MoboReader> Literature > The Reminiscences of an Astronomer

   Chapter 10 SCIENTIFIC WASHINGTON

The Reminiscences of an Astronomer By Simon Newcomb Characters: 53302

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It is sometimes said that no man, in passing away, leaves a place which cannot be equally well filled by another. This is doubtless true in all ordinary cases. But scientific research, and scientific affairs generally at the national capital, form an exception to many of the rules drawn from experience in other fields.

Professor Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was a man of whom it may be said, without any reflection on men of our generation, that he held a place which has never been filled. I do not mean his official place, but his position as the recognized leader and exponent of scientific interests at the national capital. A world-wide reputation as a scientific investigator, exalted character and inspiring presence, broad views of men and things, the love and esteem of all, combined to make him the man to whom all who knew him looked for counsel and guidance in matters affecting the interests of science. Whether any one could since have assumed this position, I will not venture to say; but the fact seems to be that no one has been at the same time able and willing to assume it.

On coming to Washington I soon became very intimate with Professor Henry, and I do not think there was any one here to whom he set forth his personal wishes and convictions respecting the policy of the Smithsonian Institution and its relations to the government more freely than he did to me. As every point connected with the history and policy of this establishment is of world-wide interest, and as Professor Henry used to put some things in a different light from that shed upon the subject by current publications, I shall mention a few points that might otherwise be overlooked.

It has always seemed to me that a deep mystery enshrouded the act of Smithson in devising his fortune as he did. That an Englishman, whose connections and associations were entirely with the intellectual classes,-who had never, so far as is known, a single American connection, or the slightest inclination toward democracy,-should, in the intellectual condition of our country during the early years of the century, have chosen its government as his trustee for the foundation of a scientific institution, does of itself seem singular enough. What seems yet more singular is that no instructions whatever were given in his will or found in his papers beyond the comprehensive one "to found an institution at Washington to be called the Smithsonian Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." No plan of the institution, no scrap of paper which might assist in the interpretation of the mandate, was ever discovered. Not a word respecting his intention was ever known to have been uttered. Only a single remark was ever recorded which indicated that he had anything unusual in view. He did at one time say, "My name shall live in the memory of men when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten."

One result of this failure to indicate a plan for the institution was that, when the government received the money, Congress was at a loss what to do with it. Some ten years were spent in discussing schemes of various kinds, among them that of declining the gift altogether. Then it was decided that the institution should be governed by a Board of Regents, who should elect a secretary as their executive officer and the administrator of the institution. The latter was to include a library, a museum, and a gallery of art. The plans for the fine structure, so well known to every visitor to the capital, were prepared, the building was started, the regents organized, and Professor Henry made secretary.

We might almost say that Henry was opposed to every special function assigned to the institution by the organic law. He did not agree with me as to any mystery surrounding the intentions of the founder. To him they were perfectly clear. Smithson was a scientific investigator; and the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men could be best promoted on the lines that he desired, by scientific investigation and the publication of scientific researches. For this purpose a great building was not necessary, and he regretted all the money spent on it. The library, museum, and gallery of art would be of only local advantage, whereas "diffusion among men" implied all men, whether they could visit Washington or not. It was clearly the business of the government to supply purely local facilities for study and research, and the endowment of Smithson should not be used for such a purpose.

His opposition to the building tinged the whole course of his thought. I doubt whether he was ever called upon by founders of institutions of any sort for counsel without his warning them to beware of spending their money in bricks and mortar. The building being already started before he took charge, and the three other objects being sanctioned by law, he was, of course, hampered in carrying out his views. But he did his utmost to reduce to a minimum the amount of the fund that should be devoted to the objects specified.

This policy brought on the most animated contest in the history of the institution. It was essential that his most influential assistants should share his views or at least not thwart them. This, he found, was not the case. The librarian, Mr. C. C. Jewett, an able and accomplished man in the line of his profession, was desirous of collecting one of the finest scientific libraries. A contest arose, to which Professor Henry put an end by the bold course of removing the librarian from office. Mr. Jewett denied his power to do this, and the question came before the board of regents. The majority of these voted that the secretary had the power to remove his assistants. Among the minority was Rufus Choate, who was so strongly opposed to the action that he emphasized his protest against it by resigning from the board.

A question of legal interpretation came in to make the situation yet more difficult. The regents had resolved that, after the completion of the building, one half the income should be devoted to those objects which Professor Henry considered most appropriate. Meanwhile there was no limit to the amount that might be appropriated to these objects, but Mr. Jewett and other heads of departments wished to apply the rule from the beginning. Henry refused to do so, and looked with entire satisfaction on the slowness of completion of what was, in his eyes, an undesirable building.

It must be admitted that there was one point which Professor Henry either failed to appreciate, or perhaps thought unworthy of consideration. This is, the strong hold on the minds of men which an institution is able to secure through the agency of an imposing building. Saying nothing of the artistic and educational value of a beautiful piece of architecture, it would seem that such a structure has a peculiar power of impressing the minds of men with the importance of the object to which it is devoted, or of the work going on within it. Had Professor Henry been allowed to perform all the functions of the Smithsonian Institution in a moderate-sized hired house, as he felt himself abundantly able to do, I have very serious doubts whether it would have acquired its present celebrity and gained its present high place in the estimation of the public.

In the winter of 1865 the institution suffered an irreparable loss by a conflagration which destroyed the central portion of the building. At that time the gallery of art had been confined to a collection of portraits of Indians by Stanley. This collection was entirely destroyed. The library, being at one end, remained intact. The lecture room, where courses of scientific lectures had been delivered by eminent men of science, was also destroyed. This event gave Professor Henry an opportunity of taking a long step in the direction he desired. He induced Congress to take the Smithsonian library on deposit as a part of its own, and thus relieve the institution of the cost of supporting this branch.

The Corcoran Art Gallery had been founded in the mean time, and relieved the institution of all necessity for supporting a gallery of art. He would gladly have seen the National Museum made a separate institution, and the Smithsonian building purchased by the government for its use, but he found no chance of carrying this out.

After the death of Professor Henry the Institution grew rapidly into a position in which it might almost claim to be a scientific department of the government. The National Museum, remaining under its administration, was greatly enlarged, and one of its ramifications was extended into the National Zo?logical Park. The studies of Indian ethnology, begun by Major J. W. Powell, grew into the Bureau of Ethnology. The Astrophysical Observatory was established, in which Professor Langley has continued his epoch-making work on the sun's radiant heat with his wonderful bolometer, an instrument of his own invention.

Before he was appointed to succeed Professor Henry, Professor Baird was serving as United States Fish Commissioner, and continued to fill this office, without other salary than that paid by the Smithsonian Institution. The economic importance of the work done and still carried on by this commission is too well known to need a statement. About the time of Baird's death, the work of the commission was separated from that of the Institution by providing a salary for the commissioner.

We have here a great extension of the idea of an institution for scientific publications and research. I recall once suggesting to Professor Baird the question whether the utilization of the institution founded by Smithson for carrying on and promoting such government work as that of the National Museum was really the right thing to do. He replied, "It is not a case of using the Smithsonian fund for government work, but of the government making appropriations for the work of the Smithsonian Institution." Between the two sides of the question thus presented,-one emphasizing the honor done to Smithson by expanding the institution which bears his name, and the other aiming solely at the best administration of the fund which we hold in trust for him,-I do not pretend to decide.

On the academic side of social life in Washington, the numerous associations of alumni of colleges and universities hold a prominent place. One of the earliest of these was that of Yale, which has held an annual banquet every year, at least since 1877, when I first became a member. Its membership at this time included Mr. W. M. Evarts, then Secretary of State, Chief Justice Waite, Senator Dawes, and a number of other men prominent in political life. The most attractive speaker was Mr. Evarts, and the fact that his views of education were somewhat conservative added much to the interest of his speeches. He generally had something to say in favor of the system of a prescribed curriculum in liberal education, which was then considered as quite antiquated. When President Dwight, shortly after his accession to office, visited the capital to explain the modernizing of the Yale educational system, he told the alumni that the college now offered ninety-five courses to undergraduates. Evarts congratulated the coming students on sitting at a banquet table where they had their choice of ninety-five courses of intellectual aliment.

Perhaps the strongest testimonial of the interest attached to these reunions was unconsciously given by President Hayes. He had received an honorary degree from Yale, and I chanced to be on the committee which called to invite him to the next banquet. He pleaded, as I suppose Presidents always do, the multiplicity of his engagements, but finally said,-

"Well, gentlemen, I will come, but it must be on two well-understood conditions. In the first place, I must not be called to my feet. You must not expect a speech of me. The second condition is, I must be allowed to leave punctually at ten o'clock."

"We regret your conditions, Mr. President," was the reply, "but must, of course, accede to them, if you insist."

He came to the banquet, he made a speech,-a very good, and not a very short one,-and he remained, an interested hearer, until nearly two o'clock in the morning.

In recent years I cannot avoid a feeling that a change has come over the spirit of such associations. One might gather the impression that the apothegm of Sir William Hamilton needed a slight amendment.

On earth is nothing great but Man,

In Man is nothing great but Mind.

Strike out the last word, and insert "Muscle." The reader will please not misinterpret this remark. I admire the physically perfect man, loving everything out of doors, and animated by the spirit that takes him through polar snows and over mountain tops. But I do not feel that mere muscular practice during a few years of college life really fosters this spirit.

Among the former institutions of Washington of which the memory is worth preserving, was the Scientific Club. This was one of those small groups, more common in other cities than in Washington, of men interested in some field of thought, who meet at brief intervals at one another's houses, perhaps listen to a paper, and wind up with a supper. When or how the Washington Club originated, I do not know, but it was probably sometime during the fifties. Its membership seems to have been rather ill defined, for, although I have always been regarded as a member, and am mentioned in McCulloch's book as such, [1] I do not think I ever received any formal notice of election. The club was not exclusively scientific, but included in its list the leading men who were supposed to be interested in scientific matters, and whose company was pleasant to the others. Mr. McCulloch himself, General Sherman, and Chief Justice Chase are examples of the members of the club who were of this class.

It was at the club meetings that I made the acquaintance of General Sherman. His strong characteristics were as clearly seen at these evening gatherings as in a military campaign. His restlessness was such that he found it hard to sit still, especially in his own house, two minutes at a time. His terse sentences, leaving no doubt in the mind of the hearer as to what he meant, always had the same snap. One of his military letters is worth reviving. When he was carrying on his campaign in Georgia against Hood, the latter was anxious that the war should damage general commercial interests as little as possible; so he sent General Sherman a letter setting forth the terms and conditions on which he, Hood, would refrain from burning the cotton in his line of march, but leave it behind,-at as great length and with as much detail as if it were a treaty of peace between two nations. Sherman's reply was couched in a single sentence: "I hope you will burn all the cotton you can, for all you don't burn I will." When he introduced two people, he did not simply mention their names, but told who each one was. In introducing the adjutant-general to another officer who had just come into Washington, he added, "You know his signature."

Mr. McCulloch, who succeeded Mr. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury, was my beau idéal of an administrator. In his personal make-up, he was as completely the opposite of General Sherman as a man well could be. Deliberate, impassive, heavy of build, slow in physical movement, he would have been supposed, at first sight, a man who would take life easy, and concern himself as little as possible about public affairs. But, after all, there is a quality in the head of a great department which is quite distinct from sprightliness, and that is wisdom. This he possessed in the highest degree. The impress which he made on our fiscal system was not the product of what looked like energetic personal action, but of a careful study of the prevailing conditions of public opinion, and of the means at his disposal for keeping the movement of things in the right direction. His policy was what is sometimes claimed, and correctly, I believe, to embody the highest administrative wisdom: that of doing nothing himself that he could get others to do for him. In this way all his energies could be devoted to his proper work, that of getting the best men in office, and of devising measures from time to time calculated to carry the government along the lines which he judged to be best for the public interests.

The name of another attendant at the meetings of the club has from time to time excited interest because of its connection with a fundamental principle of evolutionary astronomy. This principle, which looks paradoxical enough, is that up to a certain stage, as a star loses heat by radiation into space, its temperature becomes higher. It is now known as Lane's Law. Some curiosity as to its origin, as well as the personality of its author, has sometimes been expressed. As the story has never been printed, I ask leave to tell it.

Among the attendants at the meetings of the Scientific Club was an odd-looking and odd-mannered little man, rather intellectual in appearance, who listened attentively to what others said, but who, so far as I noticed, never said a word himself. Up to the time of which I am speaking, I did not even know his name, as there was nothing but his oddity to excite any interest in him.

One evening about the year 1867, the club met, as it not infrequently did, at the home of Mr. McCulloch. After the meeting Mr. W. B. Taylor, afterward connected with the Smithsonian Institution in an editorial capacity, accompanied by the little man, set out to walk to his home, which I believe was somewhere near the Smithsonian grounds. At any rate, I joined them in their walk, which led through these grounds. A few days previous there had appeared in the "Reader," an English weekly periodical having a scientific character, an article describing a new theory of the sun. The view maintained was that the sun was not a molten liquid, as had generally been supposed up to that time, but a mass of incandescent gas, perhaps condensed at its outer surface, so as to form a sort of immense bubble. I had never before heard of the theory, but it was so plausible that there could be no difficulty in accepting it. So, as we wended our way through the Smithsonian grounds, I explained the theory to my companions in that ex cathedra style which one is apt to assume in setting forth a new idea to people who know little or nothing of the subject. My talk was mainly designed for Mr. Taylor, because I did not suppose the little man would take any interest in it. I was, therefore, much astonished when, at a certain point, he challenged, in quite a decisive tone, the correctness of one of my propositions. In a rather more modest way, I tried to maintain my ground, but was quite silenced by the little man informing us that he had investigated the whole subject, and found so and so-different from what I had been laying down.

I immediately stepped down from the pontifical chair, and asked the little man to occupy it and tell us more about the matter, which he did. Whether the theorem to which I have alluded was included in his statement, I do not recall. If it was not, he told me about it subsequently, and spoke of a paper he had published, or was about to publish, in the "American Journal of Science." I find that this paper appeared in Volume L. in 1870.

Naturally I cultivated the acquaintance of such a man. His name was J. Homer Lane. He was quite alone in the world, having neither family nor near relative, so far as any one knew. He had formerly been an examiner or something similar in the Patent Office, but under the system which prevailed in those days, a man with no more political influence than he had was very liable to lose his position, as he actually did. He lived in a good deal such a habitation and surroundings as men like Johnson and Goldsmith lived in in their time. If his home was not exactly a garret, it came as near it as a lodging of the present day ever does.

After the paper in question appeared, I called Mr. Lane's attention to the fact that I did not find any statement of the theorem which he had mentioned to me to be contained in it. He admitted that it was contained in it only impliedly, and proceeded to give me a very brief and simple demonstration.

So the matter stood, until the centennial year, 1876, when Sir William Thomson paid a visit to this country. I passed a very pleasant evening with him at the Smithsonian Institution, engaged in a discussion, some points of which he afterwards mentioned in an address to the British Association. Among other matters, I mentioned this law, originating with Mr. J. Homer Lane. He did not think it could be well founded, and when I attempted to reproduce Mr. Lane's verbal demonstration, I found myself unable to do so. I told him I felt quite sure about the matter, and would write to him on the subject. When I again met Mr. Lane, I told him of my difficulty and asked him to repeat the demonstration. He did so at once, and I sent it off to Sir William. The latter immediately accepted the result, and published a paper on the subject, in which the theorem was made public for the first time.

It is very singular that a man of such acuteness never achieved anything else of significance. He was at my station on one occasion when a total eclipse of the sun was to be observed, and made a report on what he saw. At the same time he called my attention to a slight source of error with which photographs of the transit of Venus might be affected. The idea was a very ingenious one, and was published in due course.

Altogether, the picture of his life and death remains in my memory as a sad one, the brightest gleam being the fact that he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, which must have been to him a very grateful recognition of his work on the part of his scientific associates. When he died, his funeral was attended only by a few of his fellow members of the academy. Altogether, I feel it eminently appropriate that his name should be perpetuated by the theorem of which I have spoken.

If the National Academy of Sciences has not proved as influential a body as such an academy should, it has still taken such a place in science, and rendered services of such importance to the government, that the circumstances connected with its origin are of permanent historic interest. As the writer was not a charter member, he cannot claim to have been "in at the birth," though he became, from time to time, a repository of desultory information on the subject. There is abundant internal and circumstantial evidence that Dr. B. A. Gould, although his name has, so far as I am aware, never been mentioned in this connection, was a leading spirit in the first organization. On the other hand, curiously enough, Professor Henry was not. I was quite satisfied that Bache took an active part, but Henry assured me that he could not believe this, because he was so intimate with Bache that, had the latter known anything of the matter, he would surely have consulted him. Some recent light is thrown on the subject by letters of Rear-Admiral Charles H. Davis, found in his "Life," as published by his son. Everything was carried on in the greatest secrecy, until the bill chartering the body was introduced by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. Fifty charter members were named, and this number was fixed as the permanent limit to the membership. The list did not include either George P. Bond, director of the Harvard Observatory, perhaps the foremost American astronomer of the time in charge of an observatory, nor Dr. John W. Draper. Yet the total membership in the section of astronomy and kindred sciences was very large. A story to which I give credence was that the original list, as handed to Senator Wilson, did not include the name of William B. Rogers, who was then founding the Institute of Technology. The senator made it a condition that room for Rogers should be found, and his wish was acceded to. It is of interest that the man thus added to the academy by a senator afterward became its President, and proved as able and popular a presiding officer as it ever had.

The governmental importance of the academy arose from the fact that its charter made it the scientific adviser of the government, by providing that it should "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon by any department of the government. In this respect it was intended to perform the same valuable functions for the government that are expected of the national scientific academies or societies of foreign countries.

The academy was empowered to make its own constitution. That first adopted was sufficiently rigid and complex. Following the example of European bodies of the same sort, it was divided into two classes, one of mathematical and physical, the other of natural science. Each of these classes was divided into sections. A very elaborate system of procedure for the choice of new members was provided. Any member absent from four consecutive stated meetings of the academy had his name stricken from the roll unless he communicated a valid reason for his absence. Notwithstanding this requirement, the academy had no funds to defray the traveling expenses of members, nor did the government ever appropriate money for this purpose.

For seven years it became increasingly doubtful whether the organization would not be abandoned. Several of the most eminent members took no interest whatever in the academy,-did not attend the meetings, but did tender their resignations, which, however, were not accepted. This went on at such a rate that, in 1870, to avoid a threatened dissolution, a radical change was made in the constitution. Congress was asked to remove the restriction upon the number of members, which it promptly did. Classes and sections were entirely abandoned. The members formed but a single body. The method of election was simplified,-too much simplified, in fact.

The election of new members is, perhaps, the most difficult and delicate function of such an organization. It is one which cannot be performed to public satisfaction, nor without making many mistakes; and the avoidance of the latter is vastly more difficult when the members are so widely separated and have little opportunity to discuss in advance the merits of the men from whom a selection is to b

e made. An ideal selection cannot be made until after a man is dead, so that his work can be summed up; but I think it may fairly be said that, on the whole, the selections have been as good as could be expected under the conditions.

Notwithstanding the indifference of the government to the possible benefits that the academy might render it, it has-in addition to numerous reports on minor subjects-made two of capital importance to the public welfare. One of these was the planning of the United States Geological Survey, the other the organization of a forestry system for the United States.

During the years 1870-77, besides several temporary surveys or expeditions which had from time to time been conducted under the auspices of the government, there were growing up two permanent surveys of the territories. One of these was the Geographical Survey of territories west of the 100th meridian, under the Chief of Engineers of the Army; the other was the Geological Survey of the territories under the Interior Department, of which the chief was Professor F. V. Hayden.

The methods adopted by the two chiefs to gain the approval of the public and the favoring smiles of Congress were certainly very different. Wheeler's efforts were made altogether by official methods and through official channels. Hayden considered it his duty to give the public every possible opportunity to see what he was doing and to judge his work. His efforts were chronicled at length in the public prints. His summers were spent in the field, and his winters were devoted to working up results and making every effort to secure influence. An attractive personality and extreme readiness to show every visitor all that there was to be seen in his collections, facilitated his success. One day a friend introduced a number of children with an expression of doubt as to the little visitors being welcome. "Oh, I always like to have the children come here," he replied, "they influence their parents." He was so successful in his efforts that his organization grew apace, and soon developed into the Geological Survey of the Territories.

Ostensibly the objects of the two organizations were different. One had military requirements mainly in view, especially the mapping of routes. Hayden's survey was mainly in the interests of geology. Practically, however, the two covered the same field in all points. The military survey extended its scope by including everything necessary for a complete geographical and geological atlas. The geological survey was necessarily a complete topographical and geological survey from the beginning. Between 1870 and 1877, both were engaged in making an atlas of Colorado, on the maps of which were given the same topographical features and the same lines of communication. Parties of the two surveys mounted their theodolites on the same mountains, and triangulated the same regions. The Hayden survey published a complete atlas of Colorado, probably more finely gotten up than any atlas of a State in the Union, while the Wheeler survey was vigorously engaged in issuing maps of the same territory. No effort to prevent this duplication of work by making an arrangement between the two organizations led to any result. Neither had any official knowledge of the work of the other. Unofficially, the one was dissatisfied with the political methods of the other, and claimed that the maps which it produced were not fit for military purposes. Hayden retorted with unofficial reflections on the geological expertness of the engineers, and maintained that their work was not of the best. He got up by far the best maps; Wheeler, in the interests of economy, was willing to sacrifice artistic appearance to economy of production. We thus had the curious spectacle of the government supporting two independent surveys of the same region. Various compromises were attempted, but they all came to nothing. The state of things was clear enough to Congress, but the repugnance of our national legislature to the adoption of decisive measures of any sort for the settlement of a disputed administrative question prevented any effective action. Infant bureaus may quarrel with each other and eat up the paternal substance, but the parent cannot make up his mind to starve them outright, or even to chastise them into a spirit of conciliation. Unable to decide between them, Congress for some years pursued the policy of supporting both surveys.

The credit for introducing a measure which would certainly lead to unification is due to Mr. A. S. Hewitt, of New York, then a member of the Committee on Appropriations. He proposed to refer the whole subject to the National Academy of Sciences. His committee accepted his view, and a clause was inserted in the Sundry Civil Bill of June 30, 1878, requiring the academy at its next meeting to take the matter into consideration and report to Congress "as soon thereafter as may be practicable, a plan for surveying and mapping the territory of the United States on such general system as will, in their judgment, secure the best results at the least possible cost."

Several of the older and more conservative members of the academy objected that this question was not one of science or art, with which alone the academy was competent to deal, but was a purely administrative question which Congress should settle for itself. They feared that the academy would be drawn into the arena of political discussion to an extent detrimental to its future and welfare and usefulness. Whether the exception was or was not well taken, it was felt that the academy, the creature of Congress, could not join issue with the latter as to its functions, nor should an opportunity of rendering a great service to the government be lost for such a reason as this.

The plan reported by the academy was radical and comprehensive. It proposed to abolish all the existing surveys of the territories except those which, being temporary, were completing their work, and to substitute for them a single organization which would include the surveys of the public lands in its scope. The interior work of the Coast and Geodetic Survey was included in the plan, it being proposed to transfer this bureau to the Interior Department, with its functions so extended as to include the entire work of triangulation.

When the proposition came up in Congress at the following session, it was vigorously fought by the Chief of Engineers of the army, and by the General Land Office, of which the surveying functions were practically abolished. The Land Office carried its point, and was eliminated from the scheme. General Humphreys, the Chief of Engineers, was a member of the academy, but resigned on the ground that he could not properly remain a member while contesting the recommendations of the body. But the academy refused to accept the resignation, on the very proper ground that no obligation was imposed on the members to support the views of the academy, besides which, the work of the latter in the whole matter was terminated when its report was presented to Congress.

Although this was true of the academy, it was not true of the individual members who had taken part in constructing the scheme. They were naturally desirous of seeing the plan made a success, and, in the face of such vigorous opposition, this required constant attention. A dexterous movement was that of getting the measure transferred from one appropriation bill to another when it passed over to the Senate. The measure at length became a law, and thus was established the Geological Survey of the United States, which was to be governed by a Director, appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Then, on March 4, 1879, an important question arose. The right man must be placed at the head of the new bureau. Who is he? At first there seemed to be but one voice on the subject, Professor Hayden had taken the greatest pains to make known the work of his survey, not only to Congress, but to every scientific society, small and great, the world over. Many of these had bestowed their approbation upon it by electing its director to honorary membership. It has been said, I do not know how truly, that the number of these testimonials exceeded that received by any other scientific man in America. If this were so, they would have to be counted, not weighed. It was, therefore, not surprising that two thirds of the members of Congress were said to have sent a recommendation to the President for the appointment of so able and successful a man to the new position. The powerful backing of so respectable a citizen as Hon. J. D. Cox, formerly Secretary of the Interior, was also heartily proffered. To these forces were added that of a certain number of geologists, though few or none of them were leaders in the science. Had it not been for a private intimation conveyed to Secretary Schurz that the scientific men interested might have something to say on the subject, Hayden might have been appointed at the very moment the bill was signed by the President.

Notwithstanding all of Hayden's merits as the energetic head of a survey, the leaders in the movement considered that Mr. Clarence King was the better qualified for the duties of the new position. It is not unlikely that a preference for a different method of influencing Congress than that which I have described, was one of the reasons in favor of Mr. King. He was a man of charming personality and great literary ability. Some one said of him that he could make a more interesting story out of what he saw during a ride in a street car than most men could with the best material at their disposal. His "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevadas" was as interesting an account of Western exploration as has ever been published. I understand it was suppressed by the author because some of the characters described in it were much hurt by finding themselves painted in the book.

Hopeless though the contest might have seemed, an effort was made by three or four of the men most interested to secure Mr. King's appointment. If I wanted to show the fallacy of the common impression that scientific men are not fitted for practical politics, I could not do it better than by giving the internal history of the movement. This I shall attempt only in the briefest way. The movers in the matter divided up the work, did what they could in the daytime, and met at night at Wormley's Hotel to compare notes, ascertain the effect of every shot, and decide where the next one should be fired. As all the parties concerned in the matter have now passed off the stage, I shall venture to mention one of these shots. One eminent geologist, whose support was known to be available, had not been called in, because an impression had been formed that President Hayes would not be willing to consider favorably what he might say. After the matter had been discussed at one or two meetings, one of the party proposed to sound the President on the subject at his next interview. So, when the occasion arose, he gently introduced the name of the gentleman.

"What view does he take?" inquired the President.

"I think he will be favorable to Mr. King," was the reply; "but would you give great weight to his opinion?"

"I would give great weight to it, very great weight, indeed," was the reply.

This expression was too decided in its tone to leave any doubt, and the geologist in question was on his way to Washington as soon as electricity could tell him that he was wanted. When the time finally came for a decision, the President asked Secretary Schurz for his opinion. Both agreed that King was the man, and he was duly appointed.

The new administration was eminently successful. But King was not fond of administrative work, and resigned the position at the end of a year or so. He was succeeded by John W. Powell, under whom the survey grew with a rapidity which no one had anticipated. As originally organized, the survey was one of the territories only, but the question whether it should not be extended to the States as well, and prepare a topographical atlas of the whole country, was soon mooted, and decided by Congress in the affirmative. For this extension, however, the original organizers of the survey were in no way responsible. It was the act of Congress, pure and simple.

If the success of an organization is to be measured by the public support which it has commanded, by the extension of its work and influence, and by the gradual dying out of all opposition, it must be admitted that the plan of the academy was a brilliant success. It is true that a serious crisis had once to be met. While Mr. Cleveland was governor of New York, his experience with the survey of that State had led him to distrust the methods on which the surveys of the United States were being conducted. This distrust seems to have pervaded the various heads of the departments under his administration, and led to serious charges against the conduct of both the Coast and Geological surveys. An unfavorable report upon the administration of the former was made by a committee especially appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury, and led to the resignation of its superintendent. But, in the case of the Geological Survey, the attacks were mostly conducted by the newspapers. At length, Director Powell asked permission of Secretary Lamar to write him a letter in reply. His answers were so sweeping, and so conclusive on every point, that nothing more was heard of the criticisms.

The second great work of the academy for the government was that of devising a forestry system for the United States. The immediate occasion for action in this direction was stated by Secretary Hoke Smith to be the "inadequacy and confusion of existing laws relating to the public timber lands and consequent absence of an intelligent policy in their administration, resulting in such conditions as may, if not speedily stopped, prevent the proper development of a large part of our country."

Even more than in the case of the Geological Survey might this work seem to be one of administration rather than of science. But granting that such was the case, the academy commanded great advantages in taking up the subject. The commission which it formed devoted more than a year to the study, not only of the conditions in our own country, but of the various policies adopted by foreign countries, especially Germany, and their results. As in the case of the Geological Survey, a radically new and very complete system of forestry administration was proposed. Interests having other objects than the public good were as completely ignored as they had been before.

The soundness of the conclusions reached by the Academy Commission were challenged by men wielding great political power in their respective States. For a time it was feared that the academy would suffer rather than gain in public opinion by the report it had made. But the moral force behind it was such that, in the long run, some of the severest critics saw their error, and a plan was adopted which, though differing in many details from that proposed, was, in the main, based on the conclusion of the commission. The Interior department, the Geological Survey, and the Department of Agriculture all have their part in the work.

Notwithstanding these signal demonstrations of the valuable service which the academy may render to the government, the latter has done nothing for it. The immediate influence of the leading scientific men in public affairs has perhaps been diminished as much in one direction as it has been increased in another by the official character of the organization. The very fact that the members of the academy belong to a body which is, officially, the scientific adviser of the government, prevents them from coming forward to exercise that individual influence which they might exercise were no such body in existence.

The academy has not even a place of meeting, nor is a repository for its property and records provided for it. Although it holds in trust large sums which have been bequeathed from time to time by its members for promoting scientific investigation, and is, in this way, rendering an important service to the progress of knowledge, it has practically no income of its own except the contributions of its own members, nearly all of whom are in the position described by the elder Agassiz, of having "no time to make money."

Among the men who have filled the office of president of the academy, Professor O. C. Marsh was perhaps the one whose activity covered the widest field. Though long well known in scientific circles, he first came into public prominence by his exposure of the frauds practiced by contractors in furnishing supplies for the Indians. This business had fallen into the hands of a small ring of contractors known as the "Indian ring," who knew the ropes so well that they could bid below any competitor and yet manage things so as to gain a handsome profit out of the contracts. In the course of his explorations Marsh took pains to investigate the whole matter, and published his conclusions first in the New York "Tribune," and then more fully in pamphlet form, taking care to have public attention called to the subject so widely that the authorities would have to notice it. In doing so, Mr. Delano, Secretary of the Interior, spoke of them as charges made by "a Mr. Marsh." This method of designating such a man was made effective use of by Mr. Delano's opponents in the case.

Although the investigation which followed did not elicit all the facts, it had the result of calling the attention of succeeding Secretaries of the Interior to the necessity of keeping the best outlook on the administration of Indian affairs. What I believe to have been the final downfall of the ring was not brought about until Cleveland's first administration. Then it happened in this way. Mr. Lamar, the Secretary of the Interior, was sharply on the lookout for frauds of every kind. As usual, the lowest bid for a certain kind of blanket had been accepted, and the Secretary was determined to see whether the articles furnished actually corresponded with the requirements of the contract. It chanced that he had as his appointment clerk Mr. J. J. S. Hassler, a former manufacturer of woolen goods. Mr. Hassler was put on the board to inspect the supplies, and found that the blankets, although to all ordinary appearance of the kind and quality required, were really of a much inferior and cheaper material. The result was the enforced failure of the contractor, and, I believe, the end of the Indian ring.

Marsh's explorations in search of fossil remains of the animals which once roamed over the western parts of our continent were attended by adventures of great interest, which he long had the intention of collecting and publishing in book form. Unfortunately, he never did it, nor, so far as I am aware, has any connected narrative of his adventures ever appeared in print. This is more to be regretted, because they belong to a state of things which is rapidly passing away, leaving few records of that lifelike sort which make the most impressive picture.

His guide during his early explorations was a character who has since become celebrated in America and Europe by the vivid representations of the "Wild West" with which he has amused and instructed the dwellers on two continents. Marsh was on his way to explore the region in the Rocky Mountains where he was to find the fossils which have since made his work most celebrated. The guide was burning with curiosity as to the object of the expedition. One night over the campfire he drew his chief into a conversation on the subject. The latter told him that there was once a time when the Rocky Mountains did not exist, and that part of the continent was a level plain. In the course of long ages mountains rose, and animals ran over them. Then the mountains split open; the animals died and left their bones in the clefts. The object of his expedition was now to search for some of these bones.

The bones were duly discovered, and it was not many years thereafter before the Wild West Exhibition was seen in the principal Eastern cities. When it visited New Haven, its conductor naturally renewed the acquaintance of his former patron and supporter.

"Do you remember, professor," said he, "our talk as we were going on your expedition to the Rockies,-how you told me about the mountains rising up and being split open and the bones of animals being lost in there, and how you were going to get them?"

"Oh, yes," said the other, "I remember it very well."

"Well, professor, do you know, when you told me all that I r'ally thought you was puttin' up a job on me."

The result was a friendship between the two men, which continued during Marsh's whole life. When the one felt that he ought no longer to spend all the money he earned, he consulted Marsh on the subject of "salting it down," and doubtless got good advice.

As an exposer of humbugs Marsh took a prominent place. One of these related to the so-called "Cardiff Giant." Sometime in 1869 the newspapers announced the discovery in northern New York, near the Canadian border, of an extraordinary fossil man, or colossal statue, people were not sure which, eight or ten feet high. It was found several feet below the ground while digging a well. Men of some scientific repute, including even one so eminent as Professor James Hall, had endorsed the genuineness of the find, and, on the strength of this, it was taken around to show the public. In the course of a journey through New York State, Marsh happened to pass through the town where the object was on exhibition. His train stopped forty minutes for dinner, which would give him time to drive to the place and back, and leave a margin of about fifteen minutes for an examination of the statue. Hardly more than a glance was necessary to show its fraudulent character. Inside the ears the marks of a chisel were still plainly visible, showing that the statue had been newly cut. One of the most curious features was that the stone had not been large enough to make the complete statue, so that the surface was, in one place, still in the rough. The object had been found in wet ground. Its material was sulphate of lime, the slight solubility of which would have been sufficient to make it dissolve entirely away in the course of centuries. The absence of any degradation showed that the thing was comparatively new. On the strength of this, Marsh promptly denounced the affair as a humbug. Only a feeble defense was made for it, and, a year or two later, the whole story came out. It had been designed and executed somewhere in the Northwest, transported to the place where discovered, and buried, to be afterward dug up and reported as a prehistoric wonder.

Only a few years ago the writer had an opportunity of seeing with what wonderful ease intelligent men can be imposed upon by these artificial antiquities. The would-be exhibitor of a fossil woman, found I know not where, appeared in Washington. He had not discovered the fossil himself, but had purchased it for some such sum as $100, on the assurance of its genuine character. He seems, however, to have had some misgivings on the subject, and, being an honest fellow, invited some Washington scientific men to examine it in advance of a public exhibition. The first feature to strike the critical observer was that the arms of the fossil were crossed over the breast in the most approved undertaker's fashion, showing that if the woman had ever existed, she had devoted her dying moments to arranging a pose for the approval of posterity. Little more than a glance was necessary to show that the fossil was simply baked clay. Yet the limbs were hard and stiff. One of the spectators therefore asked permission of the owner to bore with an auger into the leg and see what was inside. A few moments' work showed that the bone of the leg was a bar of iron, around which clay had been moulded and baked. I must do the crestfallen owner the justice to say that his anxiety to convince the spectators of his own good faith in the matter far exceeded his regret at the pecuniary loss which he had suffered.

Another amusing experience that Marsh had with a would-be fossil arose out of the discovery here and there in Connecticut of the fossil footprints of birds. Shortly after a find of this kind had been announced, a farmer drove his wagon up in front of the Peabody Museum, called on the professor, and told him he had dug up something curious on his farm, and he wished the professor would tell him what it was. He thought it looked like the footprints of a bird in a stone, but he was not quite sure.

Marsh went out and looked at the stone. A single glance was enough.

"Oh, I see what they are. They are the footprints of the domestic turkey. And the oddest part of it is, they are all made with the right foot."

The simple-minded countryman, in making the prints with the turkey's foot, had overlooked the difference between the right and left foot, and the consequent necessity of having the tracks which pertained to the two feet alternate.

Washington is naturally a centre of information on all subjects relating to the aboriginal tribes of America and to life on the plains generally. Besides the Geological Survey, the Bureau of Ethnology has been an active factor in this line. An official report cannot properly illustrate life in all its aspects, and therefore should be supplemented by the experiences of leading explorers. This is all the more necessary if, as seems to be the case, the peculiar characteristics of the life in question are being replaced by those more appropriate to civilization. Yet the researches of the bureau in question are not carried on in any narrow spirit, and will supply the future student of humanity with valuable pictures of the most heroic of all races, and yet doomed, apparently, to ultimate extinction. I do not think I ever saw a more impressive human figure and face than those of Chief Joseph as he stood tall, erect, and impassive, at a President's reception in the winter of 1903. He was attired in all the brilliancy of his official costume; but not a muscle of his strongly marked face betrayed the sentiments with which he must have gazed on the shining uniforms passing before him.

[1] Men and Measures of Half a Century, by Hugh McCulloch. New York: Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1889.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares