Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/November 1891/Sketch of James Curtis Booth
THE life of Prof. Booth is divided by Mr. Patterson Dubois, in his memorial address, into three periods: that of his preparatory student life, or the formative period, which closed in 1835-'36; the creative period, so named "because it called into being a method of technical education which has, probably more than anything else, resulted in establishing chemistry as a factor in commerce, and in gaining for the chemist a recognized place in the economy of the world's work," 1836 to 1849; and the period of his official life as melter and refiner at the United States Mint in Philadelphia.
James Curtis Booth was born in Philadelphia, July 28, 1810, the son of George Booth, of New Castle, Del., and Ann Balton, of Chestertown, Md.; and died in Philadelphia, March 21, 1888. He was taught in Philadelphia, at the seminary in Hartsville, Pa., and at the University of Pennsylvania, whence he was graduated in 1829. He then spent a year at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, N. Y. He had a decided preference for the study of chemistry, of which he very early realized the capabilities and the practical value. Seeking opportunities and facilities for the performance of laboratory work in connection with his studies which America could not afford, he went to Europe for them, and was the first American student who visited Germany for that purpose. He spent the year 1833 in Wöhler's private laboratory in Cassel; then practiced for nine months in the laboratory of Prof. Gustav Magnus, in Berlin; and employed the rest of three years abroad in attending lectures in Berlin and Vienna, and in visiting manufacturing establishments on the Continent and in England.
Having returned home, Mr. Booth established, in 1836, a student's laboratory—"the parent of all our existing laboratories for students in applied chemistry"—and became a teacher, "But it was no part of Mr. Booth's idea," Mr. Dubois says, "to make the laboratory course usurp the rightful position of the text-book and the lecture. He saw the great want of a supplementer rather than a supplanter. How truly he discerned what the scientific as well as the commercial world required, and how fully he met that requirement, needs no explanation here. The student's laboratories all over the country—if not beyond—as well as the throng of students who have come into and gone from his own laboratory during the past half-century—all attest the foresight, the judgment, the energy of a scientist and a business man."
In 1836 Mr. Booth was appointed Professor of Chemistry applied to the Fine Arts, in the Franklin Institute. In this capacity he delivered, between 1836 and 1845, three courses of lectures, of three seasons to each course. From 1842 to 1845 he was also Professor of Chemistry in the Central High School of Philadelphia. He interested himself in mineralogy and geology, and engaged in the Geological Surveys of Pennsylvania and Delaware, concerning which Prof. J. P. Lesley has written: "Prof. Booth and John Frazer, then a young man, were appointed by Prof. Rogers, in the spring of 1836, his two assistants in prosecuting the work of the first Geological Survey of Pennsylvania, From spring to fall they traveled along the Susquehanna and Juniata Valleys, blocking out the order of the great formations. Prof. Booth was sent by Prof. Rogers up the Potomac to make a section which could be compared with the Juniata section; and, when these three met at Huntingdon, he announced, to the astonishment of Mr. Rogers, that the mountains which fill the middle belt of Pennsylvania were made by two separate formations, now known as No. IV and No. X. Mr. Rogers was unwilling to accept this conclusion, and instructed Mr. Frazer to go to the Huntingdon Bedford line and make a cross-section from the Broad-Top coal down to the limestone of Morrison's Cove. At the end of the week the three met again in Huntingdon, and Mr. Frazer confirmed the statement of Prof. Booth. Mr. Rogers was still dissatisfied, and then went himself to repeat the section made by Mr. Frazer, finding it correct, and then accepting Prof. Booth's Potomac section. Thus the grand column of our Palæozoic formations was established, and the credit of it is due to Prof. Booth.… Both Prof. Rogers's assistants resigned at the end of the year; and Mr. Booth was then appointed immediately, or not long thereafter, State Geologist of Delaware. His work in Delaware was published in his report, an octavo volume, now so rare that it is impossible to obtain a copy. My belief is that Prof. Booth abandoned field work very early in his career, and devoted himself to his chemical laboratory. At all events he is known in science altogether as an accomplished chemist, with a great reputation for diligence and accuracy, especially in the field of mineral analysis." The Delaware survey was under Prof. Booth's charge in the years 1837-'38; and a summary of the results to which it led was published in the Annual Report of the Survey in 1839, and in a memoir on the subject in 1841.
The act providing for the geological survey of Delaware required that an equal portion of the appropriation should be expended in each county. But the several counties did not all need the same attention. The geologist, however, was expected to spend an equal portion of his time in each county. He improved the time, when the geological work did not demand the whole of it, by traversing different parts of the counties, and imparting to the people such knowledge relative to agriculture as lay within the sphere of his information; and he embodied agricultural essays in his report. Pertinently to this instance of a characteristic weakness of law-makers, Prof. Booth remarked in his report on the unwisdom of allowing local interests to sway so much in legislation, when more could be gained in the long run by taking broader views. Believing that the wealth of the people could be promoted by their employing their own resources, however limited, he directed much time to the development of such as deposits of shells and decomposed organic matter, glass-making materials, potter's clay, iron, and copperas.
In explanation of the admission of theoretical matter into the report, when the work was designed to possess a practical character, he said: "In all probability the number of those who may peruse these pages is large, and their attainments are of a varied nature; some being purely practical men, others again having made considerable attainments in literature and science; and hence it was deemed advisable to adapt the memoir to the various demands of the community.… I am well aware of an opinion, too generally prevalent among men devoted to practical pursuits, that an attention to theories is rather prejudicial than otherwise to the successful pursuit of business. Whatever grounds they may have for such views, they are not valid when applied in a general way to theoretic investigations; for, independently of other proofs of the incorrectness of their conclusions, it may be shown that many valuable practical results have either originated with or were improved by theorists, by those who have experimented with a view to establishing, maintaining, or refuting. Now in regard to agriculture, it may be observed that it had already made considerable advancement when it began to assume a scientific form; but from that period to the present, by deriving assistance from other sciences, and particularly from chemistry, its progress toward perfection has been constant and rapid."
Prof Booth's attention was drawn to the subject of refining cobalt, concerning which little or nothing was known outside of the commercial refineries, by the ill-success of an experiment in mining the metal which was begun in 1845. It was at the Mine La Mott, in Missouri, where he mined a large amount of cobalt, which was sent to England. It was returned as impure; whereupon Prof. Booth at once set to work to discover the best method of refining the metal—and succeeded.
Of Prof Booth's qualities as an instructor Dr. Alexander Mucklé, a pupil of his, as also of Wöhler and Bunsen, and afterward his assistant at the Mint, is quoted as saying: "With this experience of teachers and means of comparison, I can say that Mr Booth had few if any superiors as a teacher of practical chemistry; that he kept abreast of the times by constantly securing the best and latest scientific books and periodicals. A high value was placed upon a course in his laboratory, which soon became widely known and in great repute as a place for learning chemistry; and his teachings are believed to have had a potent influence in developing and disseminating the knowledge of the science and its practical applications."
Prof. Booth was appointed Melter and Refiner of the Mint by President Taylor in 1849, and entered that service on December 10th of that year. The time corresponded closely with the discovery of gold in California. The influx of gold from that source, already heavy, increased rapidly, and added greatly to the work of his office, while the quality of the metal increased considerably the difficulty of dealing with it. The new gold was alloyed with silver in excess of the amount admissible in the coinage, and this had to be extracted. The provisions of the Mint, which had been adapted for the treatment of the bullion which had been previously sent there, were not suitable to the refinement of this gold. New methods had to be adopted, and the whole plan of the parting apparatus had to be reconstructed. It was Prof. Booth's duty to make this adjustment. The process already known in the laboratories had to be expanded and used on a manufacturing scale. "To this work, as well as to all the other labors of his department," says Mr. Robert Patterson, Mr. Booth "brought the full knowledge of theory and practice derived from former professional experience, and further showed, what is not always the case with chemists, a capacity to apply his knowledge in the larger way required for commercial results." There was delay at first in disposing of the gold that came to the Mint, and some impatience on the part of consignors, but the capacity of the Mint was soon enlarged to meet promptly every demand. In the course of five years the pressure of gold at the Philadelphia office was relieved by the creation of a Government Assay Office in New York and a Branch Mint at San Francisco. Then came a change in the standard of silver coin, causing an immense recoinage in small pieces; and then the issue, in place of the old copper cents, of copper-nickel pieces, and, after these, of bronze; each calling for other processes of assay and involving additional work.
An improved process for refining gold was described by Prof. Booth, in a letter to the Wastage Commission, as follows: "I refine usually to 993 and 995 m., and sometimes, to make a finer gold, I heat the alloy of gold and silver with parting acid, so as to nearly separate them, and then heat the residue with oil of vitriol and saltpeter, at a steam-heat, by which I have brought the gold to 998 m. The process is my own, and not known outside of the Mint." A paragraph from an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society for June, 1885, on The Smelting Furnace of the United States Mint, is quoted by Mr. Dubois as characteristic. "My last improvement," Prof. Booth says, "which is still practiced, consists in the very simple operation of melting all the iron residues from the furnaces, even including grate-bars, and keeping them in a quiet melted state, so as to allow the heavier gold and silver to settle out of the iron. When the mass is cold, the precious metal is knocked off the bottom by a hammer as a single tough king, with scarcely a trace of iron in it, while the iron mass above it has never yielded a trace of gold or silver to the assayer. Instead of spending three weeks of annual vacation from melting in hammering tons of accumulated iron, we now melt through the year, whenever convenient, from five to fifty pounds of iron residues at a time. We gathered in one melting, last autumn, a cake of a few ounces of gold and silver from a mass of over fifty pounds of iron in a part of a day, and the latter was entirely free from the precious metals. When I first succeeded with this process, I could hardly believe in the perfect separation from iron, and the late Mr. J. R. Eckfeldt, the best assayer in the United States, doubted it, until, by numerous tests made from a piece of some thirty pounds of iron, he found a total absence of gold and silver."
The difficulties met at the Mint in adapting processes to the various kinds of metallic impurity that came in with the gold and silver, and the responsibility of managing so large amounts, for which he was accountable in law to the full value, weighed heavily and constantly on his mind, and told severely upon his physical constitution, and, according to Mr Dubois, in his later years a painful anxiety "seemed to be ineradicably seared into his very life." His noticeable failure is traced by Mr. Dubois from the great "wastages" of 1872, together with subsequent difficulties in the recoinage of seventeen millions of our gold coin in 1873. Prof. Booth himself wrote upon this subject in a private letter in October, 1887: "The whole truth is that the constantly increasing business of the Mint beyond its own capacity for bullion storage has been increasingly weighing down my anxious thoughts for its safety, and you may add to that the consciousness that I was personally responsible for every ounce of bullion received, and then you will readily perceive sufficient ground for a constant anxious care, which I sometimes imagined to be as the square or cube of the extra quantity of bullion constantly poured in.… It was that constant and constantly augmenting ounce-for-ounce responsibility that finally affected my mind, and I rather think broke me down. I went home quite sick from the Mint early in April, and lay on my back for about three months. I suppose that such a statement will be quite sufficient to explain my present position. I am glad to say that I had sufficient strength to resign from my place in the Mint" (he resigned in August, 1887, after thirty-nine years of service), "although no one is yet appointed to take my place. However, I do not go more than once a week to the Mint, and shall be glad when the string of union is severed.… From my age, over seventy-seven, I hardly expect restoration of full strength, and am satisfied with what Providence designs." His successor was not appointed when he died.
Prof. Booth had a variety of side-pursuits, and was especially fond of linguistic studies, among which he took a particular interest in phonetics, short-hand writing, and the reform of English orthography. He regarded phonography as important in elementary education, and thought it should be required as an essential branch. Having mastered Pitman's Phonography, he perceived the defective character of the text-books on the subject, and himself published an elementary work upon it in 1849—the Phonographic Instructor. The Instructor was republished, with a key, in 1850 and in 1856. The book was a successful one.
Most of Prof, Booth's writings bore upon the special field of his studies and his work. Having become a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1839, he, in connection with Prof. Martin H. Boyé, communicated to the eighth volume of its transactions, new series, a paper on the Conversion of Benzoic Acid into Hippuric Acid. A considerable number of the reports of the Franklin Institute Committee on Science and the Arts were of his writing. In co-operation with Campbell Morfit he prepared a report on Recent Improvements in the Chemical Arts, which was published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1852. The conservative, practical spirit that presided over the composition of this work is illustrated in the preface, where the authors say: "We have freely exercised discrimination in the selection of subjects, and have omitted much that we found in applied chemistry, because novel views need, in many cases, further confirmation to render them reliable in practice, and, if presented too early to the artisan, may be productive of more evil than good. We have kept in view the benefit of the practical man, the manufacturer or worker, and, while we have not avoided scientific terms where they were more convenient, we have generally used words of description intelligible to every one. We have confined ourselves to such foreign improvements in the chemical arts, whether patented or not, as we believed the American artisan might avail himself of, frequently offering critical remarks on them, and sometimes pointing out where improvements were likely to be made."
In the Journal of the American Chemical Society are papers on some methods of toughening gold and silver (September, 1884): A General Method of toughening Gold and Silver in the Melting Crucible (June, 1884); and The Smelting Furnace of the U. S. Mint (June, 1885), from which we have quoted. Other papers, the media of publication of which are not given by Mr, Dubois, are: On Beet-root Sugars (1842); Chrome Iron Analysis (1842); Constitution of Glycerin and Oily Acids (1848); and a Report on the Water-supply of Philadelphia (1862). His most conspicuous effort in literature was the Encyclopædia of Chemistry published in Philadelphia in 1850, which was written chiefly by him, but on the last half of which Dr. Campbell Morfit assisted.
Prof. Booth received the degree of LL. D. from the University of Lewisburg in 1867, and that of Ph. D. from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1884. He was made a member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in 1842; of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in 1852; of the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts in 1853; of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture about 1859; and of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1884. He was President of the American Chemical Society in 1883 and 1884, and declined re-election for a third term; and was interested in the diocesan work of the Protestant Episcopal Church and in various philanthropies. He is described as having been personally a gentleman of refined manners, pleasing address, and a cheerful disposition, which was often obscured, however, by his nervous intensity.