THE LAUNCHING OF MODERN AMERICAN SCIENCE 1846-1876 by Robert V. Bruce
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THE LAUNCHING OF MODERN AMERICAN SCIENCE 1846-1876

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The emphasis is on American in this superb study of the dawn of science and technology in the United States. Bruce, a historian with a degree in mechanical engineering, is now a professor emeritus at Boston University. His premier focus in this and earlier books is mid- to late- 19th-century America, and one feels in the presence of a master who creates a reality of time and place that is breathtaking. Bruce has chosen the period from 1846 to 1876 as pivotal--1846 because it signalled the end of the Mexican War and America's western expansion. It was also the year of the founding of the Smithsonian Institution, the invention of the sewing machine, and the arrival in America of Louis Agassiz. The year 1876, his terminus, marked the nation's first centennial, the founding of Johns Hopkins University, the invention of Bell's telephone and the establishment of Menlo Park as Edison's invention factory. Between the two poles, there is a fascinating, ugly-duckling sort of tale: in the early 19th century, higher education was in a dreary state in America with virtually no ""science"" and less mathematics. So, the few who were able (intellectually and financially) went to Europe to learn the content, and also the style and mores, of science, and came home to begin noteworthy careers. Bruce singles out Alexander Bache (Benjamin Franklin's great-grandson), Joseph Henry, Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, and Benjamin Gould as among the pilgrims who came back to prosper and who later formed part of an elite scientific clique established by Bache--the Lazzaroni These few were able to steer the wheel of progress in the middle decades by controlling college presidencies, professorships and other academic plums. Ironically, it was the Lazzaroni who moved Congress to establish the National Academy of Sciences in 1862 (modeled after the autocratic French Academy)--a move that led to their own demise and eventual triumph of the Academy. Bruce meticulously documents the text with names, numbers, dates and places, with vignettes and personality sketches, noting that it was the American style of science to develop technique, to observe, describe and catalogue, rather than theorize. No wonder that much of progress was in geology and botany, in astronomy and paleontology. Mathematics remained obscure and physics barely existed in this hard-nosed, pragmatic society. The economy and war devastated science during the 30-year period (unlike WW II). By the 60's and 70's, however, Americans were beginning to make their mark. Agassiz, so long the doyen at Harvard, was subject to ridicule for his anti-evolutionist stand. Congress passed the Land Grant Act establishing state university systems; curricula expanded; teaching labs were established; subfields of science were carved out, and technology found its way into a system that set the pace for the future of science in America. A scholarly gem.

Pub Date: April 3rd, 1987
ISBN: 1597404241
Publisher: Knopf