Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/November 1896/Sketch of William C. Redfield

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 50 November 1896  (1896) 
Sketch of William C. Redfield
PSM V50 D012 William C Redfield.jpg


THE life of William C. Redfield, said Prof. Denison Olmsted, in a memorial address delivered at the time of his death, "affords an interesting and instructive theme for contemplation in a threefold point of view — as affording a marked example of the successful pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, as happily illustrating the union in the same individual of the man of science with the man of business, and as exhibiting a philosopher whose researches have extended the boundaries of knowledge and greatly augmented the sum of human happiness."

Mr. Redfield was born near Middletown, Conn., March 26, 1789, and died in New York city, February 13, 1857. His father followed the seas as a profession from early youth to the time of his death. His early training was therefore derived from his mother. He was given such instruction as the common schools afforded. Having removed to Upper Middletown, now Cromwell, he was apprenticed to a saddler. He gave all the time he could afford, which was only a part of his evenings, to study, preferably of science, having most of the time only the light of the wood fire to read by. But before he was twenty-one years old "he had acquired no ordinary amount and variety of useful knowledge." With other young men of the village he formed a debating society, which was called the "Friendly Association," and which collected a library. Dr. William Tully having settled in the village, young Redfield applied to him for the loan of some books, and engaged his interest. No particular book was asked for, and the cases were opened for him to choose. He selected Sir Humphry Davy's Elements of Chemistry.

His mother removed to Ohio during his apprenticeship, and in 1810 he set out to visit her, going, with two companions, on foot. He regularly took notes of what he observed and experienced in a tramp through the country of western New York and northern Ohio, which was then very primitive; returning in the spring, again on foot, he took a more southerly route. His notes were afterward turned to good account in making the sketches of the railroads he projected. After this journey he engaged in business in Middletown, following his trade and keeping a small country store. He assumed the initial C. when he had come of age. In 1827 he removed to New York city.

A violent storm had swept the Eastern States, September 3, 1821, which became memorable as the "Great September Gale." Shortly after it occurred Mr. Redfield traveled through a part of the region over which it had passed, and was surprised to observe that in one part of his route the trees lay with their heads pointing toward the northwest, and in another part in the opposite direction or toward the southeast, and to learn that while the wind had been blowing violently from the southeast at Middletown, it had been blowing just as violently less than seventy miles away from the northwest. These facts and his reflections upon them led him to certain conclusions which business engagements prevented his developing at the time, but which he published, fortified by the citation of numerous observations and with illustrations drawn from other storms, in an article in the American Journal of Science for January, 1832, on The Prevailing Storms of the Atlantic Coast. His conclusions were, in short, that the storm was a great advancing whirlwind, and that tornadoes generally revolve on an axis of rotation and move with the main currents, exhibiting, consequently, retrograde motion on one side of the axis and progressive motion on the other side. In a subsequent article in the same journal he discussed the hurricane of August, 1831, as illustrating the position that storms and hurricanes are gyratory in action, and move with the general current of the region in which they occur. These views are now in the main accepted facts in meteorology.

Prof. Olmsted gives, in his memorial address, a very interesting account of the way the first article came to be published. In it we have a picture of the man Redfield. "I chanced at this period,"he says, "to meet him for the first time on board a steamboat on the way from New York to New Haven. A stranger accosted me, and modestly asked leave to make a few inquiries respecting some observations I had recently published in the American Journal of Science on the subject of hailstorms. I was soon made sensible that the humble inquirer was himself a proficient in meteorology. In the course of the conversation he incidentally brought out his theory of the laws of our Atlantic gales, at the same time stating the facts on which his conclusions were founded. This doctrine was quite new to me, but it impressed me so favorably that I urged him to communicate it to the world through the medium of the American Journal of Science. He manifested much diffidence at appearing as an author before the scientific world, professing to be only a practical man, little versed in scientific discussions, and unaccustomed to write for the press. At length, however, he said he would commit his thoughts to paper and send them to me on condition that I would revise the manuscript and superintend the press. Accordingly, I received the first of a long series of articles on the law of storms and hastened to procure its insertion in the Journal of Science. Some few of the statements made in the earliest development of his theory he afterward found reason for modifying, but the great features of that theory appear there in bold relief."

Other articles confirming the position first taken followed, among them one on the hurricanes and storms of the West Indies and the coast of the United States, and the uniformity of their general character, in which the storms of the China Sea were shown to be similar to those of the West Indies, and the gyrations in the southern hemisphere to be opposite to those in the northern; one presenting a general view of the atmosphere and its currents, and a classification of storm winds, predicating the identity of whirlwinds and water spouts, and discussing the great aërial currents; and articles on tidal movements, climate as connected with atmospheric and oceanic currents, the Gulf Stream, and polar currents.

The main features of Mr. Redfield's theory of storms, as stated by Prof. Olmsted, are:

"That all violent gales or hurricanes are great whirlwinds, in which the wind blows in circuits around an axis either vertical or inclined; that the winds do not move in horizontal circles, but rather in spirals toward the axis—a descending spiral movement externally and ascending internally.

"That the direction of revolution is always uniform, being from right to left or against the sun on the north side of the equator, and from left to right or with the sun on the south side.

"That the velocity of rotation increases from the margin toward the center of the storm.

"That the whole body of air subjected to this spiral rotation is, at the same time, moving forward in a path at a variable rate, but always with a velocity much less than the velocity of rotation, being at the minimum, hitherto observed, as low as four miles, and at the maximum forty-three miles, but more commonly about thirty miles an hour, while the motion of rotation may be not less than from one hundred to three hundred miles per hour.

"That in storms of a particular region, as the gales of the Atlantic or the typhoons of the China Sea, great uniformity exists in respect to the path pursued; those of the Atlantic, for example, usually issuing from the equatorial regions eastward of the West India Islands, pursuing at first a course toward the northwest as far as the latitude of 30°, and then gradually wheeling to the northeast and following a path nearly parallel to the American coast, to the east of Newfoundland, until they are lost in mid-ocean, the entire path when delineated resembling a parabolic curve whose apex is near the latitude of 30°.

"That their dimensions are sometimes very great, being not less than one thousand miles in diameter, while their path across the ocean can sometimes be traced for three thousand miles.

"That the barometer, at any given place, falls with increasing rapidity as the center of the whirlwind approaches, but rises at a corresponding rate after the center has passed by; and, finally,

" That the phenomena are more uniform in large than in small storms, and more uniform on the ocean than on the land."

"These laws Mr. Redfield claimed as so many facts independent of all hypothesis—as facts deduced from the most rigorous induction, which will ever hold true, whatever views may be entertained respecting the origin and cause of storms."

Mr. Redfield's conclusions were reached after the collection and collation of as many records as possible of observations of the storms investigated, particularly of vessels which had been caught in them, the independent accounts of one storm having been one hundred and sixty-four in number; the charting of them; and the tabulation of the various data of them.

The next step was the suggestion of the methods by which vessels might avoid storms or escape them by sailing out of them.

Views like those of Mr. Redfield were reached about the same time by Dove, but Redfield knew nothing of his work. Colonel Reid, of the Royal English Engineers, at Barbadoes, who was also studying the subject, was struck with Redfield's articles, and entered into correspondence with him, which was continued to their mutual advantage. Mr. Redfield further speculated on the causes of storms—a subject which he was not able to solve, and which is still in large part a mystery.

In 1820 Mr. Redfield became interested in steamboat navigation, and ultimately associated with enterprises for carrying it on. The public had become alarmed about boiler explosions, to the detriment of the passenger traffic. To overcome their objections, Mr. Redfield devised a system of "safety barges," to be towed upon the Hudson by steamboats placed at such a distance that the passengers should be out of reach of the danger of explosions. These barges, which were in use from 1825 to 1829, attained a speed of between eight and nine miles an hour, and were in favor while the terror of explosions continued. But there came a lull in the explosions, the size and speed of the steamboats were increased, and conveyance by barges was discontinued, "to the regret," Mr. Redfield observed in a paper on the subject published in the American Journal of Science, "of those who love quiet enjoyment and whose nerves have not been inured to composure by frequent proximity with the moving power." In the same article Mr. Redfield undertook to show that the exposure to fatal accidents on board of steamboats was much less than attended the use of the ordinary means of conveyance by either land or water, and even than that from lightning. The towing system, originated by Mr. Redfield, though it lost favor as a means of conveying passengers, was extensively applied to the conveyance of freight, and is still an increasingly important method of transportation in that department. Mr. Redfield, associated professionally with the "Steam Navigation Company," continued to apply himself to the improvement of the art, devising better forms of apparatus, seeking for the best methods of regulating steam navigation, which he did not find in legal enactments, inquiring into the causes of boiler explosions and suggesting means of safety, and calling attention to the value of steam in national defense.

While railroads were still an experiment in this country—the Albany and Schenectady Railroad having been completed only in 1826—Mr. Redfield, in 1829, published a pamphlet outlining a project for one system of railroads connecting the Atlantic with the Mississippi, in which he made useful the knowledge of the country which he had gained in his walk to Ohio. The route he indicated was substantially, as far as to the lakes, the one afterward followed by the New York and Erie Railroad. The Erie Canal was then popular, and seemed to respond to the public demand for quick transportation; and so the author set forth, under nineteen distinct heads, the superiority of railroads to canals a principle which was only a theory then, and to which men had to be won by argument. "He even anticipated," Prof. Olmsted observes, "that after the construction of the proposed great trunk railway connecting the Hudson and Mississippi, many lateral railways and canals would be built, which would bind in one vast network the whole great West to the Atlantic States. 'This great plateau, says he, will indeed one day be intersected by thousands of miles of railroad communications; and so rapid will be the increase of its population and resources that many persons now living will probably see most or all of it accomplished.' "

In 1832 Mr. Redfield was associated in the examination of the country through which the Harlem Railroad runs, with a view to establishing a road to Albany. He assisted in procuring a charter for the road, and published a pamphlet concerning it. He further assisted in the survey of a railroad route from New Haven to Hartford. He also showed his faith in street railroads, having as early as 1829 petitioned the Common Council of the City of New York for permission to lay an experimental track in Canal Street. At a later period he was a member of the Board of Directors under whom the Hudson River Railroad was completed.

While Mr. Redfield's fame rests mainly on his studies in meteorology, his contributions to geology were likewise important. Even as early as his journey to Ohio in 1810 he made geological observations. He was always much interested in the geological papers in the American Association, and took part in the discussions of them. The phenomena of the drift period and the signs of glacial action attracted his attention; but, living in the heart of the new red sandstone region of Connecticut, his closest studies were directed to that formation, and the fruits of them appear in several papers in the American Journal of Science. In these papers he described the allied sandstones of New Jersey as well as those of Connecticut, with their fossils, ripple marks, and evidences of the fall of raindrops. His son, John H. Redfield, having, in a description of the fossil fishes of the Portland quarry near Middletown, showed that their structural affinities pointed to a higher position for the sandstone than had previously been assigned to it, he continued the study and published descriptions of several new species of ichthyolites. The last paper he read before the American Association was on the Geological Age of the Sandstones of Connecticut and. New Jersey, and the Contemporaneous Deposits of Virginia and North Carolina. He proposed for them the name of the Newark group, and showed that the ichthyolites contained in them pointed unerringly to the Jurassic group. The collection of fossil fishes which he formed in the course of this study, with special reference to a monograph upon them, was regarded by Prof. Olmsted as having been probably unequaled in this country.

Mr. Redfield was an active member of the American Association of Naturalists and Geologists, and was the originator of its enlargement into the American Association for the Advancement of Science—"the first," Prof. Olmsted says, "to suggest the idea of the American Association on its present plan."

Prof. Olmsted gives a list of sixty-two scientific papers in meteorology, physics of the globe, and geology, on steamboats, etc., published by Mr. Redfield. Forty-five of these are to be found in the first fifty volumes of the American Journal of Science, and twenty-eight of them are registered in the catalogue of the Astor Library.


Seeking to determine what attracted insects to flowers—whether the color, shape, or odor—M, Félix Plateau experimented with single dahlias trained against the wall. He disguised the flowers in a variety of ways, covering them all over with variously colored papers, leaving the yellowish centers of tubular flowers, giving different shapes to the papers, covering with green leaves, and so going through the changes. It seemed all the same to the insects: they found the flowers and enjoyed themselves with them in their usual way. M. Plateau concludes that the attractions of the flowers are not in their form or color, but that the insects are drawn to them by some other sense than that of sight, probably by the smell.