Dionysius Lardner’s American Tour: A Case Study in Antebellum American Interest in Science, Technology, and Nature

Part of the The University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 58)


Dionysius Lardner, a British popularizer of science already well-known in Europe, arrived in New York City from France on 29 September 1840. A little over a year later, on 18 November 1841, he started a lecture tour through the United States that would occupy him for the next five years. Starting in New York City, he then lectured in the major East Coast cities of Boston and Philadelphia, and subsequently set out on the southern and western circuits. His tour included Charleston, South Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi; St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, “and other Western and Central cities.” He concluded by revisiting the East Coast cities where he started.


York City Early Nineteenth Century Steam Engine Moral Progress Instrument Maker 
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  1. 1.
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  2. 2.
    Dionysius Lardner, Popular Lectures on Science and Art, 2 vols. (New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1846). This was preceded by revised offprints of newpaper accounts, for which see note 15, and followed by many subsequent editions, for which see note 24. Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to the first edition.Google Scholar
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    One contemporary comment on what makes a successful lecturer amid the avid lecturing climate of the early 1850s was “Reputation, it has been discovered, will ‘draw’. Reputation alone will draw. That airy nothing is, through the instrumentality of the new institution [of lecturing], convertible into solid cash, into a large pile of solid cash.” J. Parton, The Life of Horace Greeley, Editor of the New York Tribune (New York: Mason Brothers, 1855), p. 327.Google Scholar
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    Consider Joseph Henry’s advice to an unknown young man seeking career counseling in engineering: “I think you have made a good choise and provided you can persever in the course you are now in there is every probability that you will become an important and useful man. The professions of Law and Medicine are so much crowded that provided a person has the proper talents for the business of practical engineering I think his chance of success is greater in this line than in either of the others.” 15 March 1845, retained copy, Henry Papers, Smithsonian Archives, printed in Joseph Henry Papers, 6: 246-250, quotation on pp. 246-247. See also Scott, “Popular Lecture, ” pp. 795-798, for his assessment of the audience, on which my account is partially based.Google Scholar
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    Macready also saw Lardner speak on great men of the day, but this was clearly a sideline.Google Scholar
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    Consider the remarks of a young lawyer in New York City: “I have read with great interest Sir David Brewsters article in the last North British Review [reviewing Humboldt’s Cosmos]. I think he has the faculty of writing on scientific subjects for the public in a greater degree than any one I ever read. Almost every one else takes too much for granted—(I mean, that his readers know more than they really do)—while he adopts the lawyers rule for a jury and ‘explains every thing.’” Henry M. Alexander to Joseph Henry, 9 January 1846, Henry Papers, Smithsonian Archives, printed in Joseph Henry Papers, 6: 364-368, quotation on p. 365.Google Scholar
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    According to the biographical account in the Dictionary of National Biography, Brewster gave up the ministry because of poor speaking ability.Google Scholar
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    On earlier attempts to reach this audience, and especially their children, and the influence of the Lockean tradition of general education in science, see James A. Secord, “Newton in the Nursery: Tom Telescope and the Philosophy of Tops and Balls, 1761-1838, ” History of Science 23 (1985): 127-151.Google Scholar

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