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Lane, Jonathan Homer

Lane, Jonathan Homer

(b. Genesee, New York, 9 August 1819; d. Washington, D.C., 3 May 1880)


Lane left school at the age of eight but acquired enough learning by himself at home to teach in rural schools. In 1839 he entered Phillips Academy at Exeter, New Hampshire. While there, according to his own account, he became interested in what was to be his principal intellectual preoccupation, the experimental determination of absolute zero. He entered Yale, where he was apparently influenced by Denison Olmsted, and graduated in 1846.

After briefly teaching in Vermont, Lane came to Washington, D.C., in 1847 and was employed by the U.S. Coast Survey. He had already published the first of four articles on electricity. In 1848 Lane conferred with Joseph Henry about experiments to determine the speed of propagation of solar light and hear. In that same year, and with Henry’s help, he was appointed an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office, where he was closely associated with Charles G. Page. Besides the articles on electricity, which were attempts to provide mathematical formulations for electrical phenomena, Lane published nothing during his years at the Patent Office (but see the comments in the bibliography below). In 1857, he was removed from the Patent Office by a spoils-minded Secretary of the Interior.

From 1857 to 1866, when Lane returned to Washington, his course is obscure, although the Abbe necrology (see below) asserts that he attempted to earn a living as a patent agent. He did attempt to develop his low-temperature apparatus, which was to utilize the expansion of gases for cooling. Failing to gain adequate backing, he went to Franklin, Venango County, Pennsylvania, in 1860, to live with his brother, a blacksmith. Lane expected his brother, who owed him money, to repay the debt by constructing the apparatus, an expectation that was not realized. Abbe also asserts that Lane made a handsome profit from the sale of oil lands in Pennsylvania, which enabled him to return to Washington. This seems unlikely, however, since Henry continued to send him odd computing jobs and even a small grant for the low-temperature experiments, apparently in the belief that Lane needed the money. In 1869 Lane joined the Office of Weights and Measures, the predecessor of the present National Bureau of Standards.

In 1869 Lane read a paper, “On the Theoretical Temperature of the Sun,” before the National Academy of Sciences. It was printed in the American Journal of Science in the following year. His purpose was to test the adequacy of various current theories of heat by mathematical determinations of the temperature of the sun, on the assumption of a convection system, explicitly based upon James Espy’s meteorological theories, for the movement of the photosphere. Lane concluded that none of the theories that assumed that heat was motion provided adequate explanations of his calculated values for the distribution of density, pressure, and temperature in the sun.

The paper gained a modest notoriety because of something it did not demonstrate but which Lane verbally proved to the satisfaction of both Kelvin and Newcomb. According to the latter’s autobiography, Lane had given the proof to him prior to 1869 of the “law” by which a gaseous body contracts when it loses heat, but the heat generated by the contraction exceeds the heat lost in order to produce the contraction. Lane did not give the proof in his paper, although it was implicit in the presentation. Kelvin’s interest stemmed in part from the possibility that “Lane’s law” would contradict his calculation of the age of the earth by changing the quantity of energy available in the sun. Three years after Lane’s paper August Ritter independently came to similar conclusions, including an explicit statement of the “paradoxical” law. Interestingly, Ritter also was applying meteorological theory to the study of the sun. Kelvin attempted to remove the supposed difficulty in 1887, for which he was subsequently criticized for “inexactitude” by Emden in 1907.

The principal significance of Lane’s article, however, was not unstated law nor even its testing of current theories of heat but the careful calculation of mass and heat relationships in the sun. The convection model, now discarded, proved useful for arriving at a good first approximation of the structure and energy distribution of the sun, while Lane’s work on the structure of a star was a real contribution to the developing evidence of stellar evolution (leading to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of 1913).

It is not a wholly easy task to determine what other scientific work Lane actually performed. His bibliography contains only fifteen items, two of which are titles only. His contemporaries reported his unwillingness to rush into publication, this being the presumed reason for the absence of a published account of the work on absolute zero, supposedly National Archives contain several references to what may be published papers (perhaps in nonscientific journals), unpublished papers, or simply drafts or ideas for papers. In 1848, for example, Joseph Henry referred to a Lane paper on solar heat, which is now unknown.

This bibliographic uncertainty is particularly important because the surviving personal papers contain many fragments on proposed experiments and instruments, but since these are often incomplete or unclear, it is difficult to speak about Lane’s scientific interests and accomplishments. Most of the fragments display a concern with precision instrumentation, while some clearly indicate Lane’s mathematical aptitude. Few of the surviving manuscripts pertain to inventions in the popular sense, and Lane was never issued a patent.

In 1848, Henry called Lane a genuine mathematical physicist. He may indeed have been one. He may also have been a man of ability and overly strong fixations—a crank, as some of his other contemporaries saw him. It is, from the surviving fragments, difficult to decide if Lane was a man whose achievements did not live up to his potential—as his 1870 paper suggests—or a man whose notions surpassed his abilities.

If Lane did not, in fact, achieve his potential, was in his failure, or society’s? Mathematical physicists were rare in antebellum America, a fact usually ascribed to a hostile national environment (although mathematical physicists were also relatively rare in European countries). Most of the positions available to Lane were in astronomy and meteorology, and he did work in both fields. Men of promise in his day did not automatically think of the university, nor did universities seek him out.

In Washington, Lane found a small, active, and congenial scientific community that recognized his talents. The Patent Office post, somewhat incongruously, to some extent offered an opportunity for men of scientific interests to earn an income—although they were not given either equipment or time to pursue research. But even time and equipment were provided to Lane, in part by Henry and by the cooperation of government agencies. Even without equipment, he could have pursued theoretical work. Moreover, Henry, Newcomb, Benjamin Peirce, and others provided him with a stimulating intellectual environment.

Newcomb and Cleveland Abbe, in their accounts of Lane, implicitly raise the matter of his personality as a cause for his limited productivity. He is described as gnomelike and living in a garret. His poverty is ascribed to his support of various relatives, but at his death his estate was valued at more than $10,000, of which $8,000 was in gold bonds. If his appearance and style of living were bedraggled, it was hardly due to lack of funds. In writing of him, Lane’s contemporaries stressed his “hesitation in speaking,” due, perhaps, to a speech defect or to shyness. At any rate, Lane had difficulty in socializing, even in the friendly environment of scientific Washington, where he remained somewhat of an outsider.

When Lane died, five sealed envelopes of priority claims, going back to 1850, remained in the Smithsonian Institution. S. P. Langley, on his arrival in Washington in 1887, prevailed upon Henry’s successor, S.F. Baird, to authorize their opening. When this was done, in the presence of Langley and Newcomb, the claims were pronounced worthless. Lane was forgotten and his 1870 paper remained an inexplicable pioneering accident.


I. Original Works. A small collection of Lane’s personal papers is in the records of the National Bureau of Standards in the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. These contain scientific notes, Lane’s accounts of his life and work, and letters both personal and professional. Other records of the National Bureau of Standards contain documents on Lane’s activities. Of these the most significant are the reports itemizing the records and papers found in Lane’s office in 1879 at the start of his terminal illness. The sealed envelopes are in the “Clippings File” of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The file account of Lane’s estate is in the custody of the Register of Wills of the District of Columbia. Both the account file and the list of Lane record prepared by the Office of Weights and Measures are very useful but frustrating; omnibus listings rather than detailed itemization occur at a few crucial points. The correspondence in the Lane papers simply adds to the mysterious about him. For example, two different letters indicate that Michael Faraday wrote to Lane, presumable on his electrical work, yet no faraday letters are in the collection.

II. Secondary Literature. Upon Lane’s death, J. E. Hilgard, the superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey issued a statement before the Philosophical Society of Washington on Lane’s career, in Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington,3 (8 May 1880), 122-124. This statement and information from W.B. Taylor of the Smithsonian are apparently the principal sources for Cleveland Abbe’s “Memoir of Jonathan Homer Lane, 1819-1880,” in biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,3 (1895), 253-264. There is little evidence for contacts between Abbe and Lane. Abbe read his memoir in 1892, many years after Lane’s death and the printed version is replete with errors and doubtful assertions. When Simon Newcomb published his autobiography, The Reminiscences of an Astronomer (Boston-New York, 1903); the chapter subheading on Lane was, “A Forgotten Scientist.” so forgotten was Lane that the index to the book does not even list him, but the interested reader is directed to pages 245-249.

See also kelvin, “The Sun’s Heat,” in the Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain,12 (1889), 1-21; for the critique of Kelvin, see R. Emden, Gaskugeln, Anwendungen der Mechanischen Wärmetheorie … (Leipzig-Berlin, 1907), 462-469. August Ritter’s Work originally appeared in various numbers of the Annalen der physik and Chemie and is summed up in his Anwendungen der mechanischen Wärmetheorie auf Kosmologische Probleme (Leipzig, 1878).

N. Reingold

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