Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/Sketch of Increase Allen Lapham, LL.D.
|SKETCH OF INCREASE ALLEN LAPHAM, LL.D.|
THE advancement of American science has been greatly promoted by the co-operation of a host of earnest workers, who, asking nothing in the way of money profit or fame, but moved by the pure love of science for its own sake, have been satisfied to labor in special or local fields, and contribute of what they could produce as free gifts to the sum of knowledge. Such a man of science was Dr. I. A. Lapham, who, according to a most excellent authority, "would have held a more prominent position if he had been more ambitious"; who was, however, well enough known to the people of his own State and in scientific circles everywhere; and the fitting memorials of whose life-work are conspicuously visible in the organization of the Weather Service of the United States and the prominent position Wisconsin has taken as a region where scientific thought is active.
Increase Allen Lapham was born at Palmyra, New York, March 7, 1811, and died on Lake Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, September 14, 1875. His father was a contractor on public works, which, in the days of the son's youth, were chiefly canals; he built the arches of the first aqueduct at Rochester, and the wood-work of the combined and double locks at Lockport, on the Erie Canal, and was engaged in other important works of a similar character. Young Lapham's earlier tastes were guided largely by the business pursuits of his father. He earned his first money by cutting stone for canal-locks and making plans of the locks for travelers; then he became interested in the minerals that were found in the rock-cuts at Lockport, and was thus directed to the observation of nature. He next appears, in 1826, as an aid to his father, an assistant engineer, in laying out a road down the Canada bank of the Niagara River below the falls; afterward on the Welland Canal; then on the Miami Canal, under Byron Kilbourn; and, during the two years from 1827, on the canal around the falls of the Ohio, at Louisville, Kentucky. Here his attention was drawn to the study of the luxuriant flora of that favored region, and he began a collection of plants which grew till it numbered about eight thousand species. He also collected the river-shells of the region, and sent several new species to Isaac Lea, of Philadelphia. His first scientific paper was produced in connection with his work here, and was "a Notice of the Louisville and Shipping sport Canal, and of the Geology of the Vicinity," illustrated with plans, geological sections, and a map, and remarkable for containing the first published notice of the occurrence of petroleum in the cavities of limestone rocks. He was next engaged on the Ohio Canal, at Portsmouth, and published in 1832, in the "American Journal of Science," where his former paper had appeared, a second article on the "Geology of Ohio." In the next year he was appointed Secretary of the Ohio State Board of Canal Commissioners, and removed to Columbus, where he continued his scientific studies under the stimulus of improved opportunities; figured as an officer and active member of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio; and served as a member of a committee appointed by the Legislature to investigate and report upon the subject of a geological survey of the State.
In 1836 he removed to Milwaukee, then in the Territory of Michigan, now in the State of Wisconsin, where, or in the neighborhood, he spent the rest of his life, and where he was identified with the birth and development of the scientific interests of the Territory and State. It was his privilege here to play an important part in the institution of security and the settlement of land-titles, the effects of which were undoubtedly felt in the peaceful settlement of the country and the establishment of its society. New-comers found the Territory as yet unorganized, and without any provisions for the purchase or pre-emption of the public lands. Conflicts might easily arise, and the best claims could have no legal title to rest upon. The settlers agreed upon the course they would pursue, and appointed Mr. Lapham a register of claims, to take charge of the records of all entries of land and transfers. Under this system farm improvements were made in confidence, and, when the land-offices were established, the register's records were recognized and acted upon as authentic evidences of pre-emption right. Mr. Lapham performed this service gratuitously.
Mr. Lapham's life was henceforth spent between the conduct of a business that secured him a competency without superabundant wealth, and the scientific study of all that related, or could be of interest to, the Territory and State. In 1838 he printed a catalogue of the plants and shells found in the vicinity of Milwaukee; and in 1844 he published a comprehensive work on Wisconsin which served for a long time as a standard manual of the character and resources of the State and a guide to immigrants. A treatise on the grasses of Wisconsin and the adjacent States, which was published in the first volume of the "Transactions of the State Agricultural Society," was the forerunner of a suggestion which he made to the Commissioner of Patents (the Hon. Charles Mason), that the agricultural department of his office might appropriately undertake a descriptive catalogue of all the native, naturalized, and cultivated grasses of the United States. An appropriation was obtained from Congress for this object, and Mr. Lapham was invited by the Commissioner of Patents to undertake the work. It was to include the collection of specimens and their ai-rangement in books for distribution among State societies and agricultural colleges; drawings and enlarged illustrations of the flowers of each species; the collection and distribution of seeds; the preparation of an exhaustive report on each species, and all facts relating to its economic value; and an expedition to the West Indies or South America for the collection of improved varieties of sugar-cane. Several months were spent in the preliminary arrangements for this work; but when the first quarter's account for salary was presented to the Secretary of the Interior, whose indorsement of it was required by law, that officer, who had not recognized Mr. Lapham's appointment, refused to allow it, saying that so useful and responsible a trust should not be conferred upon one whose political sentiments were not, in all respects, in accord with those of the party in power. Mr. Lapham, though disappointed and a thousand dollars poorer for what he had done, went on with his catalogue and completed it so as to include all the grasses of the United States and Territories, so far as they had been previously described and named, with their localities, geographical distribution, time of flowering, etc., which still remains in manuscript. The subject of authorizing this investigation was again favorably considered by President Lincoln's Administration, but any action upon it was prevented by the war.
In 1867 Mr. Lapham, as chairman of a committee appointed under an act of the Legislature of Wisconsin "to ascertain and report upon the injurious effect of clearing land of forests, and the duty of the State in relation to the matter," made a report covering the whole ground of the subject, which was published as a legislative document.
Though particularly interested in botany, Mr. Lapham was active in many other departments of scientific work. In 1847, writing in one of the city papers on the fluctuations in the level of Lake Michigan, he suggested a method for determining whether it had a tide. His observations on the phenomena of the level, begun as early as 1836, were found to be of great practical value in the preparation of plans for river and harbor improvements, and for all works of the cities of Milwaukee and Chicago in any way connected with the lake and rivers emptying into it, and their importance was recognized in Captain (afterward General) Meade's "Report on the Lake Survey" for 1861. On the 3d of September, 1849, he announced, in a paper of the city, that by a series of observations made every three hours, during the month of August, he had ascertained that there was a slight lunar tide in Lake Michigan. A similar statement was made to the Smithsonian Institution, in connection with the report of his meteorological observations for the month. In a report made to the British Association in 1863, he stated that the amount of this tide was about an inch and an eighth, and that subsequently a self-registering tide-gauge, similar to that used by Prof essor A. D. Bache on the Coast Survey, was put in operation at the port, the indications of which, deducing the curves from 5,450 half-hourly ordinates, between July, 1859, and November, 1860, gave results almost exactly corresponding with those of his original observation.
Mr. Lapham was engaged, almost from the beginning of his residence in Wisconsin, in the study of the aboriginal earth-works of the State. He was the first to notice that many of the mounds were really gigantic figures of men, beasts, birds, and reptiles; and as early as 1836 he gave accounts in the newspapers of a turtle-shaped mound at Waukesha and of several other effigies of animals. Perceiving the danger of these structures being obliterated, he, availing himself of assistance offered by the American Antiquarian Society, made a systematic survey of many of them, the results of which were published in 1855, under the title of "Antiquities of Wisconsin," in a fine, richly illustrated volume by the Smithsonian Institution. Twenty years later, near the end of his life, he prepared a series of bas-relief models of some of the more characteristic mounds, for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
In 1868 fragments of a meteorite, afterward known as the "Doerflinger meteorite," were found on a farm about thirty miles northwest of Milwaukee. A specimen of the stone was obtained for the Wisconsin Natural History Society, of which that body, in consideration of the services he had performed for it, gave a piece to Dr. Lapham. Examining his piece, which had been polished and etched by Dr. J. Lawrence Smith, of Louisville, Kentucky, he discovered in it the familiar crystalline markings known as the Widmannstattian figures, and within these another set of lines, to which Dr. Smith, on their being brought to his notice, gave the name of the Laphamite Markings. A representation of this stone, showing both sets of marks, is given in the new "American Cyclopædia," article "Aëerolites." In connection with these observations, Dr. Lapham prepared a complete list of North American meteorites, with a map showing the exact place where every one fell, which, however, has not been published.
Dr. Lapham was one of the first men in the United States, if not the first, to move effectively in favor of general systematic weather observations for the purpose of forecasting and preparing for coming storms. Espy had shown that such a thing was possible; Professor Henry had suggested, in 1847, that the telegraph might he used in aid of such a work; and the Cincinnati Observatory had issued a daily weather bulletin and chart in 1868 and 1869; but Dr. Lapham's efforts were the ones that bore fruit in the shape of national action on a national scale. In 1842 he published, for information and as a stimulus to harbor improvement, a list of marine disasters on Lake Michigan; in 1858 he suggested to a railroad manager, who was building a line of steamers for a lake-ferry, the importance of procuring a knowledge of coming storms. The manager answered, politely, that he had more confidence in the size and speed of his boats than in storm-signals. He afterward addressed a lake-captain on the subject, and the sailor replied that he had "little time to investigate meteorological papers, and had never been impressed with the opinion that our changeable and fickle climate could be put under any rules by which mariners might be guided with any certainty or much profit." The idea, however, was gradually commending itself to the moneyed men of Chicago, when, in 1869, Dr. Lapham met the Hon. E. D. Holton, who was just about to go to attend the meeting of the National Board of Trade, at Richmond, Virginia, and explained his scheme to him. Mr. Holton secured the passage, by the National Board of Trade, of a resolution which Dr. Lapham had drawn up, commending the project to the consideration of the Government. A bill, introduced by General Paine, of Wisconsin, for the establishment of the Weather Service, was passed, and on the 15th of March, 1869, "Old Probabilities," as the office was for a long time nicknamed, was installed. Dr. Lapham was appointed in November, 1871, Assistant Signal-Officer at Chicago, and had the pleasure of sending home, at the end of a month, a draft for "the fix-st considerable sum I have ever received as salary for any scientific work." The amount was $166.67.
In 1873 Dr. Lapham was appointed, in accordance with an act constituting the Geological Survey of Wisconsin, Chief Geologist, with authority to select his subordinates. The fitness of the appointment was universally recognized, but by some oversight the nomination was not sent to the Senate for confirmation. The work was prosecuted by him with great energy and most fruitful results for nearly two years, by which time "the political aspect of the State had changed, and there had been an upheaval of strata of which our geologist had taken no notice." He first learned through the newspapers that he had been superseded. Nearly a month later (March 21, 1875) he received a letter from W. R. Taylor, Governor, notifying him that "all authority (if any possessed by you), as Chief Geologist, ceased and was annulled on the 16th day of February" previous.
On the 14th of September, of the same year, Dr. Lapham, having retired to his farm on Lake Oconomowoc, had just finished a paper on the capacity for fish production of that and other small lakes of Wisconsin. Then he went in his boat upon the lake. He was found a few hours afterward, lying in the bottom of the boat, dead from heart disease.
The nature and variety of Dr. Lapham's scientific pursuits are illustrated by his biographer, Mr. S. S. Sherman, in an anecdote: "When asked, by a gentleman well known in scientific circles, in what department of science he was laboring, he replied, 'I am studying Wisconsin.'" The variety and accuracy of his knowledge made him a kind of encyclopædia—a ready reference on almost every subject; and Mr. Sherman fills several pages of his biography with a list of questions on which he was consulted by farmers, citizens, miners, archaeologists, amateurs, or scientific men like Professor Agassiz (to whom, apologizing at one time for not being able to send a better supply of certain fishes he had asked for, he pleaded that he was "not an expert fisherman"), Asa Gray, and Alfonso Wood. Professor Wood placed him "among the five or six most active and intelligent botanists in the country." Professor Gray declared him the pioneer botanist of his State, whose name would be inseparably connected with its flora, and called a new genus of plants after him, Laphamia. He was one of the founders of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Letters, and Arts, an LL. D. (1860) of Amherst College, an honorary member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Copenhagen, and a member of most scientific associations of the United States. The list of his publications, some of the more important of which have already been indicated in the course of this article, numbers about forty-five titles. Ten of them are upon geological subjects, nine on subjects of botany and natural history, seven climatological and meteorological, three on the antiquities and the Indians of Wisconsin, three upon physical phenomena (the effects of the destruction of the forests, the great fires of 1871, and the great fresh-water lakes), and one is the article "Wisconsin" in the "American Cyclopædia." The others are topographical, or relate to miscellaneous subjects. The last was "The Laws of Embryonic Development the same in Plants as in Animals," which was published in the "American Naturalist" of May, 1875. Besides these, he left a mass of valuable notes and manuscripts, showing the fruits of industrious research.