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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/April 1873/English and American Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 2‎ | April 1873


MR. PRESIDENT: When I was in London a year or two ago, I passed some pleasant hours with my friend Prof. Tyndall. Among these, I think that, perhaps, the most pleasant were those of one afternoon that we spent together in the laboratory of the Royal Institution, where Davy discovered potassium and sodium, and decomposed the earths; where Young first announced the grand and fertile principle of interference, and placed on firm foundations the wave-theory of light; where Faraday made his great discoveries in electricity and magnetism. On that occasion Dr. Tyndall was showing me some of his own splendid discoveries—the action of ether-waves of short period upon gaseous matter, clouds formed by actinic decomposition. I saw the superb sky-blue light, and verified its polarized condition. It was like the light of heaven.

Well, as I laid down the Nicol prism we had been using, I could not help thinking that there was an unseen "presence" in the place—a genius loci—that inspired men to make such discoveries. Who was it that brought that genius there?

At the time of the American Revolution, there resided in the town of Rumford, N.H., one Benjamin Thompson, who occupied himself in teaching a school. He embraced, as we Americans would say, the wrong side of the question on that occasion—he sided with the king's government. He went to England, became a man of mark, and was knighted. Then he went on the Continent, again distinguished himself by his scientific attainments, again was titled, and this time, in memory of his American home, was called Count Rumford.

On his return to London, Count Rumford founded the Royal Institution, and thus to a native American the world owes that establishment which has been glorified by Davy, and Young, and Faraday, and the lustre of which is now so conspicuously maintained by Tyndall. Had it not been for Rumford, Davy might have spent his life in filling gas-bags for Dr. Beddoes' patients; Faraday might have been a bookbinder, and certainly Tyndall would not have been honoring us with his presence here tonight.

But if Benjamin Thompson, an American, founded the Royal Institution, James Smithson, an Englishman, shortly afterward founded that noble institution in Washington which bears his name, and which, under the enlightened care of Prof. Henry, has so greatly ministered to the advancement and diffusion of science. You, sir, have called on me to respond to your toast, "English and American Science," and I think these facts show you how closely they have been associated.

Now, Prof. Tyndall is on the point of leaving us. When he gets back to Albemarle Street, he will remember Broadway. I am sure that you will all join me in wishing him a pleasant voyage over the Atlantic. But I wish him something better than that, I will add—a safe return to America. There is a great deal for him to do here yet. He may tell his friends that he has been to America, but he must not tell them that he has seen the Americans. We who are living: on the Atlantic verge of the continent are only modified Europeans—very slightly modified, indeed. One must go beyond the Alleghanies—yes, and over to the Pacific coast, before he can say he has seen what the American really is. I suppose that Dr. Tyndall has finished his glacier expeditions to Switzerland. Is there nothing here that can tempt him? He and other members of the Alpine Club need not go about the streets of London weeping, like so many broken-hearted Alexanders, that there are no more worlds to conquer. Let them take a look at the Rocky Mountains, and tell us what they think of them. Dr. Tyndall is a lover of Nature. Well! we can show him all kinds of scenery, from where the half-frozen Mackenzie is lazily flowing through a waste of snows on its way toward the Arctic Ocean, to where oranges are growing on the Gulf. Or, if he is tired of inanimate Nature, and is in the mood of Dr. Johnson—you know the story. Boswell said to Johnson one day: "See! What a beautiful afternoon; let us take a walk in the green fields." "No, I won't," replied the grim and gruff lexicographer. "I've seen green fields; one green field is like another green field. They are all alike. No, sir! I'll walk down Cheapside. I like to look at men"—if Dr. Tyndall is in that mood, can we not satisfy his curiosity? Another friend of mine, Mr. Froude, has set us all talking about Ireland. We can show Dr. Tyndall how we take the Irish immigrant, in his corduroy knee-breeches, his smashed-down hat, and his shillalah in his fist, and, in a generation or so, turn him into an ornament of professional life, make him a successful merchant, or familiarize him with all the amenities of elegant society. If that's not enough, we will show him how we take the German, and, wonderful to be said, make him half forget his fatherland and half his mother-tongue, and become an English-speaking American citizen. If that's not enough, we will show him how we have purged the African, the woolly-headed black man, of the paganism of his fore-fathers, and are now trying our hand at Darwinizing him into a respectable voter. If that's not enough, we will show him how, in the trans-Mississippi plains, we are improving the red Indian—alas! I fear my friend will say, improving him off the face of the earth! If that's not enough, we will show him where we have got tens of thousands of Chinese, with picks and shovels, digging Pacific railways. We are mixing European and Asiatic, red Indians and black Africans, together, and I suppose certain English naturalists will tell us that the upshot of the thing will be a survival of the fittest. In San Francisco, we can show Dr. Tyndall the church, the chapel, the joss-house, all in a row, and, perhaps, considering his forlorn, celibate condition, he may be conscience-stricken when we display before his astonished eyes the much-married men of Mormondom.

Nowhere in the world are to be found more imposing political problems than those to be settled here; nowhere a greater need of scientific knowledge. I am not speaking of ourselves alone, but also of our Canadian friends, on the other side of the St. Lawrence. We must join together in generous emulation of the best that is done in Europe. In her Majesty's representative, Lord Dufferin, they will find an eager appreciation of all that they may do. Together we must try to refute what De Tocqueville has said about us: that communities such as ours can never have a love of pure science. But, whatever may be the glory of our future intellectual life, let us both never forget what we owe to England. Hers is the language that we speak; hers are all our ideas of liberty and law. To her literature, as to a fountain of light, we repair. The torch of science that is shining here was kindled at her midnight lamp.


  1. Address at the Tyndall Banquet.