The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876
At one time, historians of American science considered the nineteenth century to be a valley between the peaks of the outstanding individual efforts of Colonial scientists, exemplified by Benjamin Franklin, and the internationally respected community of the twentieth century. Beginning about 1960, however, scholars altered their view. The nineteenth century gained recognition as the period during which the institutional foundation of American science was built. It was this institutional foundation which supported the characteristic quantitative and qualitative growth of the American scientific community of the twentieth century. Instead of asking why there were so few great American scientists in the nineteenth century, as compared with the twentieth, historians began focusing on the demographics and characteristics of the community that did exist. They concentrated on questions of education, funding, organization, discipline building, and communication.
Robert V. Bruce’s book synthesizes this historical research and summarizes it in a format accessible to the nonspecialist. He has read almost everything, if not everything, written on nineteenth century American science since the 1950’s, most of the earlier secondary literature, and large quantities of the historical manuscripts and published primary material. Arguing that the national patterns and institutions in science established during the years 1846 to 1876 have endured into the late twentieth century, he describes the establishment and evolution of those patterns and institutions. Excluded from his discussion are medicine, the sciences of man, and the social sciences, such as anthropology and geography. Technology is viewed in relation to science. Throughout, he emphasizes the scientific process rather than the product.
The first two sections of the book, approximately the first half, set the stage. Bruce begins by discussing the European model of science which Americans embraced and the efforts by Americans to learn at first hand what Europe had to offer. These “pilgrims,” as Bruce calls them, ultimately became the leaders of the American scientific community. He then describes what life was like for an antebellum American scientist, including common educational and career patterns, and the contributions made by Americans to the various scientific disciplines during these thirty years. Much of this description is dependent upon a study Bruce made of more than one thousand scientists and technologists listed in the Dictionary of American Biography and active sometime between the years 1846 and 1876.
The first facet to be analyzed is the geographical distribution of scientists. Science was essentially an urban phenomenon, which meant that most of the scientific activity in the United States took place in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, the regions of large cities. Aiding the scientists in these regions were public support and a long tradition of scientific activity going back to Colonial days. The South and Midwest lacked these two essential ingredients as well as equivalent numbers of large urban centers.
Bruce characterizes American scientists as impatient, favoring research fields which required minimal training and expense and promised the most immediate returns and applications. They sought relatively unexplored problems and uncrowded fields. In a word, they were pragmatic, building on their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses.
They were a fairly uniform group—almost all of them were white males, typically college-educated and the sons of professionals. Most were professionals, dependent upon their science for their living. The majority taught, although one-third worked for either a state government or the federal government sometime during their...
(The entire section is 1558 words.)