Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/February 1891/Sketch of Jean-Charles Houzeau

PSM V38 D448 Jean Charles Houzeau.jpg



THE romantic incidents of M. Houzeau's career in the United States must invest his story with a living and lasting interest to all Americans. His scientific record is no less remarkable. In versatility, variety of studies, industry, productiveness, and originality he has been surpassed by few men of science. The materials for this sketch have been drawn from the affectionate and appreciative Notes biographiques of Houzeau's intimate friend and associate, M. A. Lancaster (Brussels, 1889).

Jean-Charles Houzeau de Lehaie was born at L'Ermitage, near Mons, Belgium, October 7, 1820, and died July 12, 1888. He was the elder of two children; his brother, M. Auguste Houzeau, is a professor of the School of Mines in Mons and a member of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives. His mother was still living in 1889, at the age of ninety years; but his father died in 1885, ninety-five years old. His name was regularly published in the annual list of nobles in the Almanach royal. The family had added De Lehaie to their name about the middle of the last century, to distinguish them from other branches of the same stock.

Jean-Charles Houzeau showed very early an inclination toward the branches in which he became famous. He was interested in astronomy even before he had learned to read; and with the bonbons that were given him he would form on a table groups of geometrical figures intended to represent the constellations. When he had the table covered with them, he would call his friends in to look at his firmament. He attended the college at Mons while from twelve to seventeen years old; and in the last year received a special prize. He then applied for admission to the University of Brussels, but failed to pass the examinations. He returned to Mons, where he was allowed to pursue his astronomical studies and ramble over the fields at will. From this time his mind was always on the alert, and he showed uncommon faculties of observation. With his own hands he constructed a small observatory on a neighboring hill. It included a wooden cabin in which were a mural circle, a transit instrument, and a telescope. The tubes of these instruments were of zinc; the glasses, which were not achromatic, were bought in Paris. He also began to write about this time, and contributed to L'Emancipation, of Brussels, numerous articles on subjects relating to improvements in industrial arts. He published his first scientific work in 1839, a pamphlet of 108 pages on turbine wheels, which can not be found now, but which was regarded by competent men at the time as of great practical value.

In the two following years, 1840 and 1841, Houzeau attended the courses of the Faculty of Sciences in Paris, but did not seek an academic degree. On his return home, in 1842, he put himself into communication with Quetelet, to obtain a position in the observatory at Brussels, and was appointed a voluntary aid. He had already written a note in the Astronomische Nachrichten, on the position of the zodiacal light, which is cited by Humboldt in the first volume of the Cosmos; but so unknown was he to the scientific world at this time, that Schumacher, the editor of the Tachrichten, wrote to Quetelet to know who he was; and Quetelet was obliged to reply that he knew as little of him as his colleague.

In September, 1846, Houzeau was promoted to a recognized position in the establishment and a salary of fourteen hundred francs. The industry with which he attended to the special duties of this position is illustrated by the fact that during the three years that he held it, he, who had been so frequent a correspondent, did not contribute a single paper to the Academy. The reports of the director, however, amply attest the esteem in which he held his assistant, and the value of Houzeau's services in the work. Some of the fruits of his labors here are embodied in Quetelet's Climate of Belgium, in the preparation of which Houzeau had a large part. The astronomical observations had been interrupted for seven years, when Houzeau took hold. He contributed much to their resumption in 1848. He was usually the first one at the observatory, when any notable event among the stars was announced, to point the telescope at the designated object. Thus, in 1848, he was the first person in Belgium to determine the elements of the orbit of a comet from observations made in the same country; and, on the discovery of Neptune, he at once took observations for the determination of the new planet's right ascension and declination. In 1847 he was charged by the Government with the conduct of geodetical observations on the northern frontier, of which a few points remained to be determined. But his usefulness as an official astronomer was suddenly interrupted by the political events of 1848. Houzeau was a warm republican, with inclinations toward socialism. He had already, in 1839, when hardly twenty years old, been warmly interested in a dispute which arose with Holland, and had been among the first to join a company of volunteers for public defense. On the present occasion he gave free and unambiguous expression to his democratic principles and republican aspirations, and compromised himself by forming relations with persons whose political standing was not good. He published numerous polemical articles in the journals. On the 25th of March, 1849, a meeting at which he was presiding was broken in upon by the Leopoldists, and he and his fellow-republicans were obliged to flee. A few days afterward he was deprived of his position at the observatory for having, the decree read, "assisted at meetings organized for purposes contrary to the institutions of the country." Quetelet was discommoded by the action of the Government, and did not conceal the fact. Houzeau continued, however, to take part privately in the work of the observatory for a few months, till he started on a tour in Germany, Switzerland, and France. Sojourning at Lyons from the following February till May, he occupied himself with the preparation of several works, among them two treatises on Meteorology, which appeared afterward in the Encyclopédie populaire. In May, 1850, he settled in Paris, where he resided for five years, devoting himself principally to study. He was an industrious taker of notes, which related, not to science alone, but to all branches of human activity, and embraced anecdotes and jokes. He assisted M. d'Abbadie, of the Institute, in arranging the scientific observations which he had made in Ethiopia. He interested himself much in optical telegraphy. In conjunction with his brother he made experiments at Paris and Mons to learn if the light of the flashing of powder at one place could be seen at the other. Of course, these experiments were not successful, for such lights could not be seen at so great a distance. Some time afterward communication by the electric cable between England and France was interrupted, and Houzeau proposed to the English Cable Company to use a system of optical signals. Experiments were determined upon between Dover and Calais, but were stopped by the order of the French Government, declaring that such work should be done only by agents of the state. They were undertaken again in England, where this kind of interference could not take place, between Southend and Whitstable. The first experiments were successful, but the populace, excited by so much night-work with fires, and fancying that the oyster crop would be damaged by them, mobbed the experimenters and stoned Houzeau's lodgings.

The essay on the Physical Geography of Belgium (1853) was the first book, M. Lancaster says, in which Houzeau "gave the measure of his force as a man of science and a writer, and in which one could perceive the whole extent and variety of his knowledge, appreciate his expository talent, and enjoy the charm of his sober, clear, and elegant style. He had been collecting materials for it for ten years, and in doing so made the best use of his pedestrian excursions. The book is possessed of an interest that does not pall for an instant in the reading, and is described by M. Lancaster as one of the most remarkable works that can be cited. An important paper in the same line was a study of the influence by which the peculiar features of the relief of Belgian topography had been produced. In 1854, through the influence of his friend and former colleague, Liagre, Houzeau was temporarily commissioned by the Minister of War as astronomer to determine latitudes and azimuths and make geodetic observations in the triangulation of the Belgian coast. He performed this work with great credit to himself and advantage to the service till 1857, when, the appropriations failing, he was dismissed. About this time (1857) he published his History of the Soil of Europe—the most important work he produced prior to crossing the Atlantic. It was accompanied by a map which deserves mention as embodying the first attempt that was made, with a satisfactory degree of success, to represent the relief by curves and by successively deeper tints of shading. Berghaus had previously attempted a map with relief curves, but it left much room for improvement.

After his dismissal from the work of triangulation, Houzeau proceeded to carry out a desire which he had cherished for many years to visit the United States, where he expected to study a society and customs different from those with which he was acquainted. He embarked from Liverpool on an emigrant sailing vessel, on the 11th of September, and reached New Orleans after a voyage of seven weeks, much of the time marked by hard storms. He expected to remain in America a few months. His residence actually lasted twenty years. Full accounts of his experiences and observations during the first ten of those years are given in his twenty-four communications to the Revue trimestrielle. The letters, treating of many questions, constitute, for the time in which they were written, a complete, vivid, and animated picture of the manners and institutions, and the social, political, and intellectual conditions of the districts in which he abode. The question in which he appears to have been most deeply interested was that of the abolition of slavery. After staying at New Orleans long enough to get a passable practical knowledge of the English language, he went to San Antonio, Texas, where he was engaged in surveying for irrigating canals; then made a six weeks' excursion to the Rio Grande, during which he found abundant opportunities to carry on studies of the winds; he was interested in observations of Donati's brilliant comet and speculations as to its identity with the comets of 1264 and 1556; and was commissioned to make surveys in western Texas for the settlement of some Spanish land titles which had been acquired by a company. He describes his life here as that of the regular frontiersman.

When the civil war broke out, Houzeau was in southern Texas, about to start on a geological excursion to the borders of the Indian country. The trip occupied six weeks, and, on his return, he seems to have got himself into some trouble by assisting in the escape of a fugitive slave. After resting a month, he started for another geological excursion toward the Rio Pecos.

But affairs had become too much disturbed for the undertaking to be safe, and he was stopped before he had made more than a few days' journey. Life at his ranch was imperiled by Indian depredations, and he was obliged to abandon all—even his books and his precious collections of Secondary and Tertiary fossils, his field and his cattle—and return to the towns. At Austin he was invited to join the staff of the Confederate army, to help supply a seriously felt lack of scientifically educated officers, with the inducement added that he would thereby be enabled to avoid requisitions. He answered: "I would sooner cut off my right hand than serve that cause. Let the requisitions come; they may watch me as an obdurate or make a prisoner of me, but a soldier of the planters—never!" He returned to San Antonio, where he hoped to be able to weather the storm in obscurity; but, being threatened with a conscription, he claimed the protection of the Belgian consul at New Orleans, without effect. There was a powerful party in the region opposed to the Confederacy, and he allied himself with it. Then came the arrest, in October, 1861, of Mr. Charles Anderson, Unionist, at the head-waters of the Rio San Antonio, with the accounts of which the papers of the time were filled. Houzeau, with a Northern lady, his neighbor, formed a plan to rescue Mr. Anderson, and carried it out with admirable daring and brilliant success, himself accompanying the suspect on horseback at night to a point down the river, whence a straight road led to freedom, and taking care of his business papers. Desperate but vain efforts were made to discover the "traitor" who had helped Mr. Anderson off.

In February, 1862, Houzeau learned that the Vigilance Committee were about to make a descent upon him. He had compromised himself by defending the freedom of the negroes whom Anderson had set free to prevent their being sold by Confederate officials. He prepared to flee, first taking care to write an account of the rescue of Anderson. Knowing that the Unionist party desired to send a memorial to the President of the United States, and wishing to be useful to them before going off, he told them that if they would prepare the memorial he would take charge of it. Not being able to carry his own papers with him, he burned them, for there was not a leaf among them, he said, that did not contain something in condemnation of slavery. With the Unionist memorial stuffed in the barrel of his shot-gun, he started off under the guise of Carlos Uso, Mexican driver of six oxen, in the train of Alejandro Vidal, for Brownsville and Matamoras. The story of the journey of thirty-five days, as told by him in his correspondence, reads like a chapter of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He had to remain in Matamoras nearly a year, till January, 1863, waiting for the French blockade to be raised, before he was able to take passage for the United States. He spent his time in gardening, in drawing architectural designs for the rebuilding of the burnt city, and in making surveys of Matamoras and Brownsville for the consul of the United States. His house sheltered many Texan refugees. At last the American war-ship Kensington appeared at the mouth of the Rio Grande, and Houzeau was given passage on her to New Orleans as a member of the Belgian Academy of Sciences. At New Orleans he identified himself with the interests of the colored population, and became a regular contributor and one of the editors of their French journal, the Union, afterward the Tribune, to which he added an English part. He came north in July, 1863, and resided in Philadelphia till November, 1864, pursuing scientific and literary studies and preparing his book on the Mental Faculties of Animals as compared with those of Man, which was published in 1872. Then he returned to New Orleans and took charge of the Tribune, which became, on the strength of his famous article, Is there any Justice for the Black? one of the best known and influential journals of the country, contributing to it some eighteen or twenty columns a day. He presided over the Republican Convention of July 30, 1866, which was mobbed, and barely escaped from it with his life by the aid of a back passage. In the next year a division arose among the parties interested in the Tribune, with which Houzeau would have nothing to do, and he retired from it.

Houzeau had hardly landed in the New World when he received the offer of a professorship of Geology in the Free University of Brussels. He declined, but his name was put upon the programmes and kept there for two years, while efforts were continued to induce him to accept. He was disposed to consider more favorably the offer of a position in the military school, made in 1863, but the financial limitations of the institution prevented the consummation of the appointment. No settled intention, but accidents arising one after another, kept him in America for twenty years. He formed plans to return to Europe several times, but something occurred to postpone the day. In the mean time his literary and scientific activity suffered but little interruption. He contributed to three or four journals sketches of travel, American life, the Indians, the war, slavery, etc., and to the scientific societies and journals papers on the numerical calculus, the radius vector of a new planet, parallax, stellar movements, and other subjects; and, while busiest on the New Orleans Tribune, he taught stenography to a school of colored men, and corresponded with the New York Evening Post.

A few weeks after giving up the New Orleans Tribune, Houzeau removed to Jamaica, where he found a new life of freedom opened up to him with, ample opportunities for study. He took a house, with a few acres of garden, at Ross View, near the foot of the Blue Mountains, and there led a life of seemingly pure enjoyment in his work, varied by excursions, of one of which, to the higher mountain regions, he has left a full and most entertaining account. The colored people of the neighborhood had borne a bad reputation, but Houzeau found them the best of neighbors. He gathered them around him and taught them the rudiments of science and something of literature. He taught the children to read, and found by his experiments that the old way of spelling the words out was better adapted to their mental condition than the "philosophical" one by presenting syllables and words to be learned bodily. He set up a printing-press, from which he issued a numerical calculator, a table of logarithms, a perpetual almanac, Families of Plants, and Correct Information about Common Things, some of which works, however, were not completed. The scientific journals were well supplied with the articles which he produced during this period. The principal of his works was the Study of the Mental Faculties of Man and Animals, on which he had labored for several years. It was warmly commended by Mr. A. R. Wallace, who said it gave the author a high rank among philosophical naturalists, and by Mr. W. Lauder Lindsay, who regarded it as the peer of Darwin's works. The Sky brought within Everybody's Reach was a clear, interesting, and at the same time scientific popular treatise on astronomy. He improved the favorable situation he enjoyed at Ross View for new observations of the zodiacal light, and, perceiving the advantages which a pure atmosphere afforded for his work, conceived and expressed the idea of seating observatories on the tops of mountains, which has since been carried out at several places, with all the good results he anticipated. He undertook in 1875 the preparation of a uranography, or map of all the heavens visible to the naked eye. In order to enlarge the field of his observations he spent a few weeks at Panama, and there, suffering from fever, contracted, in the service of science, the seeds of the disease that carried him off a dozen years later.

M. Lancaster thinks that Houzeau would have spent the rest of his days in Jamaica, if the death of Quetelet in 1874 had not prompted his recall to be the head of the observatory of Brussels. As it was, he found, when he returned to his home from Panama, a telegram announcing his appointment as director of this institution. The observatory had not of late years—Quetelet having been partly disabled by an apoplectic stroke suffered in 1855—kept up with the times. Its instruments had grown old-fashioned, and there was a lack of energy in its work. A commission was appointed after Quetelet's death to inquire what could be done to restore it. All agreed that a man of vigor was needed, and Houzeau's friends had no hesitation in asserting that he was the only Belgian who could supply the requisite faculties. But there was much against him. He had been long away, and was politically discredited and unorthodox. Even when his nomination had been put into the hands of the king for the royal signature, the ministers interposed objections. "He is a freethinker," they said. "That is a matter for his conscience," the king replied. "But he is a republican, too," they added. "That is my business," said Leopold, and wrote his name confirming the appointment. Even Rogier, who was responsible for Houzeau's dismissal in 1849, told the king that, if he were now minister, he would appoint him. "I owe him a reparation," he said.

Houzeau took charge of the observatory on the 17th of June, 1876. His views as to the renovation of the institution were approved. New instruments were obtained; the meteorological department was fitted up; a spectroscopic department was instituted; a daily meteorological bulletin was started, which he attended to personally for the first six months; popular lectures were instituted, the library was enlarged, new life was given to the publications, a catalogue was made of the astronomical and meteorological works in Belgian libraries; Ciel et Terre, one of the most valuable scientific periodicals of Europe, was begun, and vigorous activity was instituted in every department. During the six years that he remained here he published The Study of Nature, its Charms and its Dangers; his General Uranometry; an Elementary Treatise on Meteorology (with M. Lancaster), and special papers. In 1878, as Vice-President of the Geographical Society, he received Mr. Stanley on his return from his Congo expedition.

Houzeau revisited Jamaica, spending five months there, in 1878. In 1880 he was delegated as the Belgian representative in the Meteorological Congress at Rome, and visited Italy for the first time. In 1882 he led one of the two Belgian expeditions to America—one to Texas and the other to Chili—to observe the transit of Venus. Visiting San Antonio again, he gave lectures there on scientific subjects, and particularly on the transit. He had found the climate of Belgium too severe for his enfeebled constitution, and determined not to return there. He came back to France, and settled down for a year at Orthez, near Pau; then, wishing to be nearer to Brussels and to libraries while preparing his Astronomical Bibliography, removed to Blois. In November, 1883, he resigned his position in the observatory. His father dying in August, 1885, he resolved to return to his native land to take care of his mother, to whom he was always a dutiful son. The demands of his Astronomical Bibliography obliged him to go to Brussels, where his labors on that important work were varied by occupation with his Annuaire populaire, lectures for the geographical and microscopical societies and societies of art, and with writing articles on political and social economy for the journal Réforme; in addition to which he projected a great work on the Beginnings of Science. At the same time his health grew worse, and in the fall of 1887, while his general appearance was still not changed, he expressed to his friends the opinion that he would hardly live through the winter. He was confined to his bed in February, and died in July, 1888. He was buried, in accordance with his dying wish, in the most simple manner, in the public ground, with no stone to mark his grave. Nevertheless, a handsome monument, seven metres high, adorned on its four sides with appropriate astronomical and meteorological emblems, has been erected to him by the city of Mons, on one of its public squares, near the railway station, and was unveiled on the 2d of June, 1890, with addresses by the burgomaster of the city; M. Folie, Director of the Observatory; and M. Auguste Houzeau.

Most of Houzeau's principal works have been mentioned in the course of this sketch. His minor papers and special publications were very numerous, contributed to different societies and journals, and touched, as M. Lancaster well says, on nearly every branch of human activity. M. Lancaster's list gives eighty-six titles, counting as one matter contributed to the New Orleans Tribune enough to fill a dozen volumes. He was made a correspondent in the Class of Science in the Belgian Academy in 1854, and two years afterward a member of that body. He was a member of several other societies in Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, London, and Vienna.

Mr. Wallace expresses the opinion, in his Darwinism, that animals are spared the pain we suffer in the anticipation of death, and that their lives are, therefore, lives of almost perpetual enjoyment; even the watchfulness they have to keep up against danger, and their flight from enemies, are, he believes, the pleasurable exercise of the powers and faculties they possess. Dr. E. W. Shufeldt, after many years of incessant study of animated forms of high and low degrees in the systematic scale, has come to very different conclusions from these. He believes that there has been as much evolution of mind, or reasoning powers, in animals as of organic structure; and that while the anticipation of death in the ordinary course has very little to do with marring the pleasures of life among men or animals, the immediate presence of death is awful to both. Instances are not wanting to prove that most of the higher animals appreciate the difference between a living and a dead body, and realize much of the suffering due to the fear of death as apart from the physical pain that may accompany it. In the case of flight from an enemy, or in the face of any other danger that may result in death, Dr. Shufeldt is convinced that the animal pursued, be it man or some of the vertebrated forms in the scale below him, experiences very much the same kind of sensations. Those who have studied timid animals under such circumstances "know full well that their pleasures in such flights are by no means unmixed ones, but are rather infused with a very large share of pain, and pain of a very high order."