Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/September 1876/Sketch of Prof. William B. Rogers

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PSM V09 D538 William Barton Rogers.jpg


THE President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who presides at its meeting this year in Buffalo, belongs to a family which has attained eminent distinction in the field of American science. He was born in Philadelphia, in December, 1805, and is the second of four sons—James Blythe, William Barton, Henry Darwin, and Robert Empeie Rogers, all of whom have won celebrity as scientific teachers and investigators, and of whom William and Robert alone survive.

Their father, Patrick Kerr Rogers, was a man of varied attainments, and an enthusiastic student and teacher of natural science, who, besides lecturing to medical classes, was among the first in this country to establish systematic courses of instruction in chemistry and experimental physics for the general public. His sons were educated chiefly at home under his immediate care, the elder continuing their studies at William and Mary College, their father having been appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry in that institution.

When twenty-one years of age, William gave his first lectures on science in the Maryland Institute, Baltimore, and the following year was appointed to succeed his father in William and Mary College, where he remained until 1835. He was then appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy in the University of Virginia, and there extended his instructions by adding the subjects mineralogy and geology to his course. The same year he organized the geological survey of the State, having, while a professor at William and Mary, begun his geological labors with an examination of the Tertiary region, of which he published, in conjunction with his brother, Henry D. Rogers, two memoirs in the "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society." At this time, besides other chemical researches, he made an analysis of the waters of the Virginia mineral springs, the results of which have appeared in various publications.

He remained at the head of the geological survey until it was discontinued in 1842, having published a series of annual reports and collected further materials, for the completion and publication of which, however, no provision was made by the State. While at the university he published for the use of his students a short treatise on the “Strength of Materials” (Charlottesville, 1838), and a volume on “The Elements of Mechanical Philosophy” (Boston, 1852). During this period of his life, besides the cares of his professorship and of the survey, he occupied himself with original researches in various departments of science, partly geological, in connection with his field-work, and, after the survey ended, chiefly in chemistry and physics.

In 1840 the "Association of American Geologists and Naturalists" was organized. In this society, embracing Hitchcock, Hale, Vanuxem, the four brothers Rogers, Conrad, Emmons, and others, engaged in active scientific research, Prof. Rogers took a leading part, as will be seen by referring to the volume of its “Transactions” (1840-'42), to which he contributed among other articles the following memoirs: “On the Age of the Coal-Rocks of Eastern Virginia;” “On the Connection of Thermal Springs with Anticlinal Axes and Faults;” “Observations of Subterranean Temperature in the Coal-Mines of Eastern Virginia;" and "On the Physical Structure of the Appalachian Chain," etc. In the first of these papers Prof. Rogers showed that the formation in question, instead of being of an age anterior to the Carboniferous, as had been maintained by Maclure and R. C. Taylor, was of Mesozoic time. In the second paper he described the position of more than fifty thermal springs in the Appalachian belt, occurring in an area of about 15,000 square miles, deducing the law that these thermal springs issue from anticlinal axes and faults, or from points very near such lines, and, in connection with their chemistry, proving the important fact of the great preponderance of nitrogen in the free and combined gases of these springs. The observations on subterranean temperature recorded in the third paper were the first published confirmation, as regards the United States, of the law of augmenting temperature beneath the surface of the earth, although similar observations had been made by Humboldt in Mexico. The memoir on the physical structure of the Appalachian chain, etc., was the joint work of Profs. W. B. and H. D. Rogers, founded on their explorations of this belt in Pennsylvania and Virginia, and its prolongation toward the southwest and northeast. The novelty and importance of its generalizations were at once recognized in Europe as well as at home, and gave the authors, "the Gebrüder Rogers," a prominent place among contemporary geologists; and, so far as the development of the physical structure of the Appalachians is concerned, this memoir is still regarded as of classical value.

Prof. Rogers was chairman of the Association in 1845, and again two years later, when it was expanded into the "American Association for the Advancement of Science," at the first meeting of which he presided until it was fully organized.

In connection with his brother, Robert E. Rogers, now become his colleague as Professor of Chemistry and Materia Medica in the university, he published a number of important chemical contributions, relating chiefly to new or improved methods in chemical analysis and research, in Silliman's Journal, between 1840 and 1850. Among these were papers "On a New Process for obtaining Pure Chlorine;" "A New Process for obtaining Formic Acid, Aldehyde, etc.;" "On the Oxidation of the Diamond in the Liquid Way;” “On New Instruments and Processes for the Analysis of the Carbonates;" "On the Absorption of Carbonic Acid by Liquids," an extended investigation; and "On the Decomposition of Rocks by Carbonated and Meteoric Waters," a paper of much interest in its geological bearings.

In the volume of the "Transactions of the British Association" for 1849, Prof. Rogers called attention to the existence of true coal-measures below the horizon of the Carboniferous limestone in the Appalachian belt as discovered by him in the Virginia survey, and referred to in his annual reports.

He married, in 1849, a daughter of Hon. James Savage, of Boston, President of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and author of the "Genealogical Dictionary," and in 1873 removed to that city, where he has since resided. Here, although he early identified himself with the educational and public interests of the community, he did not relax his devotion to scientific labors, which were now, however, more largely directed to the department of experimental physics. Among his contributions to physics at this period may be mentioned a series of papers "On Binocular Vision, giving an Elaborate Analysis of the Phenomena, with some Important Additions to the Researches on this Subject of Wheatstone and Brewster;" "Experiments on Sonorous Flames," in which he described an apparatus for making visible the vibrations by rotating the flame; and "On the Formation of Rings of Air and Liquids"—all of which may be found in Silliman's Journal (1855-'60).

He also published, in the New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, the results of continued observations on atmospheric ozone, and on the auroras of August and September, 1859 and 1860. As a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the Boston Society of Natural History, of the former of which he was for many years the corresponding secretary, Prof. Rogers took an active part in the discussions of the various scientific questions then rising into importance, and made contributions from time to time to their published proceedings. Among the communications to the American Academy we may note papers "On the Protozoic Age of Certain Rocks in Eastern Massachusetts;" "On the Actinism of the Electric Discharge in Vacuum Tubes," of which he exhibited numerous photographs, in connection with his paper on the improvements, by Mr. E. S. Ritchie, of the Ruhmkorff apparatus; and "Experiments disproving, by the Binocular Combination of Visual Spectra, Brewster's Theory of Successive Combination of Corresponding Points."

In the "Transactions of the Boston Society of Natural History" appeared, among other articles by Prof. Rogers, communications "On the Growth of Stalactites;" "Geological Relations of the New Red Sandstone of the Middle States to the Coal-Rocks of Eastern Virginia and North Carolina;" "On the Origin and Accumulation of the Protocarbonate of Iron in Coal-Measures;" "On the Natural Coke and Associated Igneous Rocks of Eastern Virginia;" and "On Pebbles in the Newport Conglomerate."

At the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Prof. Rogers has been a frequent contributor, as well in the discussions of scientific questions as in the communication of original papers, which, however, in most cases, appear only by title in their "Transactions," or are to be found in other publications before mentioned.

In 1853 he removed to Boston, where he has since resided. At the request of his friend Governor Andrew, in 1861, he accepted the office of Inspector of Gas and Gas-Meters for the State of Massachusetts, and organized a system of inspection in which he aimed to apply scientific principles more fully than had hitherto been attempted in the United States. Some account of his methods was given at a meeting of the British Association. During this time Prof. Rogers was often called upon for public lectures on scientific subjects in Massachusetts and elsewhere, and gave several courses before the Lowell Institute in Boston.

Prof. Rogers had long felt the need, in our educational system, of giving to the physical sciences a higher place and more practical methods of teaching than had hitherto been allowed them, and he was therefore eager to avail himself of the opportunity for carrying out these views. In behalf of a committee of gentlemen who had become interested in the subject, he drew up a scheme entitled "Object and Plan of an Institute of Technology," embracing a society of arts, a museum of arts, and a school of industrial science; and he subsequently addressed a memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts, urging the establishment of such an institution. After some delay a charter for the "Institute of Technology" was granted, and Prof. Rogers was placed at its head. A whole square of land on Back Bay was granted for building-purposes—one third to the Boston Society of Natural History, the other two thirds to the Institute of Technology. But the popularity and increasing prosperity of the Institute make it already cramped in its present stately hall, and it will soon be necessary to have another edifice. The detailed plan for the departments of the school, prepared by Prof. Rogers in 1864, has been carried out, with but slight modifications. A marked feature of this plan, which has since been adopted in many other institutions, was the introduction of laboratory teaching, not only in the department of chemistry, but in that of physics, mechanics, and mining, a feature which has no doubt contributed largely to the reputation which the school has acquired for thoroughness of scientific training.

Besides being president of the Institute, Prof. Rogers filled the chair of Physics and Geology for several years after the establishment of the school. It may be added that he was active in founding the American Social Science Association, and was its first president.

But this inventory of the life-work of Prof. Rogers, extensive and interesting as it is, leaves out a powerful element of the influence he has exerted as a teacher over great numbers of young men who have been brought within the spell of his personality. Prof. Rogers is an orator of the first class, and we have loner regarded him as the most impressive and delightful speaker that has appeared before the American Association. And it must be remembered that science puts oratory to its highest test; it is a field in which reason is supreme, and where the speaker is not at liberty to throw logic to the winds, and make his fiery appeal to the feelings and passions of listeners. The scientific orator must address intelligent men, habituated to think for themselves, on the alert against tricks that carry the imagination, while the speaker himself is kept under the close restraints of fact. To be able to captivate and enchain an audience in the pure work of exposition, to fascinate in teaching, is a triumph of oratorical art. Prof. Rogers has been marked by the possession of this rare gift, and before his classes in college, whether treating of rocks, physical forces, or rigid principles of mathematics, he was always able to kindle the enthusiasm of the students, and make the most vivid and lasting impressions upon their minds. We were not surprised, therefore, to note, in a Virginia newspaper of last year, an exciting description of the way Prof. Rogers was received by his old students at the semi-centennial of the University of Virginia, where he "was the central object, on whom were fixed the eyes and hearts of the great concourse there assembled from all parts of the country. It was difficult to get near enough to speak to him, surrounded as he was by such numbers of those who in years long past had attended his lectures." He made an address, the reception of which is described by the writer with a pardonable warmth: "At the dinner of the alumni, Prof. Rogers addressed them in a speech of half an hour. It was a wonderful specimen of eloquence. The old students beheld before them the same William B. Rogers who, thirty-five years before, had held them spellbound in his class of natural philosophy; and as the great orator warmed up, these men forgot their age; they were again young, and showed their enthusiasm as wildly as when in days of yore, enraptured by his eloquence, they made the lecture-room of the university ring with their applause. Such was the effect produced by the off-hand words of this distinguished man of science and unrivaled orator; and those who have heard him in his moments of inspiration will not wonder at the account we have given."

Some time ago failing health compelled Prof. Rogers to retire from the active direction of the Institute. He still, however, has a share in its government, and his returning strength for the last two or three years has enabled him gradually to resume his favorite pursuits.