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Scientific Cambridge.

Ohn Trowbridge, S. D., Rumford Professor in Harvard College, and director of the Jefferson Physical Laboratory.
The ‘London Nature,’ in a review of Dr. George Birkbeck Hill's interesting book, entitled ‘Harvard College by an Oxonian,’ noted the fact that the author had not expatiated upon the remarkable laboratories and scientific collections at Cambridge, which to the mind of the critic constituted the most noteworthy portion of the university.

When I, too, consider that these laboratories and museums are the growth of hardly more than fifty years, and remember that they already have a world-wide reputation, I feel that the genial Dr. Hill should have devoted much space to them. In Sanders Theatre, over the stage, it is told in sonorous Latin how our ancestors founded the university:—

Hic in sylvestibus et in incultis locis Angli domo profugi.

After reading this, if one goes to the Jefferson Physical Laboratory, and looks at the small cabinet which contains all the physical apparatus which the university had in its struggling days,—1700 to 1800,—a Benjamin Franklin electrical machine, an orrery, a small telescope, a few models, and some glass jars, and then turns to the modern equipment of the physical laboratory, with its dynamos, its spectroscopes, telephones, and acoustical apparatus, and one studies the equipment of the observatory, of the chemical, biological, and geological laboratories, one feels that small seed has truly borne great fruit in two hundred and fifty years.

The first man of science who lived in Cambridge was John Winthrop, a relative of Governor Winthrop, and professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in Harvard College during the years from 1738 to 1779. One can find to-day among the college archives his notebook of his course of lectures. I was [73] interested to see what he gave to students. There were twenty or more excellent notes on astronomy and optics, and only one on magnetism and one on electricity. Professor Winthrop assisted at certain astronomical events; made interesting observations on the earthquake which visited Cambridge in 1755, and which was sufficiently powerful to throw bricks from a chimney of the professor's house across the pathway. He was elected member of the Royal Society of London. Count Rumford, then Benjamin Thompson, it is said, walked from Woburn to Cambridge to hear Professor Winthrop lecture.

After Winthrop came Rev. Mr. Williams; then Professor Farrar, a remarkable lecturer. Up to the year 1830, astronomy and physics were the only sciences to which much attention was paid in Cambridge. There were no laboratories even in chemistry.

In 1816, Dr. Jacob Bigelow was appointed Rumford professor and lecturer on the application of science to the useful arts. He was perhaps the earliest citizen of Massachusetts to recognize the importance of scientific training for young men who proposed to enter into the professions which require technical knowledge of the sciences. It is to him, I believe, that the community owes the primal impulse which culminated in the establishment of technical schools in America. He was a broad-minded physician, and represented a type of which Cambridge has had remarkable examples. Daniel Treadwell succeeded him in the Rumford professorship. Professor Treadwell was an eminent inventor; to him we owe the method of building up steel guns, which revolutionized the process of manufacturing heavy ordnance, both in this country and Europe. To understand Professor Treadwell's work one should read the admirable memoir of him written by Dr. Morrill Wyman.

There had been a long period of intellectual inactivity in science from the time of Professor John Winthrop (1779) to the advent of Dr. Bigelow (1816).

Men were now awakening to the importance of a knowledge of science, and Dr. Bigelow's plans for technological education doubtless contributed greatly to this awakening. In 1842, Dr. Asa Gray, the great botanist, came to Cambridge, and his coming marks an epoch in the scientific life of our city. In 1847, Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, Jeffries Wyman, and Professor Horsford [74] formed the nucleus of a school of science, which has had more influence on education in America than any other scientific institution. A large number of young naturalists hastened to work under the inspiration of Agassiz, and Cambridge immediately became the centre on this continent of zoological research. The presence of this great man in our university illustrates forcibly the power of genius. By his reputation and by his personality he greatly increased the resources of the university, but above all he excited a spirit of research, and elevated the Puritan mind above the high-school ideal of a college. His teachings still live in the minds of matrons who once attended the Agassiz school for young ladies in Cambridge, and has prompted them in many cases to stimulate the love for science in their children. I remember well that sturdy figure with expansive brow and kindling eye which used to be a familiar sight in our streets. One felt sure of awakening a soul-satisfying burst of enthusiasm if he were addressed on a scientific subject; and in gazing upon the museum which he founded, one feels that his spirit is with us, and that he still walks between Quincy Street and Divinity Avenue.

My neighbor, too, Dr. Asa Gray, the founder of the herbarium and botanical department of the university, whose work has done so much to increase the reputation of Cambridge as a scientific centre in Europe,—is not the memory of his geniality and his astonishing vitality still fresh? Almost every mail brought him letters from the distinguished men of Europe, —Darwin and Hooker, Romanes and De Candolle. These men wrote the words Cambridge, Massachusetts, on their letters with respect born of the labors of a modest man who sought no civic office. Such men are the choicest possessions of a municipality. To him I owe valuable scientific counsel and criticism; and he, too, had an ever-bubbling fountain of enthusiasm and human sympathy. When the city forester proposed to remove the veteran elm which stands at my gate, an elm which has doubtless been a resident of Cambridge since the time of Cotton Mather, Dr. Gray rushed from his library and saved it, and then returned to his important labors. The tree still lives, and in the spring evenings, when I walk up Garden Street beneath the row of trees which the city owes to his care and foresight, I remember the active step which at seventy years was hard to overtake, and I feel a consciousness of that immortality [75] for which his whole life pleaded. He still lives in his works and in his trees.

Then, too, there was a distinguished contemporary of Agassiz and Gray, a man so modest that Cambridge did not know it possessed a great man until he died,—Jeffries Wyman. The student of biology ever rises from the perusal of his papers with the consciousness that many men of far greater popular reputation were fit only to sit at his footstool. He, too, had that fine enthusiasm which warmed the heart of the struggling scientific student of 1847,—struggling in the sense of the lack of laboratories and systematic instruction, but rich in the ability to converse with such men as Wyman. I can see now that fine profile fit for a medallion, with a face lit by the gentle glow of scientific reflection. When the citizen of Cambridge grows restive under taxation and thinks that the broad lands of the university should share his burden, let him reflect upon the possibility of having such choice spirits as Jeffries Wyman among his townsmen, and let him look at the scientific arrangements of the Cambridge Hospital, due in such large measure to a kindred scientific spirit. The university is the proper environment of such men.

In 1850, the Scientific School was established, and under the instruction of Agassiz, Gray, Wyman, Peirce, Eustis, Horsford, a number of teachers were bred who, I have said, have extended the spirit of research over the entire continent. In the early days of the Scientific School, a number of remarkable men were here as students or as assistants. I need only mention among them the names of Simon Newcomb, Asaph Hall, Dr. B. A. Gould, S. H. Scudder, Morse, Hyatt, and Putnam.

At the time I now speak of there were no well-equipped laboratories in Cambridge. The observatory was the only endowed scientific institution, and there the two Bonds—father and son —initiated the astronomical publications which have continued in such full measure. In the work of the Bonds we perceive the beginning of that careful physical study of the planets which has now become such an important part of astronomical research. In those early days, Cambridge, too, contributed a keen observer in Mr. Tuttle, whose wagon is ‘tied to a star.’ After the Bonds came Professor Winlock, who greatly added to the mechanical equipment of the observatory. Few citizens of Cambridge who met this silent man occasionally on the [76] streets knew his reserve power, or the great geniality which lurked beneath a taciturn exterior. I remember once borrowing two valuable prisms from him, when I was a green young instructor, which I succeeded in chipping. On returning them to him with great perturbation of spirit, he instantly said: ‘Oh, I always intended to get Alvan Clark to reduce the size of these prisms, and he would have had to chip off these edges.’ I loved the man instantly. The observatory has prospered exceedingly, and it is now, under Professor Pickering, the principal astrophysical observatory in America. The scientific life in Cambridge began with astronomy and mathematics, and Cambridge has sent out the leading astronomers in America. There was little systematic instruction in the higher branches of astronomy and mathematics in 1850, but there was a strong intellectual environment; and one sometimes gets as much in a colloquium, even in Berlin, as in a course of systematic lectures. One should be led, however, by great minds. I remember Professor Benjamin Peirce once remarking with a gleam of his wonderful eyes: ‘It takes an eagle to train eaglets.’

The subject of astronomy has always had in Cambridge the peculiar advantages of the services of Alvan Clark and his sons. They can be called artist mechanicians. They have built the largest and best telescopes in the world, and even Russia has been a suitor at the door of their workshop. Their labors in connection with astronomical research illustrate the general truth that the progress of the physical sciences depends as much upon mechanical skill as upon mathematical knowledge.

The subject of natural philosophy, or as it is now called physics, has always been closely allied to astronomy, and for fifty years Professor Lovering gave lectures on both of these sciences. He was a striking figure in the university, and a marked example of the school of college professors which once flourished in all American colleges,—professors whose elaborate lectures were characterized by literary skill and dominated by philosophy. This school is now fast passing away and giving place to one composed of men who are devoted to laboratory teaching. The professors of chemistry also, before 1840, taught mainly by lectures and text-books, and the university owes much to the labors of Professor Josiah Parsons Cooke, who developed the laboratory teaching of chemistry in Harvard College. The Scientific School, too, has done much for chemical [77] science. It was there that Dr. Wolcott Gibbs trained a remarkable band of investigators who are now teaching their science in many universities.

It will be seen from this rapid and incomplete enumeration of the scientific men who have given our city a reputation far beyond local limits, that the remarkable fountain of inspiration which shot up like a great geyser in the fifties has been followed by a stream of patient investigation in well-equipped laboratories. Where there was one investigator in 1850, there are now hundreds; and can we not say that just as a deluge can lift a host of small craft up to the heights of the peaks once attained by only one or two explorers, it is now more difficult for a scientific man to rise far above his contemporaries. It is certain that with its remarkable facilities for systematic work in laboratories and museums, Cambridge is ready for the scientific genius when he is ready to manifest himself. We are living to a certain extent, however, upon the capital of the past; and the young devotee of science, in remembering the great men in science who have lived and worked in Cambridge, cannot fail to feel a throb of inspiration in his heart as he reads in the dignified Latin over the stage of Sanders Theatre:—

Qui autem docti fuerint, fulgebunt quasi splendor firmamenti . . .
Et qui ad Justitiam erudiunt multos, quasi stellae in perpetuas aeternitates.

editor's note.—The Editor cannot permit the above chapter to conclude without a word in regard to its author. Professor Trowbridge is a prominent figure among the leaders of physical research in this country. He has been active in many lines of original investigation during the past twenty years, and to him is due the principal credit of developing the physical department of Harvard University from a mere cabinet of apparatus and a lectureship to a working laboratory that may well invite comparison with the leading laboratories of the world as to the opportunities offered for advanced research, particularly in the field to which Professor Trowbridge has of late given special attention,—electrical waves and the electro-magnetic theory of light.

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