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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/June 1873/State Geological Surveys

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 3‎ | June 1873



A STRENUOUS effort is being made at the present time to reorganize the Geological Survey of Pennsylvania. It promises to be successful. The legislators of that State, in voting upon the measure, will be mainly influenced by considerations relating to the pecuniary value of a geological survey in locating beds of coal, building-materials, and ores. But the educated public will desire to know, in addition to these matters, what influence such a geological survey will have upon the intellectual activity of the community at large, and how great an amount of scientific bustle it will create in the museums and laboratories of institutions of learning.

A very satisfactory answer can be given to the first of these queries, after reviewing the scientific periodicals and journals of learned societies in this country, during the last half-century. It will be seen that the desultory descriptions of plants, birds, and the external characters of minerals, which constituted a large portion of the scientific literature at the beginning of this period, gave place to laborious analyses, and to elaborate articles on geological phenomena. Many of the most valuable contributions to science during this epoch consisted in reports of the geological surveys then in progress, or investigations connected with and growing out of them. Much of the best talent of the time was engaged upon these stupendous labors, and around the eminent chiefs were gathered bands of enterprising students, whose methods of scientific work were formed beneath the eyes of masters. The assistants of earlier surveys are the directors of those now in progress, and the crude sketches of former times are replaced by huge volumes filled with exhaustive details and magnificent generalizations.

Great as has been the work accomplished, the question may nevertheless be asked, whether the State geological surveys are, or have been, organized in such a manner as to exert the greatest possible influence upon the scientific progress of their respective States. As heretofore constituted, they have consisted of a director and a number of assistants, who have drawn their salaries and prosecuted their labors until the State appropriations have been exhausted. In some instances the work of the assistants has been appropriated by the director in such a manner that the geological survey has appeared to the public to be entirely represented in the person of its presiding officer. Granting that this officer is better qualified than any one else, it is evident, nevertheless, that a geological bureau, thus constituted, must reject a large part of the available talent of a State. Still worse, by taking possession of the field, and by closing the columns of the report to all but the paid officials of the survey, many whose labors might be of great value are rendered indifferent or hostile to the work. A bureau framed in the manner above described is proper enough in the survey of Territories still largely occupied by Indians, but it is by no means suited to the condition or needs of a densely-populated State. When a dozen flourishing colleges exist within the boundaries of a State, is it well that a general geological survey should be made in such a manner as to apportion little if any of its work specifically to them? A survey so constituted tends to encourage a disposition, unfortunately only too prevalent among our collegiate professors, to regard their entire duty as performed when the labor of teaching is accomplished. A few days ago an eminent civil engineer, who in his moments of leisure has collected one of the finest cabinets of minerals in this country and has made himself a practised mineralogist, complained that, after twenty years of disappointments, he had grown wearied of sending doubtful specimens to professors in colleges for determination, and of receiving no answers after the lapse of many months. As a final resort, he has determined new species himself, and had the chemical analysis performed by a hard-worked chemist in a manufacturing establishment. A large part of the work of a geological survey should be assigned to the colleges in a State, and should be voluntarily performed by their professors. Every State from Maine to Florida should be divided up into collegiate districts, the scientific development of which should be more immediately under the care of the particular college in the midst of each. There is no reason why a system of joint effort, which from time immemorial has accomplished such wonderful things for religion and social order, should not be equally efficacious in scientific matters. A feeling of honorable pride should induce the officers and students of each institution to illustrate the flora and fauna, the mineralogy and geology of its collegiate district, more perfectly than any stranger could. The amount of intellectual labor which is utilized, and the number of valuable data collected each year, form but a small proportion of what is annually lost to the community through lack of organized effort. In a tersely-written letter to the Governor of Pennsylvania, urging the need of a new survey, Prof. Lesley says: "A most important function of a geological survey is, to preserve knowledge for future use. Science is cumulative. It makes slow and painful advances. It is obliged to collect an abundance of facts before it comes to true conclusions. Pennsylvania has lost enormously during the last twenty years by having no bureau of statistics, no corps of observation and publication, to observe and preserve, collate and relate, the facts of its geology and mineralogy, as they have successively made their appearance. No commonwealth can afford to be without such an apparatus for preserving from loss and forgetfulness the discoveries and investigations of private persons, even for one single year of its existence. Thousands of most valuable facts have been lost to us, during an interval, which cannot be recovered. How many openings on coal-veins are now covered up, no one being able to give any reliable information about them. Twenty thousand oil-borings have been made, and not one hundred of them are on record, if discoverable. Hundreds of gangways have been driven and abandoned, and cannot now be studied, many of which woidd disclose the nature of faults and disturbances which affect neighboring properties, and overlying and underlying beds not yet worked, where certain knowledge is preserved to govern the future mining-engineer in his plans for getting at the mineral. He must work as completely in the dark as if his knowledge had never been got, and often paid for at a ruinous expense. The sooner a geological survey is established, the better for the future interests of the State, as well as for its present necessities." At the height of the oil-fever in Pennsylvania, appreciating the wonderful opportunity which the sinking of innumerable wells afforded for obtaining complete geological sections of a vast area, I spent a long time in endeavoring to obtain from the superintendents engaged in boring, by personally visiting hundreds of wells in succession, the records of their work, and specimens of the penetrated strata. Printed circulars, asking for copies of such records in the interests of science, were sent to the secretary of every oil-company within our knowledge. Partly from the disgusting greed which possessed the oil-speculators to the exclusion of every higher feeling, and partly from an insane dread that the possession of such knowledge would bestow an infallible talisman for striking oil, these attempts were in but half a dozen instances successful. Is it wonderful that such crass ignorance should have entailed ruin upon thousands? Nothing but the publication of exhaustive geological reports, continued year after year, and printed both in full and summarized into short popular forms, can save the community at large from the repetition of similar follies. One single mining-fever costs the State more than all the appropriations needed to discover and universally diffuse the truths of geology. The ignorance spoken of above finds a parallel only in the methods which were pursued in treating the crude petroleum after it had been sent to market. The director of the principal chemical manufactory in Western Pennsylvania informed the writer that they first attempted to refine crude petroleum by throwing hundreds of pounds of bergamot and other perfumes into it, to take away the smell. If the reader says that this story is incredible, I can only repeat, "Yes, it is incredible."

It may be urged that few men are placed in such positions, or provided with such appliances, or possessed of sufficient leisure, to contribute any thing of value to the general stock of geological knowledge. But there are hundreds who would shrink from publishing a lengthy article or reading a paper before a learned body, and yet are acute reasoners and accurate observers, and whose abilities could be made available by a good system of collecting and collating their fragmentary labors. I have met many school-teachers and pastors in Switzerland whose parochial duties confined them to obscure valleys among the mountains, and who still had found time to collect the fossils, plants, and minerals, of their poverty-stricken hamlets, and to make careful maps of the rock-strata. They did so for two reasons: In the first place, the topographical map of General Dufour, on a scale of 1 to 100,000, previously accomplished by national aid, rendered it possible for them to locate their observations of strata, etc., with precision; and, secondly, because their contributions were utilized by the professors at Zurich, Bern, Geneva, and elsewhere, and incorporated in their published geological reports. A State survey, so organized as to make every intelligent school-teacher, every country-surveyor, every civil and mining engineer, chemist, amateur or collector, one of its working corps, would, we believe, do the work better, more cheaply, and with vastly more benefit to the material and intellectual prosperity of the State, than any present organization. This would be a school of science indeed, unincumbered by the dead weight of expensive school-buildings, whose laboratory and museum would cover every square foot of the State's surface.