Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/October 1896/Some Beginnings in Science
By Prof. COLLIER COBB.
LONG before the sciences were pressing their claim to equal rank with ancient learning at Harvard, before Jefferson had seen the establishment of the University of Virginia working under the system of elective studies which he had planned, or before the magnificently endowed institutions of technology were giving what Herbert Spencer regards as knowledge of most worth, we find the beginnings of these things in the newly established university of a State that could boast of only two schools which taught more than the three R's and the very rudiments of the English language.
This modern plan of instruction offered by the University of North Carolina more than one hundred years ago was the work of a committee of six. Two of this committee were graduates of Princeton, one a graduate and ex-professor of the University of Pennsylvania, two had been students of Harvard, but their education at Cambridge had been interrupted by the Revolutionary War, and the sixth was an eminent lawyer. The names of these men were Samuel McCorkle, David Stone, Alfred Moore, Samuel Ashe, Hugh Williamson, and John Hay. The course planned by this committee in 1792 gave great prominence to the scientific studies, especially those which could be applied to the arts. The
report further recommended the purchase of apparatus for experimental philosophy and astronomy, in which must be included a set of globes, barometer, thermometer, microscope, telescope, quadrant, prismatic glass, electrical machine, and an air-pump. The ancient classics were made elective, the degree of Bachelor of Arts being obtainable without the study of either Latin or Greek. In 1800, however, Latin was made a required study, and an election allowed between French and Greek; and in 1804 Greek was added to the required studies. It is remarkable that this scheme, adopted in 1792, is almost identical with that adopted by Congress for the colleges to be formed under what is known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College Land Act of 1862. But its interest for us to-day lies in the fact that it led to the establishment of the first astronomical observatory in the United States, to the first geological survey by public authority in America, and to the first equipment for the teaching of electricity.
The men chosen by the trustees to begin this work were David Ker, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin; Charles W. Harriss, a Princeton man of the class of 1789, Professor of Mathematics; and Samuel A. Holmes, also an alumnus of Princeton. Mr, Harriss was succeeded in his professorship by Joseph Caldwell, Princeton, 1791, who was a tutor at Princeton at the time of his appointment to the professorship in North Carolina.
To Dr. Caldwell we owe the realization of the hopes of the original committee, the ultimate establishment of the observatory, the geological survey, and the electrical laboratory. A letter written by Prof. Harriss from Chapel Hill, April 10, 1795, shows something of the spirit which Dr. Caldwell was to find in the young university. In it this Princeton man says: "The constitution of this college is on a more liberal plan than that of any other in America, and by the amendments which I think it will receive at the next meeting of the trustees its usefulness will probably be much promoted. The notion that true learning consists rather in exercising the reasoning faculties and laying up a store of useful knowledge, than in overloading the memory with words of dead languages, is becoming daily more prevalent. It is hard to deny a young gentleman the honor of a college, after he has with much labor and painful attention acquired a competent knowledge of the sciences, of composing and speaking
The Old Telescopes as they are To-day in the Mitchell Observatory.
Drawn by E. L. Harris.
with propriety in his own language, and has conned the first principles of whatever might render him useful or creditable in the world, merely because he could not read a language two thousand years old." This letter might well be dated from Boston a century later, for it was nearly a century before such ideas of the essentials of an education were gaining ground with our foremost educators. The literary societies established in 1795 took mottoes in keeping with the spirit of the day, that of the Dialectic Society being "Love of Virtue and Science," and the motto of the Philanthropic Society, "Virtue, Liberty, and Science,"
The first gift to the university, other than lands and money, came from the ladies of Raleigh and Newbern, who contributed a
pair of globes, a compass, and a quadrant. The first student, Hinton James, chose as the subjects of his senior forensics, "The Uses of the Sun," "The Commerce of Britain," and "The Motions of the Earth."
The young Professor of Mathematics was made president of the university in 1804. His prosperity culminated in 1824, when the financial condition of the university was so good as to allow the trustees to send him to Europe for the purchase of scientific apparatus and books, appropriating six thousand dollars for the purpose.
Soon after his return from Europe President Caldwell planned an observatory, which he built with his own money. The building was finished in 1827, and in the observatory he placed the instruments which he had brought from Europe. These were a meridian transit telescope, made by Simms, of London; an altitude and azimuth telescope, also made by Simms; a telescope for observations on the earth and sky, made by Dolland, of London; and an astronomical clock with a mercurial pendulum, made by Molineux, of London. To these stationary instruments were added a sextant, made by Wilkinson, of London; a portable reflecting circle, made by Harris, of London; and a Hadley's quadrant.
Before the completion of the observatory building, the clock and meridian transit were set up and used in the library of the university, which was also Prof. Caldwell's lecture room. Here began, in 1825, the first systematic observations upon the heavens made in the United States. Dr. Caldwell was assisted by Profs. Mitchell and Phillips, and their first work was to find the approximate values of the longitude and the latitude of the building in which they worked. Mitchell was a Yale man of the class of 1813, a native of Connecticut, and a descendant of John Eliot, the apostle to the Indians. Phillips was an Englishman, and a son of a clergyman of the Church of England.
Upon its completion in 1827 the instruments were moved into I he observatory, where observations were made by Dr. Caldwell and his colleagues. The materials used in the building were very poor; the bricks in the wall soon crumbled, and it became necessary, soon after the death of Dr. Caldwell, in January, 1835, to remove the instruments. The building then went rapidly to decay, and fell a victim to fire in 1838.
Observations were, however, continued by Dr. Elisha Mitchell in the attic of the large wooden building which he used as a chemical and metallurgical laboratory. In each end of the attic were two large windows, and in the roof eight others, four on either side. These observations were continued until the summer of 1857, when Prof. Mitchell lost his life upon the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, the mountain which bears his name. By his observations in 1835, 1838, 1844, and 1856 he had established
the fact that the peaks of the Black Mountains in North Carolina are the highest east of the Mississippi.
Prof. Phillips has told us that in order "to study the constellations and to show them to his pupils. Dr. Caldwell built on the top of his own residence a platform surrounded by a railing. Here he would sit night after night, pointing out to the seniors, taken in squads of three or four, the outlines of the constellations and their principal stars, and the highway of the planets and the moon. Dr. Caldwell also built in his garden, where they still stand, two pillars of brick, that their eastern and western faces, carefully ground into the same plane, might mark the true meridian. Near these pillars stood a stone pillar, some five feet high, bearing upon its top a sundial for marking the hours of the day." Before the coming of Mitchell, Princeton thought and Princeton methods had prevailed in the University of North Carolina
to the exclusion of all others. But in 1817, Denison Olmsted, a classmate of Mitchell's at Yale, was elected Professor of Chemistry and Geology. Messrs. Mitchell and Olmsted were recommended to Judge William Gaston, then a member of Congress, by the Rev. Sereno Dwight, chaplain of the United States Senate, as young men who were likely to become prominent scientists; and the trustees, upon this recommendation, and upon that of Hon. George E. Badger, who had been their classmate at Yale, offered them chairs in the university.
In 1821 Olmsted laid before the Board of Internal Improvements of North Carolina a proposition to undertake a geological and mineralogical survey of the State. This letter is
preserved in the executive office at Raleigh. The board approved, and presented the matter to the Legislature. But the Legislature took no notice of the matter until two years later, when the proposition was renewed. The survey was authorized by act of the General Assembly, ratified December 31, 1823. Prof. Olmsted was appointed to begin the survey under direction of the State Board of Agriculture, prosecuting the work during the vacations of the university. Thus was established the first geological survey by public authority in America. It was sustained by an annual appropriation of two hundred and fifty dollars, continued for five years. When Mr. Olmsted resigned in 1825 to accept a professorship at Yale, Dr. Mitchell took up the work of the survey in addition to the duties of his professorship in the university. Olmsted's report was published in two parts, in 1824 and 1825, and filled in all about one hundred and twenty
The Astronomical Clock.
This clock still keeps the time for the university.
Drawn by E. L. Harris.
octavo pages. The American Journal of Science observes of this survey that, regarded especially as the gratuitous vacation work of a single individual, and in view of the state of geological science in this country at the time, it "must certainly be looked upon as creditable in the highest degree both to the enterprise and to the scientific ability of its projector, and it has undoubtedly been of great benefit not only to the State which authorized it, but to the country and to science generally, by the stimulus which it afforded to similar enterprises in other States."
A few years later, in 1829, we find Dr. Caldwell purchasing of W. and S. Jones, mathematical instrument makers, London, the equipment for an electrical laboratory at the University of North Carolina. The first item on the bill, which lies before me as I write, is "a three-feet plate electrical machine with large branch conductor, supported by two glass pillars, double collectors, mounted in strong mahogany, varnished frame, with six brass legs fitted into brass sockets and screw nuts, negative brass conductor on claw-feet stand from the ground, with connecting sliding
Prof. Mitchell's Laboratory and Observatory.
After photograph by Collier Cobb.
tubes, brass bells and wires, etc., £45." The total amount of this first bill for electrical apparatus was £153 4s. 6d.
Dr. Caldwell published a Compendious System of Elementary Geometry, in seven books, to which an eighth is added, containing such other propositions as are elementary; subjoined is a Treatise on Plane Trigonometry. He was one of the earliest advocates in the South of popular education by the State.
Dr. Mitchell was the author of a Manual of Chemistry, a second edition of which was passing through the press at the time of his death; a Manual of Geology, illustrated by a geological map of North Carolina; a Manual of Natural History, and a Geography of the Holy Land. Between 1830 and 1840 he contributed many valuable articles to Silliman's Journal.
Denison Olmsted became more widely known than either of the other pioneers in science. In the course of his work at Chapel Hill he gave the first geological description of the Deep River coal beds, and of the accompanying New Red sandstone, and referred the strata correctly to the same age with the Richmond coal beds and the Connecticut River sandstones. He began researches to determine the practicability of obtaining illuminating gas from cotton seed, but removed to New Haven before he had secured definite results. His Natural Philosophy, which is still a standard work, appeared in 1831, and his Astronomy, another important work, in 1839.
One wonders why such good beginnings should have borne so little fruit; but when we bear in mind that the institution which thus early fostered science had the greater part of its endowment fund swept away by the civil war, that the spirit of the South since that great event has been largely commercial and industrial, and that the income of the old university, from legislative appropriations, tuition fees, and endowment funds, is only forty-five thousand dollars, the wonder ceases.