Alexander Dallas Bache

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Bache, Alexander Dallas

(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19 July 1806; d. Newport, Rhode Island, 17 February 1867)


Bache was a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin and related to leading families of of Philadelphia, facts not insignificant in his future career. After graduating from West Point at the head of his class in 1825, he served for two years in the Corps of Engineers before accepting a professorship of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held until his resignation in 1836 to organize Girard College. Upon returning from a two-year sojourn in Europe (1836–1838), where he studied primary and secondary education, Bache wrote a report on his findings for Girard College that exerted considerable influence on the development of education in the United States, by proposing adoption, in American high schools, of features from the German Gymnasium and the French lycée (1839). He put his views into practice by organizing Central High School of Philadelphia. In 1842 Bache returned to the University of Pennsylvania, but left for Washington at the end of 1843 to succeed F.R. Hassler as head of the Coast Survey, a position he held for the rest of his life.

In Philadelphia, Bache’s scientific career followed many of the conventional paths for that period. He dabbled in chemical analysis and experimented on the effects of color on the radiation and absorption of heat. Like many of his contemporaries, he tried his hand at electromagnetism and astronomy, but with no particular success, his dispute with Denison Olmsted on meteoric showers being a notably poor showing. He was, however, outstanding in assuming leading roles in the affairs of both the American Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute.

At the latter he directed a significant investigation of the explosion of steam boilers for the federal government (Journal of the Franklin Institute, 17 , 1836). Not only was this notable for experimental virtuosity; it was also one of the first deliberate uses of science by the government for the solution of a practical problem. It also established a pattern for Bache’s subsequent career and a precedent for the later development of federal policy toward science and technology.

Increasingly during the Philadelphia period, Bache became involved in studies of the physics of the earth, particularly terrestrial magnetism and meteorology, After returning from Europe, where he had made observations of declination and inclination for comparison with American readings, he attempted to establish an American system that would fit into Sir Edward Sabine’s world network of magnetic observatories. All that resulted, however, was an observatory at Girard College, the first of its kind in the United States. Perhaps the most interesting work in this vein was Bache’s unsuccessful attempt with Humphrey Lloyd to determine longitude by simultaneous magnetic observations (Proceedings, Royal Irish Academy, I, 1839)

When Bache assumed direction of the Coast Survey, it was a small, insecurely established body with high scientific standards. In less than two decades it became entrenched, the largest employer of physical scientists in the United States, and active in many scientific fields. First-order triangulation was expanded along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. Under Bache’s direction, Sears Walker and W.C. Bond developed the use of telegraphy in the determination of longitude. Bache and the Survey supported astronomical research, including study of the solar eclipses of 26 May 1854 and 18 July 1860. Survey vessels amassed the most extensive series of observations of the Gulf Stream up to that time. Continuing and broadening Hassler’s tidal observations, Bache became embroiled in a dispute with Whewell in 1851, when the Survey’s findings deviated from the latter’s theory. Using deflections on tide staffs on the Pacific Coast, Bache studied waves from an earthquake in Japan (American Journal of Science, 21 , 1855), work that foreshadowed the Survey’s later work in seismology. Bache also succeeded Hassler as head of the Office of Weights and Measures, the predecessor of the National Bureau of Standards. During all this time, while he was successfully administering a large research program, Bache was able to spend several months in the field with a survey party and to continue doing his own investigations.

Bache is clearly one of the founders of the scientific community in the United States. His administration of the Coast Survey established a model for largescale scientific organization that was followed either implicitly or explicitly by later groups. Bache and his close friend Joseph Henry established many of the patterns of interaction of science and the federal government. Perhaps most significant of all was the way pure science, in Bache’s scheme of things, became the necessary antecedent and companion of applied science, rather than purely a philosophical endeavor. Around him gathered a small, changing group of followers, the Lazzaroni, or scientific beggars. Bache clearly had their admiration, but what they specifically wanted is hazy in many respects. The group included nonscientists; some of the scientists, such as Dana and Henry, alter split with Bache. The Lazzaroni wanted to form a true professional scientific community to reform higher education so that more young people would be interested in science, and to find administrative means of increasing governmental support of science. It was Bache’s misfortune that his warm admirers in Cambridge-including Louis Agassiz, B.A. Gould, and Benjamin Peirce-lacked his diplomatic talents, thus embroiling the Lazzaroni “program” in irrelevant personal squabbles.

The culmination of Bache’s influence and of the outlook he represented came during the Civil War. Because of his knowledge of the coasts, in 1861 he served with the informal Commission on Conference planning the naval campaign against the Confederacy. As vice-president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Bache became involved in a notable medical and welfare program. A member of the Permanent Commission in 1863–1864, Bache advised the navy on technical matters. Linked to the Permanent Commission was the formation of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, with Bache as its first president. The Academy was teh concrete culmination of the attitudes he enunciated in his 1851 presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Bache was incapacited by a stroke early in the summer of 1864. After Bache’s death, Henry kept the Academy alive largely because his friend had left his estate to it. The Bache Fund was a small but important source of support for research in the United States before 1900. The Michelson-Morley experiment, for example, was conducted with its aid.


I. Original Works. Joseph Henry’s memoir of Bache in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, I (1869), has a usable bibliography of Bache’s writings. The best single source of information on his career is the Annual Reports of the U.S. Coast Survey (1844–1866). For his pre-Washington experiences, see Journal of the Franklin Institute and Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.

An extensive body of manuscripts from Bache’s tenure as head of the Coast Survey is preserved in the U.S. National Archives. They are described in Nathan Reingold, Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey (Washington, D.C., 1958), Preliminary Inventory No.105 of the National Archives. A discussion of their significance is in Reingold’s “Research Possibilities in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Records,” in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 11 (Oct-Dec. 1958), 337–346. These records include a considerable amount of private correspondence. Substantial portions of Bache’s private papers are also found in the Rhees Collection of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., the Smithsonian Archives, and the Library of Congress. Other Bache letters are in the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Institute, and the Benjamin Peirce Papers at Harvard. For hostile comments on Bache’s work by a scientific amateur, see the John Warner Papers at the American Philosophical Society. For hostile comments of a professional scientist, see the letters of C.H.F. Peters in the Harvard Observatory records.

II. Secondary Literature. The most recent biography of Bache, M.M. Odgers, Alexander Dallas Bache, Scientist and Educator, 1806–1867 (Philadelphia, 1947) is a slight advance over the necrologies published by friends shortly after Bache’s death. It suffers, however, from the absence of work in many of the major manuscript sources and a nearly total lack of insight into or knowledge of Bache’s scientific environment. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 84 , no.2 (1941), “Commemoration of the Life and Work of Alexander Dallas Bache and Symposium on Geomagnetism,” is still quite useful for an introduction to Bache’s career. Two recent publications discuss the steam boiler investigations: John G. Burke, “Bursting Boilers and the Federal Power,” in Technology and Culture, 7 (Winter 1966), 1–23; and Bruce Sinclair, Early Research at the Franklin Institute, the Investigation Into the Causes of Steam Boiler Explosions, 1830–1837 (Philadelphia, 1966). For Bache’s career in more general frames of reference, see Nathan Reingold, Science in Nineteenth Century America, a Documentary History (New York, 1964), pp.127–161, 200–225; and A.H. Dupree, Science in the Federal Government... (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), pp.216–216, 316–336. The activities of the Lazzaroni are treated in E. Lurie, Louis Agassiz, a Life in Science (Chicago, 1960), pp. 166–211, 303–350; and A.H. Dupree, Asa Gray (Cambridge, Mass., 1959).

Nathan Reingold

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Alexander Dallas Bache

American educator and scientist Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-1867) was the first president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Alexander Bache, the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was born in Philadelphia on July 19, 1806. He entered West Point at the age of 15. The youngest in his class, he graduated with highest achievement on July 1, 1825, and stayed on for a year as an assistant in engineering. During the following 2 years he worked as an Army construction engineer, assigned to Newport, R.I. There he met Nancy Clarke Fowler, whom he married in 1828. That year he resigned from the Army and accepted a professorship in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. As a member of the Franklin Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts and of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, he conducted notable scientific studies in general mechanics, terrestrial magnetism, and weights and measures.

Bache's interest in the broader problems of education became a full-time occupation in 1836, when he accepted the presidency of a new college for the education of "poor male white orphan children." The college bore the name of its benefactor, Stephen Girard, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who had died in 1831. Bache's first duty was to travel to Europe to find out how such a school could be organized according to Girard's innovative desires. After 26 months of intense investigation into 278 schools, he published the lengthy, exacting Report on Education in Europe (1839). This study of comparative education, covering "the systems of general education" as well as the education of orphans, was very influential.

Ironically, the knowledge that Bache acquired in order to set up Girard College was used more for the advancement of public education in Philadelphia. When the opening of the college was delayed by financial and political problems, he offered to help organize the city's newly established Central High School and became its first principal in 1839. Adapting ideas derived from his observations of the Prussian educational system, he planned the curriculum with emphasis on science (Report to the Controllers of the Public Schools on the Reorganization of Central High School, 1839).

During his years of involvement with public education, Bache continued to engage in scientific study. In 1843 President Tyler appointed Bache superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, a position he held until his death. Bache directed the expansion of the office's scientific activity. He was influential in establishing the National Academy of Sciences and was its first president (1863-1867). He died after a long, debilitating illness at Newport on Feb. 17, 1867.

Further Reading

Merle M. Odgers, Alexander Dallas Bache: Scientist and Educator (1947), is a substantial biography. A useful work is Benjamin Apthorp Gould, An Address in Commemoration ofAlexander Dallas Bache (1868), which contains a bibliography of Bache's writings. A good background study is Adolph E. Meyer, An Educational History of the American People (1957; 2d ed. 1967). □