There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes
Our review of civilizations and the associated development of science is now rapidly approaching the 20th century. Our discussion so far showed that from the Enlightenment onward all important scientific developments occurred in Europe and were closely linked with the fall of feudalism and the establishment of bourgeois governments. This situation changed during the 20th century, and it is time to address the question how the United States of America came into a position that allowed them to become the leading science nation of modern times.
There is still some way to go before major scientific developments originated in North America. But the roots for the economic and scientific strength of the USA and the dominance of its culture in today's world are found in the 18th century, and the outcome of the political struggles of that time still determines the structure of its society. If we want to understand the role of North American science today we therefore have to go back to the years before the French Revolution, when Europe was dominated by the rivalry between England and France.
The establishment of a European settler society in North America expanded the territorial range of the European civilization. Over the centuries it also created a new culture and "way of life." It is useful to remember the distinction between civilization, society and culture outlined in the very first lecture. In any discussion of civilizations we will consider the USA a part of the European civilization. Where it is important to stress differences between the USA and the rest of the world we will talk about the culture or the society of the USA.
As soon as the North American subcontinent became known to Europe, its colonial powers began to take control over various tracts of land. Spain began the colonization of Florida, New Mexico and California in the second half of the 16th century. The first English settlers arrived in 1607 on the east coast in what is today's Virginia; they were followed in 1620 by the settlers who established New England and founded Plymouth and Boston and were called the "Pilgrim Fathers" 200 years later. The Dutch established the colony of New Holland in 1624 and founded New Amsterdam in the following year. French colonization occurred initially in the north (Quebec was founded in 1608, Montreal in 1642) and during the early 18th century also along the Mississippi river (New Orléans was founded in 1719).
The rivalry between the European powers was intense, and the wars fought in Europe were also fought in America. In the 17th century England was the strongest power and gradually took over the others' possessions. The first to be defeated were the Dutch; New Amsterdam became New York in 1664. The war between France and England of 1753 - 1763 ended in the defeat of France and the loss of all its territories. Spain was able to hold its position for another century; it could still establish a settlement at San Francisco Bay in 1776 and found the city El Pueblo de la Reyna de los Angeles ("The Town of the Queen of the Angels") in 1781. It lost its colony when Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821, and Mexico lost California and with it San Francisco and Los Angeles to the USA in the Mexican War of 1846.
The new colonies soon showed signs of economic development. To secure their dependence on the motherland Britain had to introduce a series of measures that restricted their activities. This stifled the economic development of the colonies and led to growing frustration and anger.
But the influx of English settlers did not only bring economic and political strength. England had passed through its bourgeois revolution early in the 17th century (Lecture 20), and the settlers also imported the ideas of the bourgeoisie, particularly after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which had brought such important developments as the Habeas Corpus Act and the Bill of Rights. The economic and legislative actions of the motherland were therefore met with strong opposition, and in 1773 the people of Boston protested against the high import duties on tea by tipping a shipload of tea into the harbour. The "Boston Tea Party" was the spark that set the continent ablaze. The War of Independence, also known as the American Revolution, began in 1775. It ended in 1783, six years before the French Revolution, with the foundation of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence, adopted during the second year of the War, documents the revolutionary character of the events:
For the first time in modern history the idea of "self-evident and unalienable" human rights had been expressed as the basis for revolutionary change. 13 years later their echo would be heard in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of the French Revolution and another 159 years later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is this tradition of appeal to human decency, moral judgement and self-evident truths that has moulded the intellectual institutions of the USA, its universities, its publishing houses and the best of its press into guardians of freedom of thought and democratic values. More than two centuries after the Declaration of Independence intellectual institutions of the USA are still among the leading defenders of human rights and justice. Today successive US governments of all shades try to present themselves as the guardians of this tradition when they claim to be the beacon of democracy and human rights even when their actions speak otherwise.
But the English settlers did not only bring the ideas of the bourgeois revolution, they also brought the bourgeois religion, Protestantism of the Calvinist variety. Different versions of this ascetic and austere faith arrived with different settler groups. They all had in common that they regarded their arrival in the colonies as the end of a journey to a promised land where they could establish an utopian society based on fundamental rules. The governor of Massachusetts described the new society to the new arrivals on board the Arbella with the words:
As time moved on and economic depression and social struggle ended the dream of America as the new utopia, religious movements tried to rescue their dream through strict adherence to fundamental beliefs. The organized fundamentalist movement arose during the 1830s; by 1870 it had established itself as a powerful organization. It taught the literary correctness of the Bible and interpreted events worldwide as indications for the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Science, and particularly evolution, was considered an evil of modernism and attacked. (Lecture 25)
Christian fundamentalism is the repugnant side of the USA. Its evangelist preachers are friends with presidents, and as a movement it still wields large influence through fundamentalist associations for many professions, from doctors to actors, from athletes to businessmen. It can safely be said that no other society displays such a wide spectrum of attitudes, from enlightened, rational humanism to ultra-reactionary fundamentalism, as the USA. Only the pervasive presence of fundamentalism can explain why a president of the USA has to fear public opinion more when he is entangled in an affair with one of his secretaries than when he cuts public spending on education.
Islamic countries today witness the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction to economic and social destruction and are in danger of losing their connection to the moral and rational traditions of early Islam. As a result the voices in support of human decency, moral judgement and self-evident truths are much weaker in the Islamic world than in the USA. But the high profile of Islamic fundamentalism should not lead anyone to the conclusion that the time of Christian fundamentalism has passed. When a US president of the 21st century calls a war a "crusade" (Bush, 2001) against an "axis of evil", (Bush, 2002) there can be little doubt about fundamentalist influence in US society.
The fundamentalists were not the only challenge for mainstream Christianity. It took less than a decade to show the limitations of such self-eminent truth as the equality of all men: "Men" did not include women, native Americans, and slaves.
The new colonies faced one problem from the very start: They had huge natural resources but lacked the labour to exploit them. It has to be remembered that nearly all early settlers came from villages. They were accustomed to working the land and would never work in dark, dusty, unhealthy factories voluntarily. In Europe this problem was solved by expropriating peasant land and creating the widespread misery that forced the peasants to seek a living in the new factories. North America, however, is a huge continent, and new arrivals could try their fortune in the wide, wild west as soon as they had a few dollars in their pockets. To keep them in factories would have required wages beyond any level acceptable to the developing industry. As a result the early USA were plagued by a constant labour shortage. Attempts to prevent the workers to walk away into the west met with very limited success. In 1785 Congress tried to place settlement out of reach of settlers by prescribing the minimum of land for sale as 640 acres; but uprisings and continuous unrest forced the reduction to 80 acres by 1820. (Anderle et al., 1966)
There were two answers to the problem: Forced labour, and technological innovation. The first African slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619, only twelve years after the arrival of the first English settlers. By 1750 slaves made up about one quarter of the total population of 1.2 million in the original 13 United States; after more than 1000 years slavery was again a major component of the European civilization. By 1790, the year of the first census, 92% of the 760,000 black people of the USA were slaves.
Slavery became the prevailing form of production in the southern states, where the fertile soil and tropical conditions favoured the plantation economy. It was not suitable for industrial production, which was concentrated in the New England states. Technological innovation, particularly inventions that allowed the replacement of labour by machinery, was therefore an important development from the earliest days of the colonies.
Occasionally the two forms of production supported each other. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 (that separated fibres from seeds automatically) extended the plantation economy and helped to entrench slavery in the south; cotton became the most important export of the nation and by 1860 constituted 57% of all exports. (Anderle et al., 1966) In most circumstances, however, the two economies were in competition. Slavery was promoted by a new class of absentee landlords, often from the old English aristocracy, who had managed to obtain large tracts of land. (Lord Fairfax owned over 5 million acres in Virginia; the Penn family owned most of Pennsylvania. George Washington, the first president of the USA, was an estate manager for this class.)
As a historically backward form of production slavery contributed little to the growing industrial strength of the country. (In 1860 the southern states contributed only 8% of total industrial production.) It was strongly opposed by the industrial barons of the east coast, who wanted to clear the country of its indigenous population and open it up for exploitation of its resources. The leading force were the railroad companies, who wanted to put railway tracks into the interior of the continent and develop industry and commerce on the basis of capitalist competition. They found an ardent supporter in Abraham Lincoln, a "prairie lawyer" from Illinois who had participated in the war against the Sauk and Fox Indians led by Black Hawk and wanted to participate in the occupation of the new territories.
The confrontation between the slave economy and capitalism sharpened in 1854 with the question how the new territories of Louisiana, Kansas and Nebraska should be developed. Congress decided to introduce slavery in Louisiana and allow its introduction in Kansas and Nebraska if its people voted for it. The railroad companies were strongly opposed to the legislation. The election of their ally Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 led to the secession of seven southern states from the USA and to their formation of the Confederate States of America. The Civil War of 1860 - 1865 ended with Confederate defeat and the abolition of slavery. Its outcome paved the way for rapid economic development based on advanced technology. Industrial production reached the level of Britain in 1880; by 1914 the industrial output of the USA had reached the volume of Britain, France and Germany combined. (Anderle et al., 1966)
The need for technological innovation to compensate for chronic labour shortage determined the development of science in the USA from its very beginning. The American Philosophical Society, the first scientific society in the colonies, was established in Philadelphia in 1743 in response to a public call for "constant correspondence" between men with scientific interest by Benjamin Franklin, the first internationally recognized scientist from the New World. His work Experiments and Observations on Electricity, published in 1751, was translated into French, German and Italian.
Later generations judged Franklin's contributions to science as less original than viewed by his contemporaries. But Franklin's originality was more in the application of science than in its foundations. When Franklin realized that lightning is a form of electricity he experimented with flying kites in thunderstorms to better observe the path of the electric charge. As a result he invented the lightning rod as a protection for buildings against lightning strikes. Other inventions credited to him are bifocal glasses and the heat-efficient Franklin stove, which is still produced today.
As in other revolutionary times, the distinction between scientists and politicians was blurred during the American Revolution. Franklin was probably more a public servant and diplomat than a scientist. He spent ten years during the time before the War of Independence as representative of the colonies in London and another ten years in Paris as emissary of the new United States of America. He met all major scientists during these years, and his work was valued in Europe. The French public in particular saw him as the embodiment of the new type of American intellectual who, unencumbered by culture and finesse, fought fearlessly against despotism and for the right of self-determination of the people. Franklin's own writings show that he combined the bourgeois ideals of freedom and equality with the Protestant work ethic; for 25 years he used the pseudonym Richard Saunders to publish an almanac of proverbs and other wisdom that promoted thrift, honesty and industry.
One of Franklin's achievements as a scientist, the description and a first map of the Gulf Stream, arose also out of practical needs. During his time as deputy postmaster general Franklin faced the question how the postal service between America and England could be improved. His achievements in that field have entered North American legend to such an extent that at least three different accounts exist. One version of events states that the American postal ships could make the journey from England to the colonies days, if not weeks, faster than the English merchant ships. In another version mail sent from England to the American colonies took longer to arrive than goods delivered by merchant ships, although the merchant vessels were heavier and took a longer route than the mail packet ships. Yet another version has it that westward mail from Europe to America took weeks longer than east-bound mail from America.
We shall not investigate which version comes closest to the truth but merely report the fact that Franklin noticed discrepancies between sailing times of different vessels and consulted his cousin Timothy Folger, a whaling ship captain from Nantucket, about it. Folger knew that a strong current flows northward along the east coast of the USA. He drew a chart of the current for Franklin, who edited it and had it printed. Franklin believed that the source of the current had to be found in the Gulf of Mexico and therefore named it the Gulf Stream. While we know today that the Gulf Stream forms part of a larger circulation system and that only part of it flows through the Gulf of Mexico, the name given by Franklin remains.
On his various voyages to and from Europe Franklin never forgot to identify the path of the Gulf Stream by taking measurements of the water temperature several times a day. In later editions of the chart and in a special publication he gave detailed instructions how ships could take advantage of the Gulf Stream on their way east and how to avoid the current on the westbound return voyage.
Franklin's temperature measurements in the Gulf Stream indicated the dawn of modern marine science. Its beginning is usually associated with the name of Matthew Fontaine Maury, a naval officer of the Civil War period. Maury was superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments, where he found shelves and shelves of captain's log books in the archives. He realized that meteorological and oceanographic information can be gained from the collection of data by laypersons if they could be convinced of the usefulness of the task. He issued special log books to all naval captains and had them fill in details on winds and currents encountered during their voyages. After several years he was able to construct charts and produce sailing directions. It was the era of the "clipper ships", fast sailing vessels that raced across the oceans to maximize profits, and Maury's charts helped sea captains to set records in transit times. The first ships to use Maury's publications could cut the time for a return trip from Baltimore to the coffee harbours of Brazil from around 110 to 75 days.
Maury's book The Physical Geography of the Sea, the first textbook of oceanography, appeared in 1858. In its analysis of physical principles that drive the atmosphere and the ocean it was based on earlier work, but in its description of the climate regions and geographic zones of the oceans it relied mainly on the new information Maury had collected through the work of hundreds of mariners.
In the United States Maury is remembered as one of the country's first great scientists; for a while his birthday was a school holiday in his home state Virginia. His work exemplifies North American science as it developed from its early beginnings: characterized by grand vision but always driven by practical application. His scientific approach to sailing the high seas shaped the exploratory sea voyages of the second half of the 19th century. Exploration of distant lands was now left to land-based expeditions, while ocean voyages now concentrated on the exploration of the oceans' depths. All leading capitalist nations financed oceanographic expeditions that brought the most amazing creatures to the surface.
In the history of oceanography the period 1850 - 1950 is sometimes subdivided into the Era of Exploration (1873 - 1914) and the Era of National Systematic Surveys (1925 - 1940). (Wüst, 1964) This distinction recognizes the difference in the approach of the first deep-sea expeditions, which took samples of the oceanic flora and fauna at locations determined by various circumstances in a somewhat haphazard way, and the expeditions between the two world wars, which sampled according to systematic plans developed before the ships' departures from port. It ignores, however, the social and political dimensions of marine science, which are evident from the reports of the expedition leaders.
The first of the great deep-sea expeditions was undertaken by the British naval vessel Challenger in 1873 - 1876. This was the beginning of the race for the last territories still available for colonization. Lectures 28 and 29 will look at the political development of this period in detail and show how Germany, which since the Thirty Years' War of 1618 - 1648 had been in the shadow of England, France and Austria, came to the forefront of political developments with its attempt not be left behind in the final distribution of colonies. The Challenger expedition was Britain's reaction to colonial competition. The expedition report quoted a letter received by the Royal Society in 1871 that contained a clipping from the journal Nature which reported on plans of Germany, Sweden and the USA to prepare deep-sea expeditions and urged the Society to convince the government that it react to these "activities of other nations."
The first research vessels were naval vessels; their voyages thus came under military protocol and served colonial aims. The report on the voyage of the German vessel Gazelle made it unmistakably clear that a strengthening of Germany's presence in Africa was part of its purpose, and parts of the report on the voyage of the German research vessel Planet read more like a police documentary than a science report.
This "Era of Exploration" was followed after World War I by the "Era of National Systematic Surveys." The prototype of this period, and one of the most successful scientific undertakings in oceanography, was the research voyage of the German vessel Meteor of 1925 - 1927. It covered the South Atlantic Ocean with a regular grid of observation stations that allowed the determination of its currents, water masses and bio-regions. Such was the expedition's impact on oceanographic science that the main volumes of the research report from the voyage were translated into English in the 1970s, some 50 years after the expedition had been completed.
There can be no doubt that the move from the somewhat haphazard collection of data during the Era of Exploration to the planned scientific survey of the Meteor expedition was a major step forward in oceanography. The report of the voyage makes it clear that this move was less a result of scientific insight and planning than political necessities and limitations. Germany had lost a war but was determined to re-establish itself as a major power in the world and - in the words of the voyage report - "to again show its flag in as many foreign ports as possible." (Tomczak, 1980) The logical means to that end would have been a research voyage around the world. It was only from a lack of funds that such a plan was abandoned for the Meteor. Science historians later praised the expedition for its excellent design but avoided the expedition's history, which is clearly documented in its research reports.
The oceanographic beginnings of the USA initiated by Maury appear modest compared with these major activities of the old and aspiring new colonial powers. Although they had their roots in naval activities, too, their concept of using lay observers to develop a large and valuable database to meet practical needs was new and proved powerful. Its motivation was much closer to direct applicability than the urge to "show the flag" of the imperial fleets. It remains the backbone of much meteorological and oceanic forecasting and climate analysis today.
Through the entire 19th century science in the USA remained driven by the search for solutions to practical problems. When the National Academy was finally established in 1863 to pursue independent scientific studies the Senate stipulated that expenses incurred in carrying out investigations on behalf of Government departments were to be paid "from appropriations which may be made for the purpose, but the Academy shall receive no compensation whatever for any service to the Government of the United States." (Cohen, 1965)
The embodiment of North America's attitude to science was without doubt Thomas Alva Edison. Without formal scientific training he established an "invention factory" that specialized on invention on demand. Some inventions required a sizeable advance and substantial time before the final product could be delivered; the invention of the electric light bulb, for example, took two years and was financed by an advance of $30,000. But Edison had one trait in common with scientists; he observed meticulously and never let anything pass without trying to find the reason for its occurrence. Some of his best inventions - at the end of his life Edison held over 1000 patents to his name - were therefore unplanned and the result of the unexpected. The invention of the record player was the outcome of attempts to build a machine that could turn telephone messages into print (a goal he never achieved). It was met with disbelief and claims of fraud at first but soon established Edison's fame in Europe as well.
With Edison's inventions we clearly moved into the 20th century: 1881 - electric light in New York; 1893 - the first movie performance; 1912 - the car battery replaces the crank handle. Many years were still to pass before the USA became the leading science nation. Europe still produced groundbreaking new science during Edison's times, and the continuation of this discussion of science in the USA will have to wait until we reach Lecture 29, when we shall discuss the developments of nuclear science and its applications.
Anderle et al. (1966) Weltgeschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.
Bush, G. W. (2001) The remark was made in a speech of 18 September 2001. See for example Christian Science Monitor of 19 September 2001, http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/0919/p12s2-woeu.html (accessed 4 August 2004)
Bush, G. W. (2002) State of the Union Address. The White House, Washington D.C. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html (accessed 4 August 2004)
Cohen, I. B. (1965) Science in the United States. In: R. Taton (ed.) History of Science, Science in the 19th Century. Basic Books Inc. New York, 563 - 570. (Translation of La science contemporaine)
Nelson, E. C., M. E. Marty and W. O. Chadwick (1995) History of Protestantism, Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th ed.
Tomczak, M. (1980) A review of Wüst's classification of the major deep-sea expeditions 1873 - 1960 and its extension to recent oceanographic research programs. In: Sears, M. and D.Merriman (eds.) Oceanography: the Past.Springer, New York, 188 - 194.
Wüst, G. (1964) The major deep-sea expeditions and research vessels 1873 - 1960 - A contribution to the history of oceanography. Progress in Oceanography 2, 1 - 52.