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Redfield, William C.


(b. Middletown, Connecticut, 26 March 1789; d. New York, N.Y., 12 February 1857)

meteorology, paleontology.

The eldest of six children of Peleg Redfield and Elizabeth Pratt, Redfield was apprenticed to a saddle- and harnessmaker in 1803, soon after his seafarer father’s death. Completing his apprenticeship in 1810, he set out to visit his mother, who had remarried and moved to Ohio. The journey of 700 miles took Redfield and his companions twenty-seven days. Returning to Connecticut in 1811, Redfield made saddles and kept a store for a decade. He married Abigail Wilcox on 15 October 1814; the couple had three sons. After her death on 12 May 1819, he married her cousin Lucy on 23 November 1820. She died on 14 September 1821, soon after the birth of a son who did not long survive her. In 1824 Redfield moved to New York, where he worked in steam transportation until 1856. On 9 December 1828 he married Jane Wallace, who, together with two sons by his first wife, survived him.

A diligent student of science from his days as an apprentice, Redfield came to the insight that a storm was a “progressive whirlwind.” He drew this inference after observing the fall of trees on a trip from Connecticut to Massachusetts following the hurricane of 3 September 1821, and he confirmed it after two violent storms that struck New York in August 1830. A chance meeting with Denison Olmsted of Yale led Redfield to publish in the American Journal of Science and Arts (1831) his theory that storm winds blow counterclockwise around a center that moves in the direction of the prevailing winds. This paper brought Redfield instant recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. From the information supplied him by sea captains sailing to and from New York, Redfield continued for twenty-five years to develop his ideas on the rotary nature of storms and to publish his ideas in American and British scientific journals. The practical consequences he drew from his theory were widely disseminated through E. and G. W. Blunt’s American Coast Pilot. Neither Redfield nor his rival, James P. Espy, who proposed a theory of storms that emphasized convection and condensation in the vertical as the source of a storm’s energy, perceived that both principles are necessary for a complete theory; the controversy between them and their respective supporters was a lively one.

When his son John published a short paper (1836) about the fossil fish he had found in the sandstone quarries of Durham, Connecticut, the elder Redfield began to examine sandstones not only in Connecticut but also in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia. In a series of seven short papers that appeared between 1838 and 1856 in American Journal of Science and Arts and Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Redfield established himself as the first American specialist on fossil fish. He named one genus and seven species of Triassic fish, and his elucidation of their taxonomic and stratigraphic relationships still stands virtually without revision.

The arduous journey to Ohio in 1810–1811, on which he encountered Fulton’s steamboat as he passed through Albany, stimulated Redfield’s interest in transportation. In 1822 he began his career as marine engineer and transportation promoter with a steamboat on the Connecticut River. By 1824 he and his associates’ vessels were plying the Hudson. The frequent explosions of steam boilers led Redfield to the idea of passenger-carrying “safety barges” towed by steam vessels from New York to Albany. By 1826, when the passenger barge was no longer popular, the Steam Navigation Company, which Redfield served as superintendent, had inaugurated a towboat service for freight barges. Railroads, too, claimed his attention. In I29 Redfield published a plan for a rail link between the Hudson and the Mississippi river valleys, and in the next decade he laid out the Harlem and the Hartford-New Haven railroads. He also served on the board of the Hudson Railroad.

Redfield’s prominence among scientists and his organizational ability made him the leader of the transformation of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists into the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He served as president of the new organization at its first meeting in Philadelphia in September 1848. Yale University awarded Redfield an honorary degree in 1839; his name is commemorated by one genus and several species offish and by Mount Redfield in the Adirondacks.


I. Original Works. A list of sixty-two published works of Redfield is given in American Journal of Science,2ndser., 24 (1857), 370–373; among them the most significant scientific paper is “Remarks on the Prevailing Storms of the Atlantic Coast of the North American States,” ibid., 20 (1831), 17–51. A bound volume of these works is in the possession of Alfred C Redfield, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; it contains other brief items by Redfield, chiefly from newspapers. There are three letter books in the Yale University Library, and the holograph diary of the journey to Ohio in 1810 belongs to Alfred C. Redfield.

II. Secondary Literature. There are two principal biographical sources: his son’s fragmentary autobiography, Recollections of John Howard Redfield (privately printed, 1900); and Denison Olmsted, “Biographical Memoir of William C. Redfield,” in American Journal of Science, 2nd ser, 24 (1857), 355–373, which includes the bibliography cited above and all but a few paragraphs of “An Address in Commemoration of William C. Redfield,”in Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 11 (1857), 9–34. W. J. Humphreys of the U.S. Weather Bureau wrote a modern biographical sketch in Dictionary of American Biography, VIII, 441–442.

A contemporary evaluation of Redfield’s meteorology is Charles H. Davis, “Redfieid, Reid, Espy and Loomis on the Theory of Storms,” in North American Review, 58 (1844), 335–371. There is a modern treatment, more concerned with method but exceptionally useful for social background, in George Daniels, American Science in the Age of Jackson (New York, 1968), esp. chap, four and the biographical sketch in app. I.

Redfield’s paleontology is authoritatively treated in George G. Simpson, “The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 86 (1942), 130–188, esp. 167.

Harold L. Burstyn

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