Category Archives: Dan

Methodising by Accounts and Other Dreams of Enlightenment – or, A Life in an Early Age of Big Data

“We have taken the liberty to add to this manual, a kind of classic legislative tablet, or memorandum. It will serve for private use, by methodising the most interesting points of the legislature. You may help your memory and do good, if you can thereby shew the necessity of filling the blanks in the assembly with a due portion of the classic information and assistance requisite for the business of the day: sometimes you will find you have too few commercial men, or too few agriculturalists, and often too few LIBERAL AMERICANS, who may embrace correct views for the interest of the whole of the union…” [More]

With that introduction, Samuel Blodget Jr. introduced his readers (in 1806) to the first Congressional scorecard:

Source: Samuel Blodget Jr., Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (Washington, D.C., 1806) from hathitrust.org
Although, really, it’s more an account book than a scorecard. Blodget hoped to rationalize his nation’s government by teaching its leading thinkers to figure like merchants, and keep proper accounts. Moreover, Blodget believed in numbers’ almost mystical power to open minds. After presenting a table comparing the nation’s population, state income, size, and militia strength to that of other nations, he mused on the benefits of looking at such extensive tables: “the mere habit of contemplating subjects of magnitude, will help to cure local prejudices.”[More] He dreamed of a nation led by universalists, unburdened by prejudice or interest—all driven by and committed to data (the Big Data of the day). It was a big dream.

But Samuel Blodget, Jr. knew how to dream big dreams. His contemporaries had a word for his type: a “projector.” An epithet as well as an honorific, it translates roughly to “entrepreneur,” although projectors’ goals did not have to end in a company, as modern usage assumes. Blodget’s dreams touched the worlds of government, of education, and of finance. Threaded between these dreams ran twin cords of commerce and Enlightenment.

Born in 1755 in Woburn, Massachusetts to a prominent New England projector (whose projects ranged from milling to potash manufacture to fur and lumber trade to canal building), Blodget came of age at the dawn of the American Revolution and in 1775 joined the rebellion, where he eventually joined General George Washington’s staff (while his father sold cloth from his mills to the rebels). He lasted three years before the strain forced him out of the service. But those three years stirred him as much as a philosopher as they did stoke his patriotic fervor (and kindle his abiding adoration of General Washington.)
As Blodget told the story, he overheard a conversation in October of 1775 between Washington, General Nathanael Greene, and others encamped at Cambridge, MA. As they lamented the sorry state of the local seminary—a small affair we know as Harvard—amidst the deprivations of war, Greene offered a promise of hope: once the war was over, the nation would found a university “at which the youth of all the world might be proud to receive instruction.” Washington replied “Young man you are a prophet!” according to Blodget, before explaining that the site of such a university should be a new federal city at the falls of the Potomac. “From this time on,” wrote Blodget years later, “any chart [map] of North America, was in luck, if it escaped the tracing, by penciled lines, a great road from the Pacific to Laboradore, by the falls of Potomac; and also radii for the governmental main roads, from the center to every part of the union.”[More] Even as his other interests demanded attention, Blodget aimed to bring this overheard prophecy to fruition.

The young veteran made a sizable fortune in the next decade through the so-called East India Trade, although he doesn’t appear to have ever made it to China himself. He did travel to Europe twice—at the Hague he began designing the National University in earnest, a work that continued when he visited Oxford. He also found the time to sit (prance?) for John Trumbull, garbed as a revolutionary rifleman.

Portrait of Captain Samuel Blodget in Rifle Dress, by John Trumbull. Source: The Athenaeum.
In 1791, Blodget put his money where his projections were. He invested a magnificent sum[1] in lands in and around the future federal city of Washington. Of the 3,000 house lots he purchased, Blodget granted half (every other lot) to the US government. Once the government built up the city or sold its plots, his plots would gain substantially in value. In this object he found company with a handful of other land speculators—a species in abundance in Early America, where speculation preceded baseball as the national pastime, at least for those with any wealth. But Blodget and his peers’ colossal speculation turned sour as Congress dithered over whether to finance the city’s construction— Blodget blamed congressional divisions for simultaneously embarrassing him financially and frustrating his dream of a federal city and he vented quite a bit of spleen over “party spirit” in his later writings.

While Blodget struggled to put together the pieces of his Washington ventures, he hoped for better fortunes in northern financial adventures. He launched in quick succession two “Tontines,” a form of lottery-cum-stock institution/instrument that sold shares (graded crudely with a life table such that the older paid less and the younger more), aggregated capital for commercial or charitable activities, and then paid its accumulated assets off to all those who survived in 21 years. Blodget’s first Boston Tontine aggregated $2 million in capital, but lost a bid for incorporation— revolutionary elites worried about a “Tontine Gentry” gaining too much economic and cultural power. It did manage to incorporate later as a state bank. Blodget’s second effort, launched in Philadelphia and then extended to Boston with his partner—the appropriately named Ebenezer Hazard—had trouble attracting enough investors, but left in its wake another new endeavor: the Insurance Company of North America—the first general insurance company in the US and, as Hannah Farber of Berkeley recently argued at the Huntington’s Capitalizing on Finance conference, a lightening rod for controversy over the proper role of corporations in early American life. 

Amidst all these trials and activities, Blodget launched one more project, one designed to rationalize legislation and reform the political system that had already so frequently troubled him. He began informally, distributing his thoughts on political economy and his compellations of government census data among Washington friends, many of whom sat in Congress. In 1806, unable to subsidize a free newsletter, he published Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America, promising that any profits would go to the national university. The book opened with an epigraph from Aristotle: “The legislature ought to make the people happy.” Blodget thought that Congress could achieve that goal if it applied the rules and rationality of commercial arithmetic to the practice of governance. In that faith, he trod a path worn by absolutists like Louis XIV’s minister Colbert and more liberal monarchists like William Petty and other British proponents of “Political Arithmetick.” Achieving such a goal in a republican government meant cultivating widely the habits of keeping accounts and thinking with numbers, a realization that fueled broader efforts to teach arithmetic in America as a means of teaching reason. That explains all the blank pages and empty forms in Blodget’s text, left “to be filled with a pen, with the result of future years.” [More] Blodget led a life suffused with numbers and committed to keeping accounts of data—he dreamed that his country would follow.

The War of 1812 struck Blodget hard on several fronts. The Insurance Company of North America, primarily a marine insurer, struggled to adapt to the dangers posed to shippers by the on-going Napoleonic wars and America’s fight with Britain. And the British invasion of Washington D.C. added insult to Blodget’s financial injury in that city. He died in April of 1814, his fortunes so battered (perhaps even to the point of bankruptcy) that he failed to leave the bequest for a national university that had so long been his dream. (In 1806, Blodget prepared a plea to Congress to donate to the National University a sum equivalent to the losses he sustained in his Washington speculations—and in working as the agent of the city’s superintendents. His arguments failed to loose Congress’s purse-strings.)


The United States never founded a national university. But even as Blodget failed personally, his other projects survived him. The Insurance Company of North America and Economica lived on, each in its own way a manifestation of Blodget’s enlightenment dreams acted out in the idiom of commerce.

My thanks to Hannah Farber, who knows more about Blodget than anyone else, for her comments and suggestions.


More Reading:


On Blodget’s early life and family, see:

  • Lorin Blodget, “Samuel Blodget, Jr.,” in Horace Wemyss Smith, Life and Correspondence of the Rev. William Smith, D.D. (Philadelphia: Ferguson Bros. & Co., 1880), vol. II, 514-519
  • “Biography of Honorable Samuel Blodget,” The Farmer’s Monthly Visitor (Manchester, NH) 12, no. 6 (June 1852) 161-164 [paywall].

For more on the “Tontine Gentry” and the fascinating interlinkages between struggles for cultural and economic power in early national Boston and Philadelphia, see Heather S. Nathans, “Forging a Powerful Engine: Building Theaters and Elites in Post-Revolutionary Boston and Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History 66, (1999): 113-143, esp. 121-123 [paywall].

On the Universal Tontine and the Insurance Company of North America, see:

  • A History of the Insurance Company of North America of Philadelphia: The Oldest Fire and Marine Insurance Company in America (Philadelphia: Press of Review Publishing and Printing Company, 1885), 9-12.
  • Marquis James, Biography of a Business, 1792-1942: Insurance Company of North America (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1942), 11-14.
On commercial arithmetic as a mode of teaching reason or managing a monarchy, see:
  • Jacob Soll, “From Note-Taking to Data Banks: Personal and Institutional Information Management in Early Modern Europe,” Intellectual History Review 20, no. 3 (2010), 355-375.
  • Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (New York: Routledge, 1999), 130-138.
  • Julian Hoppit, “Political Arithmetic in Eighteenth-Century England,” Economic History Review 49, no. 3 (1996): 516-540.
On the repeated failures to found a national university, see A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), chapters 1-3.


[1] Blodget paid over $100,000 — which works out to $2.5 million in 2012 dollars in terms of spending power or $7.9 billion 2012 dollars as a percentage of total GDP. I calculated these figures using the invaluable “MeasuringWorth” calculator: http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/

Dragons in the Museum

In Berlin, they keep dragons in the museum. Right next to the lions. And the aurochs.

See for yourself.

(The dragons are the strange-looking cat creatures….)

I recently* viewed the displays at the Pergamon Museum (named for the enormous alter in its first room, more on that later), and found them, once again, entrancing. Only the British Museum’s artifacts compare with the Pergamon treasures.

I arrived at the museum with some new mental baggage and ended up enjoying my visit all the more. Keep reading for more Babylonian aurochs, a king’s bodyguards, a few gods, and a tip to try on your next museum excursion.

Here’s a closer look at one of those aurochs.

Beautiful, right? And well preserved for something from the sixth century B.C.

But, as it happens, this auroch doesn’t only hail from sixth century B.C. Babyon. It’s also a mid-twentieth century creature—one built from old remains, but updated with contemporary (German) skill and creativity.

Here, without such updating, and preserved behind glass, is a more fully sixth century auroch.

Not so sharp, nor so saturated with color, and flaky in a literal sense, but still the same animal.

Undoubtedly some will see these two and think: what a shame that the original wall has been perverted by modern hands (by its reconstruction, first, and then by subsequent touchings up). And they will have a point. There is, as a historian of archaeology who I know argues, a very real beauty in the unbuilt wall—in the boxes of wall bits not reconstructed, but carefully organized and labeled in an effort to faithfully document the past. Those bits have a stronger claim on us as mechanically objective, as being less skewed or altered by interpretation and handling.

But I must admit that I found the ‘perversions’ to be one of the most exciting parts of those aurochs and their neighbors. Here I stood, gazing from the twenty-first century at a hybrid of the twentieth century C.E. and the sixth century B.C. What a glorious confusion of times!

I don’t have many tricks when it comes to museum visits, but the few I have I stick to. First, I never listen to pre-recorded guides and seldom follow human guides—there’s no good reason for this. I’m just stubborn: I’ll find my own way though the museum, thank you. Yet I prefer to go museums with at least one friend. I first came to love art museums when an old college roommate taught me his trick: in every room, you have to choose a painting (sculture, artifact, what have you) that stirs your passions, and then you have to share your choice. Choosing to love (or hate) a precious museum piece proved empowering. Once I had the capacity to dislike “art,” I became capable of loving it. I have since passed this trick along to many others.

Looking at those aurochs, I realized I had stumbled onto a new trick: look for curators’ and scientists’ hands in the museum, and enjoy their work alongside the work of those responsible for the original artifacts. We’ve been talking about museums on the blog in the last few months (here and here), and I owe my new trick to Lukas, but not because of his blog entries.

Last September’s issue of Isis featured Lukas’ “Bringing Dinosaurs Back to Life.” In that article, Lukas argues that dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History ought to be understood as mixed-media displays, meant to awe and attract crowds with their sculptural “iconicity” while also exhibiting the bones (objective artifacts) themselves. It’s a lovely essay, complete with a fascinating section on the way that AMNH curators used the bones to test out theories of dinosaur structure and consider the question of dinosaur’s distant progeny (birds or reptiles). But what I loved most was the way that thinking about the objects as mixed media turned the focus back on the curators, and on the work of science (and art and invention) that necessarily goes along with museum work.

So when I see these guys (some of my all time favorites),

I can appreciate them all the more, as hybrids, derived from this guy, but enhanced modern hands (the German wikipedia page has more detail on exactly what those modern hands did):

The Pergamon museum also featured another impressive reproduction, this one by Yadegar Asisi, the latest of many attempts to complete the “Great Frieze” of the Pergamon Altar.

Thus Asisi began with these gods at war:

And created a full-fledged battle scene:

In such efforts, the artist/scholar/scientist stands out. We even know his name. What I find particularly delightful, however, is the realization that many skilled, clever, thinking hands fill museums with many, many other hybrids too, just waiting for us to discover them anew.

*Well, it was a couple months ago now, but that’s recent in historical terms.

The Queues of Disneyland, and other thoughts from HSS

My undergraduate course in discrete mathematics introduced me to some of the paradigmatic problems of the field, including Euler’s Seven Bridges of Königsberg or the Gas-Water-Light puzzle (the latter a creation meant, in my experience, to frustrate the solver and make the poser feel smug). Both problems reduce practical or real world situations to fascinating and generalized mathematics. The practical becomes the pure, in other words. At a variety of talks and sessions that I attended at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society (program here), it struck me how flat and unsatisfying a picture of the interactions of science and practice such examples provide us.

Bridges of Königsberg, a map adapted by Bogdan Giuşcă.

I first thought of Königsberg during a fascinating paper by James D. Skee (UC-Berkeley) exploring the use of operations research (OR) in the design of Disneyland and other parks. As Skee persuasively argued, consultants like Harrison Price trained in wartime operations research successfully sold their skills to a new “mass leisure” industry, typified by Walt’s emerging empire. They translated park design into a series of optimization problems and consumer projections; they simulated visitor behavior and solved elaborate scheduling problems. One could imagine this being a story simply of application—using OR to remake parks. Yet there is clearly much more. Price and his associates created new problems and new concepts to deal with the particularities of mass leisure in post-war America. “Design,” a word I would associate with architects and park builders appears to have been undergoing a mathematical formalization in the mid-twentieth century—this was my own speculation and conclusion, Skee was too careful a scholar to make such leaps—on its way to today’s “d-school” ideal. I wonder if some future textbook will hold (or if one already does) a “queues of disneyland” paradigmatic problem.

daVinci’s Vitruvian Man, photographed by Luc Viatour / http://www.Lucnix.be

On either side of Skee’s paper I heard equally evocative talks. One by Emory’s Aimi Hamraie explained the development of laws and standards employed by architects to make buildings accessible to (nearly) everyone. I agreed wholeheartedly with Karen Reeds’ assessment of the paper in the question period, that it was not only well constructed but morally significant. Hamraie identified a continuing tension in the twentieth century transnational development of accessibility standards between ideals (the shadows of Vitruvian man) and distributions (anthropometric data concerned with averages but also with accommodating from 5% to 95% of human variation). Another paper, by Brittany Shields (Penn) considered the design of NYU’s Courant Institute, including the central position given to lounges and the library in the building, as spaces for fertile exchange of ideas. I was particularly intrigued by the idea (I think it was Courant’s) that the mathematics library would serve as the equivalent of a laboratory, with the key feature of a laboratory being that it provides a space for students to share insights and materials—a strange and telling definition of a laboratory.

All three of those papers looked back, as commentator Tom Gieryn noted, to the Cold War. Yet the Cold War played little or any direct role in them. The same could be said for Nadia Berenstein‘s talk “Flavor Added” on the work of flavor chemists from 1954-74. Berenstein (Penn) highlighted the wonderful complexities of industrial science. I found particularly compelling her discussion of flavorists’ work in an increasingly instrumentalized setting. Interestingly, even as gas chromatography empowered flavorists with the capacity to analyze naturally occurring flavor chemicals much more accurately than ever before, the flavorists’ judgments remained crucial. Gas chromatographs could dissect a strawberry, but the best (and most practical) synthetics seldom came by replicating nature directly. Analytical data became creative fodder for the flavorist to practice his scientific art.

The Cold War became a much more explicit object of inquiry and contest in one of the best roundtables I have ever attended. Organized around the publication of an edited volume by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (Cold War Social Science), the session pondered and argued over whether there really was such a thing as “Cold War” social science. But it really sprang to life in a debate over Jessica Wang‘s brilliant and provocative paper on what she referred to as the “immunity of the national security state to knowledge.”* Drawing on Ted Porter’s idea of “thin description,”Wang (UBC) argued that the US national security apparatus privileged thin ways of knowing over thick (even, Sarah Igo noted, as it commissioned and paid for plenty of thick description, as explored in historical work by Joy Rohde or Rebecca Lemov). The discussion challenged Wang’s argument to some extent, but spent much more time trying to explain it—some argued that a preference for thin description owed to the necessities of expanding American empire, others pointed to the hubris of a super power with a series of successful occupations under its belt following WWII, and still others (including Wang) focused on the theoretical ideology of Talcott Parsons and the general social scientists who believed in the power of thin description and simplifying models of society.

On the whole, the papers I saw exemplified the possibilities for historical work in the history of science that reaches out: into the history of mass leisure, disability history, industrial development, and the Cold War state. I’ll close by mentioning a final, lovely paper by John Tresch (Penn) on Michel Chevalier’s Letters on North America (trans. 1839). Chevalier, the “Tocqueville of Techniques” in Tresch’s title, appears a truly fascinating character: a Saint-Simonian apostle and engineer sent to America on a mission similar to Tocqueville’s, but with very different ends. Where Tocqueville found “democracy,” with all the possible perils of that word (the rule by mob), Chevalier saw a beacon of industrial development, of redemptive industrial empire. As I’ve noted on this blog before, I am happy to see Tocqueville de-emphasized and Tresch offers Chevalier to do the job in a way that emphasizes transnational connection instead of national exceptionalism, that sets American western expansion next to French control of Algeria in a story of industrial empire building.

Chevalier landed in America during Jackson’s war on the Bank of the US. He took the Bank of the US as a model for what the French should create, even as the American version stood ready to fall. The bank war has nearly always been told as a purely American national narrative, yet even it clearly belongs to a broader story of modern nation states and their relationship to finance and capital. From this side of the fiscal cliff, it strikes me as a topic worthy of continued attention.

*(or something very close to that—my notes are, I’m afraid, not perfect transcriptions)

Embracing and Communicating Uncertainty

I am hesitant to blog about the hurricane ripping through the Mid-Atlantic, especially while I’m sitting comfortably safe and warm, six time zones away. I’ve read too many sad stories already and seen, electronically, too much destruction to want to drain the moment of its significance, its discomforts, and too often its tragedies. To my friends in the path, and every one else: I hope you’re experiencing a speedy recovery.

Sandy’s Cone of Uncertainty, National Weather Service

Still I think it is appropriate to notice the success of the National Weather Service and its associated forecasters. Without their efforts, and subsequent evacuations, many more people might have been been killed or injured. One key to that success, according to Nate Silver, is the NWS’s embrace of uncertainty, its frank acknowledgement of error, and its skepticism of its own models. The “cone of uncertainty,” above, exemplifies the NWS ethos and makes it public. Instead of simple trajectory, we get a range of possible paths, and the caveat that areas outside the path may still feel some impact of the storm. I’m sure you’ve all seen some version of this graphic recently.

Silver, whose political forecasting blog (fivethirtyeight) offers some of the best analysis of the ins and outs of predictive modeling that I’ve read anywhere*, published an excerpt from his new book last month on the development of weather forecasting. It’s snappily written with a standard new journalism flair. Silver shows us the shiny innards (in-nerds? ha, ha, get it?) of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (which I had never heard of) and makes lame jokes along the way (but who am I, really, to judge?).

While Silver offers a capsule history of weather prediction, his real points are: 1) the embrace of uncertainty has been key to improved prediction and 2) even the best models have flaws that require expert judgment and human intervention. On the first point, Silver contemplates the impact of chaos theory on the way forecasters deal with their data and he notes the increasing tendency of forecasters to make their uncertainty more evident. It makes me wonder if the general public has been learning a new way of thinking, a probabilistic way of thinking, or is at least getting more comfortable with ranges of prediction.

On the second point, Silver draws our attention to NWS technicians who “draw on their maps with light pens, painstakingly adjusting the contours of temperature gradients produced by the computers….” He interviews a NOAA official who explains that there are lots of models and they seldom agree. Those closest to the predictions know just how much they still don’t know. But that does not incapacitate them. Silver draws analogies to poker players, billiards sharks, and high-frequency stock traders in an effort to explain how human judgment can make it possible for people plagued by uncertainty to find an advantage. The moral here is that uncertainty need not lead to inaction, and in fact can lead to smarter action.

I’ll close this post with the “Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath,” written by Emanuel Derman and Paul Wilmott for the sake of financial modelers, but more broadly applicable:


The Modelers’ Hippocratic Oath 

~ I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations.
~ Though I will use models boldly to estimate value, I will not be overly impressed by mathematics.
~ I will never sacrifice reality for elegance without explaining why I have done so.
~ Nor will I give the people who use my model false comfort about its accuracy. Instead, I will make explicit its assumptions and oversights.
~ I understand that my work may have enormous effects on society and the economy, many of them beyond my comprehension.

Good science, it turns out, and good modeling, require a strong dose of humility.

*Seriously, I could make the argument that Silver is just using the election to teach a huge number of people how to think responsibly about statistics and predictive modeling. Ben Schmidt does a similar service for the digital humanities using nostalgic TV shows like Downton Abbey.

On Eclipses and Scientific Thinking: Simon Newcomb, Mark Twain, Ernst Mayr, and Bing Crosby

What do Newcomb, Twain, Mayr, and Crosby have in common? No, they aren’t a 60s folk rock band. The answer is that they all tell us something interesting about the cultural power of the eclipse.

28 March 2006 Solar Eclipse, courtesy of NASA
What is most interesting about them is the way they reflect various ideas about the capacity for scientific thinking among Americans and others, past and present. 
This occurred to me while reading Matt Stanley’s very interesting article, “Predicting the Past,” from the second number of Isis this year (2012). Stanley traces changing attitudes toward the role of history in astronomy and astronomy in history. His centerpiece is a disagreement between Greenwich’s Astronomer Royal, George Airy, and the head of the American Nautical Almanac, Simon Newcomb. Airy turned to ancient Greek sources for data on past eclipses that could help him calculate the “secular acceleration”of the moon, a small but crucial constant necessary for making precise lunar tables. Newcomb, on the other hand, distrusted ancient, unscientific sources and instead ventured to Paris and St. Petersburg, looking for 17th and 18th century data that could provide an alternate route to the same end. Along with fascinating questions about the history of observation, the paper led me to think about about astronomers’ extraordinary concern with error and the quantification of error. Stanley, for his part,  points ultimately to Huxley and Darwin and to a rising faith that science that predict both the past and the future. I won’t rehearse Stanley’s entire argument here, but I encourage our readers to check it out.
Newcomb emerges as a particularly intriguing figure. A long-time computer under Charles Henry Davis and Benjamin Peirce at the Nautical Almanac in Cambridge, Newcomb took over the program and ran it throughout the late nineteenth century. Stanley presents Newcomb in 1871 as so determined to acquire data from the Paris observatory that he “had to maneuver past the Commune barricades to spend this days in the observatory. As he sorted through their extensive records, he reported being distracted by the flashes and booms of nearby artillery fire.” (267) Newcomb undoubtedly enjoyed telling the story—seldom do archival visits provide so ready a tale of scientific heroism. But it also makes me wonder how a close experience with the Commune shaped what David Alan Grier has called Newcomb’s “conservative nature” and his lack of “sympathy for the complaints of workers, labor movements, and strikers.”(When Computers Were Human, 114)
Newcomb had ambitions to make America more scientific. He imagined applying the predictive powers of astronomy to political economy, in striking terms: 

“Were our knowledge of the whole world, including, including every man in it, complete in every particular, and were we able to apply this knowledge at every moment, we might imagine ourselves to predict all economic phenomena by this method much as the astronomer predicts the motions of the planets.” (272)

Apart from this renewal of Laplace’s demonic(!) dreams, he envisioned organizing American society around scientific thinking. As Stanley puts it, “he thought science was a necessary part of citizenship and social progress. If the American people could be trained in science, the country could be improved immeasurably.”(273)

One of the inheritors of Newcomb’s faith was a passionate reader “in popular science, particularly astronomy,” Mark Twain. (275) In a famous passage from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain uses an eclipse to advance his plot. The Yankee headlining the book, who magically travels back in time from the nineteenth to the sixth century, happens to have past eclipse dates memorized. This allows him to conjure up a test to confirm what the “lunatics” were telling him, that the year he found himself in was in fact 538. It also provides him with a tool to free himself from a death sentence: he says he will blot out the sun, and then he does. Quaking with fear from his powers, King Arthur grants him the title Sir Boss, and the story goes from there.

Twain, like Newcomb, understood there to be a fundamental difference between scientific thinking and pre-scientific thinking. That’s what makes Ernst Mayr’s later story so wonderful. Here it is, from the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s “informal chronology“:

 1928 [Mayr] Leads ornithological expeditions to Dutch New Guinea and German Mandated New Guinea. An experience that fulfilled “the greatest ambition of [his] youth.” Collected ca. 7000 bird skins in two and a half years. Dr. Mayr recently recounted an anecdote concerning these expeditions that illustrates the playful side of the scientist: He tried to increase his standing with the New Guinea natives by using a trick employed in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Upon learning from his almanac that a lunar eclipse was about to occur, Mayr announced to the tribe, through an interpreter, that the moon was about to totally darken. Unlike Twain’s characters, however, they were not impressed, and the elderly chief said to Dr. Mayr, “Don’t worry, my son, it will soon get light again.”

Mayr inadvertently tested Twain’s ideas about scientific thinking (and maybe Newcomb’s too, although we probably shouldn’t blame Newcomb for Twain). Those ideas failed spectacularly and hilariously.

Mayr relied on an almanac instead of memory, which strikes me as more sensible and plausible. Hollywood must have thought so too. In the movie version of A Connecticut Yankee, Bing Crosby also consults his pocket almanac to discover the timing of the eclipse. Newcomb, an almanac maker, would have approved. Still, I think there’s an important distinction here. Newcomb made a specialized nautical almanac, a self-consciously scientific document—indeed, a kind of proto-Big Science. Crosby’s Sir Boss draws on an older tradition of texts (if my memory serves right), the farmer’s almanac: one part modern science and one part early modern miscellany, an amalgam of new thinking and folk wisdom. 

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.

Tocqueville’s Ghost


Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences recently gave me the opportunity to review three thought-provoking books and in the process muse on the history of “American science.” You can read the entire essay here.

I had a great deal of fun writing this essay, especially because it gave me an excuse to think about of the earliest figures in the field. For instance:

When Shryock and Schlesinger turned to science, they asked with Tocqueville: is there something distinctive about American science? Looking for American distinctiveness was part of their larger project, which multiplied exceptionalisms in the wake of the U.S.’s rise to superpower status. After the atomic bomb—Schlesinger called it “this terrible engine of destruction”—understanding American science mattered even more. Shryock recast and refined Tocqueville’s laments, explaining that industrial society lay behind the dearth of “pure” science in the United States. Shryock had reform in mind: “one way to overcome American indifference to research is to give more attention to its history.” He was looking at the nineteenth century, but thinking about the twentieth. His fundamental assumption, borrowed from Tocqueville and nineteenth-century discussions, was that politics and national character could have a defining influence over science. (336)

My argument, in sum, is that it more than time to “exorcise” Tocqueville’s ghost. You can decide for yourselves if I’m convincing.

Note: I owe a special thanks to our blog’s dear Hank for his comments, early and often, on this essay, and to the editorial criticisms of HSNS’s book review editors, Angela Creager and Michael Gordin.

Cite: (D. Bouk, “Tocqueville’s Ghost,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42, no. 4 (2012): 329-339.)