The Strength of American Materials — An Environmental History of Engineering Science

From the Franklin Institute’s General Report on the Explosions of Steam-Boilers  

One of the many pleasures of writing “Tocqueville’s Ghost” for HSNS (discussed on AmericanScience here) was revisiting Ann Johnson’s “Material Experiments: Environment and Engineering Institutions in the Early American Republic,” from Osiris in 2009.

It’s a fascinating essay and makes a convincing case for rethinking the sort of science and engineering going on at West Point and in the Corps of Engineers in the early nineteenth century. Johnson shows how the West Point/Corps project adapted the French Polytechnique model in research as well as teaching, creating in the process a very productive “research school.” She shows how prominent men of science like Alexander Dallas Bache carried on later celebrated work (most prominently his steam-boiler experiments, above) that owed much to their time working with Joseph Totten and the Corps of Engineers at Fort Adams.

Just as interesting for our blog and our HoTeEs/HoTMESs discussions, is the way Johnson succeeds in fusing environmental history with the history of science and of technology. Johnson forces us to think about the material conditions of early American engineering research.


Johnson centers her story at Fort Adams, a Corps of Engineers construction site, where Totten (a West Point grad, surveyor, and then engineer with the Corps) developed a research program for determining the qualities of American building materials—from stone to lumber to mortar— while supporting the building of the fort. Totten’s West Point training led him to appreciate French mathematical engineering—he wanted to fit discoveries to formulas. But he remained a committed empiricist too. 

Totten was also an effective organizer and committed to innovative experimentation. He arranged to have a steady flow of West Point graduates come through Fort Adams, ensuring they devoted themselves to scientific research, and built the Fort in the process. Those grads developed experimental techniques and wrote papers that were published in the best American scientific journals: American Journal of Science and Arts and especially the Journal of the Franklin Institute after Alexander Dallas Bache took over at the Franklin Institute. These studies concerned practical problems but the results they produced, including various material constants for a variety of American materials, were meant to contribute to broader international, theoretical scientific investigations.

Johnson draws our attention to scientific raw materials here—that’s the contribution of environmental history—and it strikes me as very important. Her researchers faced peculiar challenges brought on by use of unfamiliar materials—materials that didn’t appear in their European engineering books. In this sense, engineering bears a remarkable resemblance to a field science or to medicine (think bioprospecting).

Johnson couches these points—which most interested me—in a more difficult to substantiate argument about national identity and character—her main claim is that Americans understood themselves in part via the mediation of men of science like Totten, who explained the remarkable natural world of the Americas, understood themselves and their nation to exist within a providential scheme, and used that nature and scheme as their method for getting a foot in the door of international science.

The danger here is creating some version of American exceptionalism. Thinking about the history of science in America in particular, Nathan Reingold worried about a “scientific analogue of the Turner thesis”*—an argument that American nature somehow made American science peculiar or unique. Reingold saw this happening in arguments that the wealth and newness of American materials caused American scientists to avoid theory, that the abundance of stuff to count and catalog obviated the need for theoretical sophistication. Johnson safely avoids those shoals—she shows that this is a theoretically interesting operation. But we do hear about “uniquely American materials” and hear that these engineer’s sense of the strangeness of their environment could help define the nation. If there is an exceptionalist position—and I am not sure if there is—its different than those that came before.

*Nathan Reingold, “American Indifference to Basic Research: A Reappraisal,” in Science, American Style, 68.

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