Eaton, Amos

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Eaton, Amos

(b. Chatham, New York, 17 May 1776; d. Troy, New York, 10 May 1842)

geology, botany, scientific and applied education.

The son of a farmer, Abel Eaton, of old New England stock, Amos was born in eastern New York, just over the border from Massachusetts. He had a conventional education that culminated in graduation from Williams College in 1799. He taught briefly in a country school, but primarily he read law in New York City and was admitted to the state bar. Thereafter he established himself in Catskill, New York, as a lawyer and land agent. To these roles he added, as was then usual, practice in surveying. Even in those early years, however, Eaton gave evidence of an interest in popular science and education. In 1802 he published a pamphlet on surveying, Art Without Science. In Catskill he offered popular lectures in botany and wrote a manual on the subject that won the approval of David Hosack, an eminent authority in the field.

A tragic turn of events abruptly terminated Eaton’s legal career in 1810. He was convicted of an alleged forgery during the Hudson Valley land disputes. Eaton and many others always maintained his innocence, but he spent five years in the Greenwich jail in New York City. There he turned to scientific studies, aided by John Torrey, son of the warden and subsequently a distinguished botanist. On release from jail, almost forty years of age, already married twice and a father, Eaton spent a year at Yale College, studying science under Benjamin Silliman and Eli Ives. Then he returned to Williams College, where he introduced a course of very popular and successful scientific lectures in 1817. In this year too appeared his first ventures in scientific publication, A Botanical Dictionary and the first edition of Manual of Botany for the Northern States.

Eaton was deeply grateful to the academic communities of Yale and Williams for admitting him to their company after his earlier humiliation. An important effect of his imprisonment was undoubtedly a humble and self-deprecating manner, which expressed itself in an effort at once to suppress and to surmount the resulting handicap. Eaton was gifted with an articulate and even voluble style, which fitted him well for his new career as a popular lecturer. It was an age and an environment lacking a truly professional tradition, and he was able to range widely as an amateur over the whole of science, from botany to chemistry, zoology, and geology. In 1818 he moved westward into the Troy–Albany area, in which he had been born and raised. This was then an active center of growth and internal improvement, as manifested particularly by the Erie Canal. Here he became associated with Governor De Witt Clinton and Stephen Van Rensselaer, both patrons and promoters of science and public improvement, who were convinced that the geological study of western New York could not fail to uncover coal and other mineral resources.

For the next half-dozen years Eaton was busy in several capacities. He was an itinerant lecturer in village and school, from West Point in the lower Hudson Valley to the Castleton Medical Academy in Vermont. He sponsored the formation of the Troy Lyceum of Natural History, and he compiled textbooks in chemistry, zoology, and geology. Most important, under Stephen Van Rensselaer’s patronage he executed geological and agricultural surveys of the local counties and across New York State along the Erie Canal route. He was thus drawn into a kind of specialization in geology, and he described himself as “the only person in North America capable of judging strata.” His published reports of these surveys, bridging the earlier surveys of Maclure and the classical stratigraphy of the New York State Survey, earned him recognition in American geology, and the decade of the 1820’s has been designated as the “Eatonian era.”

His persistent efforts to devise and develop an American nomenclature for New York stratigraphy often led Eaton into opinionated and extravagant theorizing. Basically he was a Wernerian, following Abraham Werner’s fivefold classification of Primitive, Transition, Secondary (or Floetz), Volcanic, and Alluvial. He thought of his task as primarily one of correlation of American, and particularly New York, strata with their English and Continental equivalents, recognizing at the same time the differences in the lithologic sequence. Although Eaton described fossils, his stratigraphic distinctions were drawn, as were those of Maclure before him, on the basis of lithology and the structural attitude of beds. This led him to repeat Maclure’s error in correlating the New York plateau sediments with the English Secondary, although he correctly associated the Catskill brownstones with the Old Red Sandstone.

A characteristic product of the American frontier, Eaton was a kind of “jack-of-all-sciences,” opening new vistas and stressing simplicity and practicality. In botany, too, he was very prolific, issuing eight editions of Manual of Botany for the Northern States. Asa Gray, like Eaton a product of northern New York, who became America’s greatest botanist in the nineteenth century, began his studies with Eaton’s Manual. In later years, however, he severely criticized Eaton’s deficiencies as a botanist.

Eaton’s final and most noteworthy contribution was to scientific education. He evolved a pedagogical theory emphasizing “the application of science to the common purposes of life”; students were to learn by doing, in sharp contrast with the conventional method of learning by rote. They were to perform experiments in the laboratory, collect specimens in the field, and even prepare their own lectures, leaving to the instructor and fellow students the role of critic. For the implementation of this then novel theory, Eaton persuaded Stephen Van Rensselaer to establish the Rensselaer School in Troy, New York, in 1824. Here, for the rest of his life, Eaton served as senior professor, struggling to realize his concept of an all-scientific and practical course of education. It was virtually a one-man institution, and Eaton’s zeal and dedication were unflagging. In this school he trained a small but significant band of scientists who carried on and diffused his influence widely. Chief among his disciples were James Hall, J. C. Booth, As a Fitch, Ebenezer Emmons, G. H. Cook, Abram Sager, E. S. Carr, Douglass Houghton, and E. N. Horsford. Although most were concerned primarily with geology, some also acquired an interest in chemistry and botany, as well as mineralogy and zoology.

In 1835 Eaton expanded his program and gave it greater practicality. Renamed the Rensselaer Institute, it was divided into two departments, one for science and one for engineering. Eaton created two degrees new to American education: bachelor of natural science, and civil engineer. In the pragmatic environment of nineteenth-century America, engineering gained headway, and the role of science was eventually subordinated in what became known after the middle of the century as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Amos Eaton transmitted his zeal for science to his children. A daughter taught science in a girls’ academy. Two of his sons were educated and taught at the Rensselaer School, and a third became a professor of natural science at Transylvania University in Kentucky. All three died young. A grandson, Daniel Cady Eaton, was for many years professor of paleobotany at Yale University. Thus, largely self-taught, Amos Eaton was a zealous and pioneering explorer and teacher of natural science in early America. Above all, he laid the foundations of a novel school and course of scientific and technological education. Perhaps he was also responsible for introducing a basic dichotomy between the traditional and the new technical types of education, a dichotomy that has not been easy to resolve.


I. Original Works. For more than a quarter of a century Amos Eaton was a prolific writer of texts, manuals, reports, and articles on many subjects. A full bibliography is in E. McAllister’s Amos Eaton (see below). Only a few titles need be listed here, chiefly to illustrate the broad scope of his scientific interests: Art Without Science (Hudson, 1802; Albany, 1830); The Young Botanists’Tablet of Memory (Catskill, 1810); A Botanical Dictionary (New Haven, 1817); Manual of Botany for the Northern States (Albany, 1817; 8th ed., 1840); An Index to the Geology ofthe Northern States (Albany, 1818); Chemical Instructor (Albany, 1822; several eds. to 1836); A Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District Adjoining the Erie Canal (Albany, 1824); Zoological Text-Book (Albany, 1826); Geological Nomenclature for North America (Albany, 1828); Prodromus of a Practical Treatise on the Mathematical Arts (Troy, 1838).

II. Secondary Literature. Aside from numerous biographical sketches, in the Dictionary of American Biography and elsewhere, the sole full-length life of Eaton is Ethel M. McAllister, Amos Eaton, Scientist and Educator (Philadelphia, 1941). Other references deal with the various aspects of Eaton’s scientific and educational career. To be mentioned are P. C. Ricketts, History of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (New York, 1895, 1914, 1934); and Samuel Rezneck, Education for a Technological Society: A Sesquicentennial History of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y., 1968). Other special topics include G. P. Merrill, The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (New Haven, 1924); Samuel Rezneck, “Amos Eaton: A Pioneer Teacher of Science in Early America,” in Journal of Geological Education, 13 (Dec. 1965), 131 ff.; and “Amos Eaton the Old Schoolmaster,” in New York History, 39 (Apr. 1958), 165 ff.; W. M. Smallwood, “Amos Eaton, Naturalist,” ibid, 18 (Apr. 1937), 167 ff.; H. S. Van Klooster, Amos Eaton as a Chemist, Rensselaer Science and Engineering Series, no. 56 (Troy, N.Y., 1938); and John W. Wells, Early Investigations of the Devonian System in New York, Special Papers, Geological Society of America, no. 74 (New York, 1963), esp. pp. 25–64, “The Eatonian Era.” For Eaton’s geological bibliography, see J. M. Nickles, Geological Literature on North America, 1785–1918, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 746 (Washington, D.C., 1923).

Samuel Rezneck