies Miles

Robert Hare

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Robert Hare

Robert Hare (1781-1858), considered the leading American chemist of his time, was a productive inventor and writer.

Robert Hare was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 17, 1781, the son of a prominent businessman and state senator. He was educated at home, then studied chemistry under James Woodhouse. While managing his father's brewery, he found time for chemical research and gained international fame in 1801 with his invention of the oxyhydrogen blowpipe, which provided the highest degree of heat then known. (Its application led to the founding of new industries such as production of platinum and limelight illuminants.)

After teaching briefly at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Hare was appointed professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in 1818, where he remained until 1847. Hare's classes were noted for his spectacular experiments. His inventions included a calorimeter, a deflagrator for producing high electric currents, and an improved electric furnace for producing artificial graphite and other substances.

Although primarily noted as an experimental chemist and inventor of experimental apparatus, Hare was keenly interested in theoretical speculations about both chemistry and meteorology. He published articles in the American Journal of Science, edited by his close friend and collaborator Benjamin Silliman. His famous controversies were with Jöns J. Berzelius over chemical nomenclature, Michael Faraday over electricity, and William C. Redfield over the nature of storms. Hare was especially committed to the theory of the materiality of heat.

In 1850 Hare published a historical novel, Standish the Puritan. In 1854, near the end of his career, he became a convert to spiritualism, much to the dismay of his rationally minded colleagues. He produced a book on the subject and went so far as to claim that Benjamin Franklin's spirit had validated his electrical theories. But he was unsuccessful in getting the American Association for the Advancement of Science to listen to his views.

Hare was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Though his only degrees were honorary, he represented the newly emerging professional university scientist in contrast to the traditional gentleman-amateur.

Hare had married Harriet Clark in September 1811; one son, John James Clark Hare, became a distinguished lawyer. Hare died on May 15, 1858.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Hare is Edgar F. Smith, Life of Robert Hare (1917). Additional material may be found in Henry Simpson, The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians (1859), and George P. Fisher, Life of Benjamin Silliman (1866). General background is available in Nathan Reingold, ed., Science in Nineteenth Century America (1964), and George H. Daniels, American Science in the Age of Jackson (1968).

Additional Sources

Smith, Edgar Fahs, The life of Robert Hare: an American chemist, 1781-1858, New York: Arno Press, 1980. □

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