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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/August 1873/Sketch of Professor Coffin

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 3‎ | August 1873

PSM V03 D518 James H Coffin.jpg


FROM Sir Richard Coffin, Knight, who accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066, springs the genealogical tree that bears the name of Tristram Coffin, the pioneer owner of the island of Nantucket, whose American descendants have been engaged, to a large extent, in navigation. Of these, and fifth in line of descent from Tristram, is the subject of this sketch.

Prof. James Henry Coffin, LL.D., was born in Williamsburg, Mass., on the 6th day of September, 1806. He was, therefore, sixty-six years, old at the time of his decease, which occurred February 6, 1873, at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., where he had long filled the professorship of Mathematics and Astronomy. He graduated at Amherst College in 1828, and the year following established, at Greenfield, Mass., the Fellenberg Manual Labor Institution, which for eight years continued to be one of the rarely successful instances of this system in our country. He subsequently became the Principal of the Ogdensburg (N.Y.) Academy, and, in 1839, a member of the Faculty of Williams College. In 1846 he became Professor of Mathematics in Lafayette College. In the interests of this institution he labored zealously till the close of his life, being rewarded by seeing it rise to its present high rank among our colleges.

As a teacher he was laborious and enthusiastic, and his success was remarkable. He secured the respect and love of his pupils to a degree seldom equalled; but he was also a zealous student in science, and published several valuable works as the results of his researches. Among these are his "Analytical Geometry," and his "Conic Sections," which, at one time, were extensively used as text-books in our colleges. While connected with the Fellenberg Institution, he published two works on book-keeping, that were adopted by the State schools of Massachusetts. He read many valuable papers before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was, from its organization, a member; and also before the National Academy of Science, for the recent meeting of which he had in preparation an article on the Storm-curve, the object being to show that it was an hyperboloid, the equation of which he had computed.

His chief reputation, in science, was achieved by his researches in the department of meteorology. These were commenced in 1839, while Principal of the Ogdensburg (N. Y.) Academy. He took simultaneous and constant observations of the barometric changes connected with the variations of the wind-vane and with the fall of rain. His instruments were self-registering. Each motion of the vane directed a minute but constant stream of dry sand into some one of 32 stationary hoppers, corresponding in position to as many points of compass. The weight of sand found in the several receptacles below each hopper showed the length of time that the vane had pointed in that direction. The rain-gauge was an inverted cone, having an horizontal surface of 172.8 square inches: the rain falling into it passed down, through an orifice so small that no appreciable evaporation could occur, into a close-fitting can. One inch of rain in depth would, therefore, make 110 of a cubic foot when collected, the weight of which is 100 ounces. Each ounce that the can contained after a storm, consequently, represented 1100 of an inch in perpendicular fall. The amount necessary to merely moisten the funnel without precipitation into the can is easily determined as a constant. The results of these observations for the year 1838 were published by Prof. Coffin in the Meteorological Register, a monthly journal, of which he issued the first number in January, 1839. It was devoted to the discussion of various phenomena connected with physical science. Though the demand for a periodical of this nature was insufficient to sustain it, it brought into correspondence many who were interested in such subjects. The investigation of rainfall and evaporation had present practical value in being made the basis of the report of the committee of the New York Senate, in 1839-'40, appointed to consider the enlargement of the canal system of the State by the construction of the Genesee Valley Canal. These studies were afterward extended to form the chapter on the climate of the State, published in the "Natural History of New York," in 1845, in which the inquiries took a wider range; and questions of vegatation, agricultural epochs, the migration of birds, etc., were introduced. A determination was also made of the amount of rise in the thermometer per hour, during the prevalence of winds from the northeast by east to south-southwest, and the unequal corresponding decrease of temperature when the winds were from the northwesterly points of compass.

While at Williams College, Prof. Coffin erected, upon the Greylock peak of Saddle Mountain, at a height of nearly 4,000 feet above the ocean, an observatory, where continuous observations were taken, even through the winter season, when for three months it was impracticable to ascend the peak. In this interval the clock-work faithfully did its entire duty. The anemometer had been changed by substituting for the stream of sand a series of cards half an inch square, laid consecutively on a moving band that deposited one of them every fifteen minutes. Each card being inscribed with the day and hour it represented, when the receptacle marked "North," for example, was examined, all the cards found in it indicated the exact quarter-hour in the past three months when the wind was from that direction. In 1872 he constructed, for the observatory of the Argentine Confederation, at Cordova, a duplicate of this instrument, with improvements by John M. Junkin, M. D., similar to the one in use at Lafayette College.

The "Results of Meteorological Observations for 1854-'59," in two volumes, quarto, 1757 pages, prepared under his supervision, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, constitute a vast fund of condensed material from which to study the climate of North America.

But the great work of Prof. Coffin's life was the development of his theory of the winds, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, the following account of which has been furnished us by Prof. Henry, Secretary of the Institution:

The results of the scientific labors of Prof. Coffin include contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and especially to meteorology. His labors in regard to the latter branch of science commenced immediately after his graduation, and were continued, almost uninterruptedly, until the time of his death. He was early recognized as one of the meteorologists of the country, and, on the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, he was invited to become one of its collaborators in that line. All the materials which were collected from the observers of the Institution, and from those of the army from 1854 to 1859 inclusive, were placed in his hands for reduction and discussion. This work was conscientiously and thoroughly performed, and the results published in a quarto volume of upward of 1200 pages. In conducting this work, Prof. Coffin engaged the services of some of the students of Lafayette College, and a large number of women. The wages of these computers were paid by an appropriation from Congress, while the services of Prof. Coffin himself, in directing and superintending the whole, were entirely gratuitous.

But the great work to which he owes his celebrity, in all parts of the world, is his treatise on "The Winds of the Northern Hemisphere," published in the "Transactions of the Smithsonian Institution," vol. vi., in 1853. This work had been commenced at least ten years before the date of its publication, a communication having been made in relation to it to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1848.

The materials on which it was based were derived from all accessible sources, including 600 different stations on land, and numerous positions at sea, extending from the equator to the 83d degree of north latitude, the most northerly point ever reached by man, and embracing an aggregate period of over 2,800 years.

The design of the work was to ascertain, as far as possible, the mean direction in which the lower stratum of the air moves in different portions of the Northern Hemisphere, its rate of progress, the modification it undergoes in different months of the year, the amount of deflecting forces, and its relative velocity from different points of the compass. The collection of this material involved an amount of correspondence and bibliographical research which but few would undertake, even with the hope of pecuniary reward, and still fewer for the love of truth, and the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. But the labor of computation, and discussion of the materials, was an almost Herculean task, to which years of silent and unobtrusive labor were devoted. The work consisted mainly of about 140 quarto tables of figures, with descriptive deductions, and illustrated by maps. Each of these figures is the result of laborious calculations, since the method of determining the velocity and direction of the wind is the same as that employed by the mariner in determining the distance in a straight line, and direction at the end of a given time, from the place of his departure. In this work Prof. Coffin was the first clearly to establish the fact, by accurate comparison of observations, that there are three great zones of winds in the Northern Hemisphere. The first belt is that of the region of the easterly trade-winds, extending northward in the Western Hemisphere to about the 32d degree north latitude, and in Europe to the 42d degree. The second is the great belt around the world of the return-trades, in which the predominant direction is from the west. This extends northward in America to 56°, and in Europe and Asia to about 66° north latitude. Beyond this, principally within the Arctic Circle, is a belt of easterly or northeasterly winds. The common pole of these belts or zones has not the same position as that of the geometrical pole of the earth. It appears to be in latitude 84° and longitude 105° west of Greenwich, and has been denominated by Prof. Coffin the meteorological pole.

These results are in general accordance with the mathematical deductions from the theory of the winds of the globe, which considers them as due to the combined action of the movement produced in the air by the greater heat of the equator, and the rotation of the earth on its axis.

The researches of Prof. Coffin also strikingly exhibit the fact of the influence of the seasons in modifying the direction of the wind, or in producing the results denominated monsoons. Thus, along the eastern coast of North America, as is shown on the maps, the tendency during the summer months of the opposing forces is to lessen the dominant westerly wind, and this effect is noticed even beyond the Mississippi, as well as in the Atlantic Ocean along our coast. The effect is, undoubtedly, due to the change of temperature in the land—the temperature of the ocean remaining nearly the same during the year, while that of the land is greatly increased in summer above the mean, and depressed in winter. From this cause the air will tend to flow toward the centre of the continent from the ocean in summer, and from the same centre toward the ocean in winter.

The results of the investigations of Prof. Coffin have been referred to in all the treatises on meteorology which have appeared since their publication, and they have been employed with other materials as the basis of the wind-charts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, prepared and published by the English Board of Trade.

In attentively studying the result of Prof. Coffin's labors, we cannot but be struck with his conscientious regard for accuracy, and his devotion to truth. In all cases in which the results do not conform to the theory which explains the general phenomena, the discrepancies are fully pointed out; and, where he is unable to suggest an hypothetical cause of the anomaly, he candidly acknowledges his ignorance. In this respect he is an admirable example of a successful investigator, since errors in science as frequently occur from defects of the heart as from those of the head.

After the publication of the work on the winds, he continued to collect materials, at first with a view to an appendix, and finally extended his investigations to the winds of the entire globe. To aid in this enterprise, the Smithsonian Institution placed in his hands all the observations on the winds, which it had obtained from its numerous observers during the twenty years since the system was commenced, together with the observations made by the officers of the army, as well as the extensive series of materials in the various series of transactions of scientific societies of the Old World, obtained through the exchanges of the Institution. This work, for several years past, Prof. Coffin prosecuted with unremitting assiduity during all the intervals which could be spared from his laborious professional duties. Unfortunately, however, he was not spared to complete the work, although it is in such a condition as to be readily finished under the direction of the principal assistant employed by Prof. Coffin. It is expected that the tables will all be completed during the present summer, and that the printing of the work will be commenced next autumn.

In reviewing what may be called the extra labors of Prof. Coffin, we cannot refrain from endeavoring to impress upon the mind of the general public that men of his character, who do honor to humanity, ought not to be suffered to expend their energies in the drilling of youth in the mere elements of knowledge, and with a compensation not more than sufficient to secure the necessaries of life; that they should be consecrated as officiating priests in the temple of knowledge, be furnished with all the appliances and assistance necessary to the accomplishment of their objects, namely, the extension of the bounds of human thought and of human power.

The premature death of Prof. Coffin is a loss to the world, and, in regard to him, we have to deplore that so much of his valuable life was expended in the drudgery of teaching, which ought to have been devolved upon inferior minds.


Dr. John W. Foster, the distinguished geologist and ethnologist, of Chicago, died June 29th. He was born at Petersham, Mass., March 4, 1815, and graduated at the Wesleyan University, of Middletown, Conn. He subsequently moved to Ohio, and connected himself with the geological survey of that State. In 1849 he entered upon a geological examination of the Northwest, in company with Messrs. Jackson and Whitney; and the observations they made are embraced in two volumes, entitled "Report on the Geology and Topography of the Lake Superior Land District" (1850-'52). Dr. Foster published an elaborate volume, "The Mississippi Valley," which gave an account of the physical geography, topography, botany, climate, geology, and mineral resources, of that vast and important region of the continent. He was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at its meeting in Salem, in 1869, and has contributed numerous papers to the proceedings of that body and to the Chicago Academy of Sciences. He has been long engaged in the preparation of a work on the "Prehistoric Races of the United States," which was completed and printed, but not yet published, at the time of his death. It is an elegant volume, and a valuable contribution to the subject.