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

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

York City Early Nineteenth Century Steam Engine Moral Progress Instrument Maker 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Lardner, Dionysius.”Google Scholar
  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
  3. 3.
    Ibid.; the article does say “reportedly.”Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid.; J. N. Hays, “The Rise and Fall of Dionysius Lardner, ” Annals of Science 38 (1981): 527-542.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    William Charles Macready, The Diaries of William Charles Macready, 1833-1851, 2 vols. (1912; reprint ed., New York and London: Benjamin Blom, 1969), 2: 53; entry for March 21, 1840.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Lardner, Dionysius”; Morse Peckham, “Dr. Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia, ” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 45 (1951): 37-58.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Hays, “Rise and Fall, ” p. 258. The British Library Catalogue of Printed Books lists several editions, under varying names, from 1828 through 1851.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    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
  9. 9.
    New York Daily Tribune, 19 November 1841, p. 2, reporting lecture of 18 November 1841.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    New York Daily Tribune, 6 and 14 December 1841.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    New York Daily Tribune, 10 December 1841, p. 4; 15 December 1841, p. 2.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    New York Daily Tribune, 15 December 1841, p. 2.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    New York Daily Tribune, 6 December 1841, p. 2.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    New York Daily Tribune, 21 December 1841, p. 2.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    New York Daily Tribune, 21 December 1841, p. 2. Both courses of lectures were also presented in pamphlet form by the Tribune: Dionysius Lardner, Course of Lectures (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1842), and idem, The Second Course of Dr. Lardner’s Lectures on the Sun, Comets, the Fixed Stars, Electricity, Light and Sound, Steam Navigation, &c, &c, rev. & con. (New York: The Tribune Office, 1842).Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Margaret W. Rossiter, “Benjamin Silliman and the Lowell Institute: The Popularization of Science in Nineteenth-Century America, ” The New England Quarterly 44 (1971): 602–626, p. 617.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Parton, Life of Greeley, p. 329.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Donald Scott, “The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth Century America, ” The Journal of American History 66 (1980): 791–809, p. 800.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peak’s Museum: Charles Willson Peak and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1980), p. 274 ill.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Though Lardner’s earning are large, they do not seem to be impossible or inflated. An English actor and friend of Lardner’s, William Charles Macready, tallied that he had earned £5, 500 “clear of expenses” during exactly one year on the stage in America in 1843-1844. This was approximately $27, 500. Macready, Diaries, 2: 275, entry for September 25, 1844. Compare the contemporary statement about author William Makepeace Thackeray, who “crosses the Atlantic, and, in one short season, … gains thirteen thousand [dollars], and could have gained twice as much if he had been half as much a man of business as he is a man of genius.” Parton, Life of Greeley, p. 327, probably referring to Thackeray’s American tour of 1855.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    U.S. population for 1840, 17, 069, 453: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, 2 parts (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975), 1: 8. The estimate for 1842-1845 is 18 to 20 million; ibid., p. 8. Urban (as opposed to rural) population was about 2.7 million in mid-1840s; ibid., p. 12.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Glydon G. Van Deusen, Horace Greeley: Nineteenth-Century Crusader (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), p. 54. The Weekly Tribune had a circulation of 15, 000 by the end of 1841 (ibid.) and, according to Scott, a press run of 175, 000 by the 1850s. Scott, “Popular Lecture, ” pp. 798-799.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Scott, “Popular Lecture, ” p. 799 n. 30, states that “The role of the New York Tribune and other metropolitan dailies … in the emergence of a national communications system was enormous.” The Tribune had a special section, called the “Sketches of Lectures, ” that reported New York City lectures. This was often reprinted in newspapers all around the country. Ibid., p. 798.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Dionysius Lardner, Popular lectures on Science and Art, 14th ed., 2 vols. (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1852); 15th ed. (New York: Blakeman and Mason, 1859).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Joseph Henry to John Stevens Henslow, 5 July 1842, draft, Henry Papers, Smithsonian Archives, printed in The Papers of Joseph Henry, ed. Nathan Reingold, Marc Rothenberg, et al., 6 vols, to date (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972-), 5: 244–245. Part of Henry’s disdain arose from personal antipathy. At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1837, Lardner challenged Henry’s recounting of the speeds of American steam boats, steam navigation being a subject on which Lardner claimed a special knowledge. The encounter created a minor political disturbance at the meeting; Henry never forgot the personal and national slight. Joseph Henry Papers, 3: 508; 4: 100-101; 5: 158, 244-245.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Sellers, Mr. Peak’s Museum, p. 281.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Sellers, Mr. Peak’s Museum, pp. 281, 280, 288.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Lawrence W. Levine also notes that “America in the first half of the nineteenth century did experience greater cultural sharing”[between high-and lowbrow] in the sense that cultural lines were more fluid, cultural spaces less rigidly subdivided than they were to become.“William Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation, ” American Historical Review 89 (1984): 34-66, quotation on p. 65. See also the same author’s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Rossiter, “Silliman and the Lowell Institute, ” p. 206 n. 24.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Henry Luther Stoddard, Horace Greeley: Printer, Editor, Crusader (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946), pp. 137–138.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Parton, Life of Greeley, p. 330.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    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
  33. 33.
    Roger Sherman, “Charles Came, Itinerant Science Lecturer, and His’ splendid Apparatus,’” Rittenhouse 5 (1991): 118–128.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Silliman’s “Personal Notices” for 19 March 1842, quoted in Rossiter, “Silliman and the Lowell Institute, ” p. 612.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Scott, “Popular Lecture, ” p. 792.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Ibid., p. 793.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Ibid., p. 792.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Hays, “Rise and Fall, ” pp. 528-529.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Lardner, Popular Lectures, 1: 14.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Ibid., 1: 16.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Ibid., 1: 15-16.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Ibid., 1: 17.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    In another work, A Manual of Electricity, Magnetism, and Meteorology, compiled and edited by Charles V. Walker for his Cabinet Cyclopaedia, when he introduced analytic mathematics at one point, he apologized to his reader. See Hays, “Rise and Fall, ” p. 531.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Lardner, Popular Lectures, 1: 20.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Hays, “Rise and Fall, ” pp. 533ff.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Ibid., p. 541.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Henry to Alexander Dallas Bache, 23 October 1849, draft, Bache Papers, Smithsonian Archives.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Scott, “Popular Lecture, ” pp. 797, 801-802, quotation on p. 801.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    However, much of Lardner’s other material was dated. Though he claimed that the written essays were mostly prepared fresh for the occasion, (Popular Lectures, 1: 18), he certainly based them on older material. Some of the lectures seem to be derived from lectures from the 1820s, no doubt from Lardner’s days as a professor at University College, London. When discussing topics in physics proper, he often took an historical approach. His discussion of electricity never mentioned any material dating past 1800; for galvanism, none past 1820; and for electromagnetism, not past 1830. Though the lectures were collected and first published in 1846, they contain nothing on the telegraph, neither S. B. F. Morse’s recent successes, nor Charles Wheatstone’s system of the previous decade.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Lardner, Popular Lectures, 1: 10.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Ibid., 1: 160-165.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Ibid., 1: 164.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Ibid., 1: 159.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Ibid., 1: 160.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Ibid., 1: 160.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Ibid., 1: 160.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Ibid., 1: 165-166.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Ibid., 1: 52.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Hays, “Rise and Fall, ” p. 533.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
  61. 61.
    For an introduction to this theme, see Richard Olson, Science Deified and Science Defied: The Historical Significance of Science in Western Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 160-164; and A. C. Crombie, Medieval and Early Modern Science, 2 vols. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1959), 1: 15-16.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Lardner, Popular Lectures, 1: 103-104.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Ibid., 1: 363, italics supplied.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Ibid., 1: 119.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Dionysius Lardner, The Museum of Science and Art, 12 vols, as 6 (London: Walton and Maberly, 1855–1859).Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    Compare the fate of Jane Marcet’s works as textbooks, M. Susan Lindee, “The American Career of Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry, 1806-1853, ” Isis 82 (1991): 8-23.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Dionysius Lardner, The Handbook of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy (London: [Walton and Maberly,] 1851–1853).Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Dionysius Lardner, Natural Philosophy for Schools (London, 1857); Animal Physiology for Schools (London: Walton and Maberly, 1858), based on Animal Physics: or, The Body and Its Functions Familiarly Explained (London, 1857); Chemistry for Schools (London, 1859).Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    Dionysius Lardner, The Great Exhibition and London in 1851 (London, 1852). Although I have made a case for Lardner as a scientific man of letters, the Dictionary of National Biography reports that he was also reputed to be the Paris correspondent of the London Daily News. Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    “Obituary—the late Mr. George Chilton, ” Silliman’s American Journal of Arts and Sciences 31 (1836-1837): 421-424; Rita Gottesman, ed., The Arts and Crafts in New York (1938; reprint ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), pp. 384-385.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    See Deborah Jean Warner, Graceanna Lewis: Scientist and Humanitarian (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), pp. 10–11, and her “Science Education for Women in Nineteenth-Century America, ” Isis 69 (1978): 58-67. I am grateful to Ms. Warner for pointing out this material.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    For an account, see the Joseph Henry Papers, 6: 361-363 and Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 4 (1843-1847): 83-84, 422.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Joseph Henry Papers, 6: 320, 324.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    For recent work on Nichol and his popular lecturing, see Simon Schaffer, “The Nebular Hypothesis and the Science of Progress, ” in History, Humanity and Evolution: Essays for John C. Greene, ed. James R. Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 131-164, especially p. 150.Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    Rossiter, “Silliman and the Lowell Institute, ” p. 609.Google Scholar
  76. 76.
    Arnold H. Guyot, The Earth and Man, trans. C. C. Felton (Boston: Gould and Lincoln; and New York: Sheldon Blackenor and Co., 1856).Google Scholar
  77. 77.
    Schaffer, “Nebular Hypothesis, ” p. 150.Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    Joseph Henry Desk Diary entry for 6 May 1849, Henry Papers, Smithsonian Archives. Much as the Smithsonian bequest was considered an endowment to support American science publishing, so it was considered an endowment for American science lecturing. According to the plans of Robert Dale Owen, who proposed much of the early legislation and was an early active regent of the institution, the Smithsonian was to sponsor lectures on science and useful subjects, and to provide for their publication as tracts. There was an active lecture program prior to the Civil War, but the lectures paid relatively little. Furthermore, only some of the lectures were published, and those as part of the annual report of the Smithsonian to Congress. The program declined after the war. For Owen’s plans, see the bills he sponsored in the House of Representatives in William Jones Rhees, comp. and ed., The Smithsonian Institution: Documents Relative to Its Origin and History, 2 vols, continuously paginated, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vols. 42 and 43 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), pp. 322-330;, and the report he wrote as regent on the initial organization of the institution, First Report of the Committee on Organization (Washington, D.C.: [Smithsonian Institution,] 1847).Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    Macready also saw Lardner speak on great men of the day, but this was clearly a sideline.Google Scholar
  80. 80.
    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
  81. 81.
    According to the biographical account in the Dictionary of National Biography, Brewster gave up the ministry because of poor speaking ability.Google Scholar
  82. 82.
    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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