Venerable Institutions. The two most important American scientific organizations existing in 1815 were the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. Most members of both societies were “gentlemen scholars,” affluent laymen with a broad interest in the natural sciences. Both organizations fostered networks of correspondence and established libraries and reading rooms to serve their members. Each organization aspired to be national in scope, emulating counterparts in Great Britain and France. Although both remained prominent throughout the antebellum period, attracting local men of eminence and providing honorary membership to leading scholars outside the two cities, neither succeeded in becoming a truly national organization. Another attempt to form a national scientific organization was made in 1816, when the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Science was chartered in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital, however, was a cultural backwater. The absence of even a small scientific community guaranteed its failure, and by the 1830s the Columbian Institute had disappeared.
THE HARVARD ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY
Saturday September 26th 1846 We have not found any observations on either of the comets of June 1845 and February and May 1846 continued so late as our own. I looked out for a nebulous patch which I marked for a comet and found it stationary. Jupiter has now two broad but rather faint belts and traces of two others. The two plainly visible are near the Equator—they are less distinct than they were last year—they fade away graduaEy at their extremities They seem streaked or mottled. I think the diameter of the satellites might be very nicely found by the time occupied in passing behind Jupiter. I last week saw the passage of the shadow of one of them very finely it was as distinct as the satellites themselves … We see Saturn’s ring double though it is pretty oblique we see generally five satellites (or stars) three very faint.
Source: Bessie Z, JoneS) Diary of the Two Bonds, First Directors of the Harvard College Observatory, 1846-1849, “Harvard Library Bulletin, 15 (October 1967): 368-386.
Local Societies. More common in the first half of the nineteenth century were local organizations formed by
inventor-entrepreneurs, educators, and educated professional men (usually doctors or clergymen) who pursued science in fairly sophisticated ways but were not devoted primarily to scientific pursuits. Such organizations proliferated in small towns throughout the nation and generally had brief lives. The most respectable and long-lived of these were formed in the larger eastern cities and included the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1812), the New York Lyceum (1817), the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia (1824), and the Boston Society of Natural History (1830).
Association of American Geologists and Naturalists. The 1830s and 1840s witnessed the emergence of the first generation in the United States to produce a significant number of professional men of science. As the study of science became increasingly popular as a hobby, fostered by the proliferation of local societies and the lyceum movement, some scientists sought to distinguish themselves from laymen and to establish an American community of professional men of science. Geologists were the first to achieve this goal. A group of New York geologists meeting in 1839 voted to call a national meeting for the following year, to which only geologists employed in state geological surveys would be invited. In 1840 that group formed the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists, passing at its first meeting a resolution that explicitly limited membership to those “devoted to Geological research with scientific views and objects.” The association sought to foster professionalization and encourage scientific discovery by holding meetings at which professional papers were delivered, and subsequently publishing those papers. In doing so they succeeded in gaining European recognition for American geologists.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. The successful example of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists sparked the interest of scientists from other disciplines in forming a national organization that might include the broad range of scientific pursuits while continuing to limit membership to professional scientists. The association responded in 1847 by voting to transform itself into the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). A three-man committee comprising Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist recently arrived in the United States, Benjamin Peirce, a mathematician and astronomer, and Henry Rogers, a chemist and geologist, wrote a two-page circular stating the intention to create a national organization for scientists and announcing a proposed organizational meeting date in September 1848.
Professionalization. The 1848 meeting adopted a constitution that opened membership to “College Professors of Natural History, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Political Economy, and of the Theoretical and Applied Sciences generally; also Civil Engineers and Architects,” as well as other “true men of science.” The organization was subdivided into sections centered around common interests; annual meetings included sessions with the entire organization and smaller meetings of special-interest sections. Annual meetings were to migrate among cities in order to promote interaction between scientists in various parts of the country. The meetings provided an opportunity to exchange information on a formal and informal basis, to debate major scientific issues, and to give coherence and direction to the broad work of scientific investigation. In other words, it continued the effort to create an American scientific community. At the same time, the AAAS sought to promote broader interest in the study of science so that the public would come to value scientific pursuits and offer both esteem and financial support to scientists. Although the first few years of the AAAS’s existence were governed by remarkable harmony, the organization later faced dissension over what constituted a “true man of science” and how to reconcile the seemingly contradictory goals of professionalization and popularization.
Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, The Formation of the American Scientific Community: The American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1848–1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).
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