Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/November 1895/Sketch of Alexander Dallas Bache

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THE life which is to be sketched in the following pages contributes support to the doctrine that what a man is to be, or, rather, what he is capable of being, is mainly determined by what his parents and ancestors have been. According to the doctrine of heredity, it is not surprising that Bache, descended from illustrious progenitors on both sides of his family, should himself achieve intellectual eminence. As he received an education that was very appropriate for the work he was to perform, his career does not give any help in answering the question whether heredity is or is not stronger than training.

His most important work is instructive in another way. It shows how effective efforts for the advancement of knowledge made by the power and resources of a great government can be when the right man is secured to direct them, just as other instances have made plain how wasteful and demoralizing such efforts may become when unwisely managed.

Alexander Dallas Bache was born in Philadelphia, July 19, 1806. His father, Richard Bache, was a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, being one of the eight children of Richard Bache, Postmaster-General from 1776 to 1782, and Franklin's only daughter, Sarah. His mother, Sophia Burret (Dallas), was a daughter of Alexander J. Dallas, who was Madison's Secretary of the Treasury, and sister of George M. Dallas, Vice-President of the United States in Polk's administration.

Dallas Bache, as he was usually called by his intimates, was placed in a classical school at an early age, and proved to be a remarkably bright pupil. The year he was fifteen years old he was appointed a cadet in the Military Academy at West Point. He maintained a high stand in scholarship from the beginning to the end of his course, and graduated in 1825 at the head of his class, although its youngest member. This was no small achievement in a class from which four cadets were assigned to the engineer corps, when only one or two members attained this honor in most classes. Moreover, he went through the whole four years without receiving a demerit mark—equally remarkable in view of the rigid discipline of the academy, and the only instance on record. Students are none too prone to admire one of their fellows who is noted only for studious habits and correct deportment, but young Bache had besides the personal qualities that win esteem. Prof. Joseph Henry, in his memoir read before the National Academy of Sciences, relates of cadet Bache that "his superiority in scholarship was freely acknowledged by every member of his class, while his unassuming manner, friendly demeanor, and fidelity to duty secured him the affection as well as the respect of not only his fellow-pupils, but also of the officers of the institution. It is also remembered that his classmates, with instinctive deference to his scrupulous sense of propriety, forbore to solicit his participation in any amusement which in the slightest degree conflicted with the rules of the academy. So far from this, they commended his course, and took pride to themselves, as members of his class, in his reputation for high standing and exemplary conduct. His roommate—older by several years than he was, and by no means noted for regularity or studious habits—constituted himself, as it were, his guardian, and sedulously excluded all visitors or other interruptions to study during the prescribed hours. For this self-imposed service, gravely rendered as essential to the honor of the class, he was accustomed jocularly to claim immunity for his own delinquencies or shortcomings."

All of young Bache's predispositions for good were stimulated and sustained by the judicious care of his mother, not only while he was a child at home, but also by means of a ready pen during the whole of his residence at West Point. It should not be inferred that the young man attained perfection in his conduct. "When a child he is said to have been quick-tempered, and at later periods of his life, when suddenly provoked beyond his habitual power of endurance, he sometimes gave way to manifestations of temper which might have surprised those who only knew him in his usual state of calm deportment. These ebullitions were, however, of rare occurrence, and always of short duration."

On graduating, Lieutenant Bache was assigned to duty at the academy as assistant professor. A year later he was transferred at his own request to engineering service on the fortifications at Newport, R. I., under Major (afterward General) J. G. Totten. Here he remained two years. One of his recreations during this period was making a collection of shells of mollusks.

In 1828, being then twenty-two years of age. Lieutenant Bache resigned his commission in the army to accept a call to the chair of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. This change was welcome in more ways than one. He was engaged to Miss Nancy Clarke Fowler, the daughter of an old and highly respected citizen of Newport, but marriage was apparently a remote prospect, for he had only the stinted pay of a lieutenant of engineers, out of which he must contribute to the support of his mother and her younger children. The salary of his new position, however, justified him in hastening the happy event.

His year's experience in teaching at West Point assisted Mr. Bache in taking up his duties at the university. He was a very successful instructor, and popular with his students. But he did not rest content with imparting knowledge obtained by the labors of others. He joined the Franklin Institute, then newly established, and took a prominent part in its investigations for the promotion of the mechanical arts.

For a full account of his labors in connection with this society we must here be content with referring to the volumes of its Journal from 1828 to 1835 inclusive. One of the most important and fruitful of these was the investigation of the bursting of steam boilers, of which he was the principal director. From inquiries and experiments, the latter not unattended with danger, "the most frequent cause of explosion was found to be the gradual heating of the boiler beyond its power of resistance; and, next to this, the sudden generation of steam by allowing the water to become too low, and its subsequent contact with the overheated metal of the sides and other portions of the boiler. The generation of gas from the decomposition of water as a cause of explosion was disproved, as was also the dispersion of water in the form of spray through superheated steam."

Early in 1829 Mr. Bache was elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society, and at once entered upon various researches in pure science in co-operation with his fellowmembers. With the aid of his wife and of his former pupil, John F. Fraser, he determined with accuracy, for the first time in this country, the periods of the daily variations of the magnetic needle, and by another series of observations established the connection between certain perturbations of the terrestrial magnetism and the aurora borealis. With Prof. Courtenay he investigated the magnetic dip at various places in the United States, and with Mr. Espy made a minute survey of part of the track of a tornado which visited New Jersey, June 19, 1835.

After Stephen Girard died, in 1833, Prof. Bache was elected one of the trustees of the College for Orphans, founded by the will of the childless merchant. Three years later the trustees decided to select a president for the institution, in order that he might go abroad and study European methods of education while other preparations were being made. Prof. Bache, then only thirty years of age, was selected for the position. Although regretting the consequent interruption of his scientific researches, in which he had become much absorbed, he accepted the appointment, and departed on his mission, September 30, 1836. Two years were spent agreeably and profitably in Europe, and on his return Prof. Bache made a report to the trustees embodying his observations on the schools of England, France, Prussia, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, with the many helpful conclusions and suggestions that he had derived from these data. The document was printed, making a large octavo volume.

As the preparations for opening the college were not yet complete. Prof. Bache offered his services gratuitously to reorganize the public schools of Philadelphia, and his offer was gladly accepted by the municipal authorities. A year later, finding that the trustees of the college were still unprepared to open the institution, he relinquished the salary of his office and accepted from the city a much smaller compensation for his time. His work on the public schools was completed in 1842, and resulted in a system that has been taken as a model by other cities in various parts of the United States. So highly were his labors appreciated that the Central High School was frequently called Bache Institute.

Girard College having made very little progress, he now resigned all connection with it, and accepted his former chair at the University of Pennsylvania, with its welcome opportunities for scientific research. The preceding six years had by no means been a blank with respect to his favorite investigations.' When he went to Europe he took care to provide himself with a set of portable instruments, with which, as a relief from the labors imposed by the special object of his mission, he made a connected series of observations on the dip and intensity of terrestrial magnetism at important places on the Continent and in Great Britain.

After his return to Philadelphia he co-operated in the undertaking of the British Association to determine by contemporaneous observations at widely separated points the fluctuations of the magnetic and meteorological elements of the globe. He also made in his summer vacations a magnetic survey of Pennsylvania. Mr. Cramp, afterward the famous shipbuilder, was then a boy in the high school, and assisted Prof. Bache in his observations.

Valuable instruments and methods for performing scientific observations were devised by Bache during this period. He invented an ingenious instrument for determining the dew point, which is especially valuable where readings must be made by persons without special scientific training. Only much later did he learn that the principle of the device had already been used by Belli, of Milan. He also introduced a modification of Osier's anemometer and invented a thermoscope of contact, both of which avoided difficulties involved in the use of previous instruments.

The way in which a man conducts a controversy is always a severe test of his character. Bache had one with Denison Olmsted on the periodical recurrence of meteors. Prof. Gould, in his American Association memoir, thus describes the occurrence: "Mr. Bache maintained that there was no recurrence in 1834; Prof. Olmsted, on the other hand, maintained the reverse. Prof. Bache instituted special inquiries at the military posts (where, of course, sentinels were on duty) along all the frontiers of the United States, also among the night police of various cities, and at the universities, and he found but one exception to the statement that no unusual number of meteors was seen. Of this controversy Bache wrote, in 1846:

"'There is something yet to be found out on this subject which may reconcile our opinions. Neither I nor any of those watching with me, or for me, have seen an unusual number of meteors on the night of the 12th of November in any year since the great night at Philadelphia, and we have taken great pains to be sure. Yet I can not doubt the testimony as given for some other places. . . . I had a complimentary letter from the professor in regard to my manner of conducting the controversy, which I valued more highly than if I had gained the victory.'"

The year after Prof. Bache resumed his old position at the university he was called to the superintendency of the United States Coast Survey, left vacant by the death of Mr. Hassler. His appointment to this position was first suggested by members of the American Philosophical Society, and the nomination was fully concurred in by the other principal scientific and literary institutions of the country.

Although the Coast Survey had been founded a quarter of a century, the policy of Congress toward it had been changeable and its appropriations limited. It had been suspended fifteen years of that time, so that its work was but just begun. The Atlantic coast line had been surveyed only from Point Judith, on the coast of Rhode Island, to Cape Henlopen, at the entrance of Delaware Bay. "The new superintendent" says Prof. Henry in his memoir, "saw the necessity of greatly enlarging the plan, so as to embrace a much broader field of simultaneous labor than it had previously included. He divided the whole coast line into sections, and organized, under separate parties, the essential operations of the survey simultaneously in each. He commenced the exploration of the Gulf Stream, and at the same time projected a series of observations on the tides, on the magnetism of the earth, and the direction of the winds at different seasons of the year. He also instituted a succession of researches in regard to the bottom of the ocean within soundings, and the forms of animal life which are found there, thus offering new and unexpected indications to the navigator. He pressed into service, for the determination of longitude, the electric telegraph; for the ready reproduction of charts, photography; and for multiplying copperplate engravings, the new art of electrotyping. In planning and directing the execution of these varied improvements, which exacted so much comprehensiveness in design and minuteness in detail. Prof. Bache was entirely successful. He was equally fortunate, principally through the moral influence of its character, in impressing upon the Government, and especially upon Congress, a more just estimate of what such a survey required for its maintenance and creditable prosecution. Not only was a largely increased appropriation needed to carry out this more comprehensive plan, but also to meet the expenses consequent upon the extension of the shore line itself. Our seacoast, when the survey commenced, already exceeded in length that of any other civilized nation, but in 1845 it was still more extended by the annexation of Texas, and again, in 1848, by our acquisitions on the Pacific. Prof. Bache was in the habit of answering the question often propounded to him by members of Congress, 'When will this survey be completed?' by asking, 'When will you cease annexing territory?'"

Prof. Bache's policy of dividing the Atlantic and Gulf coast (we had no Pacific coast in 1843) into sections, and carrying on work in all the sections at the same time greatly allayed sectional jealousies in States which the previous operations of the survey had not reached and had great influence in winning public favor for the survey. He had a wonderful faculty for enlisting the efforts and talents of others in carrying out his plans. "As rapidly as means allowed, the services of American scientists throughout the land were enlisted in aid of the survey, and the whole intellectual resources of the country thus made tributary to its usefulness and success. Thus Walker, Peirce, Bailey, Agassiz, Barnard, Kendall, Mitchell, Bond, Alexander, and many others, were called on to assist in the advancement of the undertaking; and this large and wise policy prevailed during the whole period of his superintendence."[1] Many of the ablest officers of the navy and the army were brought into the Coast Survey service, and gained experience of great value in the duties many of them were afterward called upon to perform in the civil war.

The efficiency of the survey was greatly increased by improved instrumental equipment. Antiquated instruments were replaced by those of the most improved type; an apparatus for the measurement of base lines, invented by Prof. Bache, was introduced, and secured a degree of accuracy before unknown. The method of determining longitude by the exchange of star signals was developed through the agency of Sears C. Walker. Prof. Gould has stated that he had received accounts of this important advance in geodetic practice from the lips of both Bache and Walker, and that "their descriptions varied but in one salient point, namely, that each ascribed the chief merit to the other." The determination of latitudes with the zenith telescope, by Talcott's method, first tested in 1845, was early adopted by the survey. "Thus by the use of the zenith telescope, combined with the determination of longitudes from the adopted meridian by the exchange of star-signals, the geographical position of the primary astronomical stations of the survey could claim, ten or fifteen years ago, to be determined with more accuracy than that of any European observatory."

Stations for tidal observation were established all along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. The character of the Gulf Stream and other currents along our coast were determined. Twice was Agassiz sent to study the formation of the coral reefs of Florida, and the causes that promote and restrict their growth. The magnetic constants were determined for every important point possible within reach of the survey.

Other duties were assigned to Prof. Bache by the Government from time to time. He was made Superintendent of Weights and Measures, and in the exercise of this function directed a series of investigations relative to the collection of excise duties ou distilled spirits, and superintended the construction of a large number of sets of standard weights and measures for distribution to the several States of the Union. He was appointed on a commission created to examine the lighthouse system of the United States, and was a member of the Lighthouse Board, into which this commission was merged, from its organization till his death. In this work he took a lively interest and rendered important service.

As to the connection of Prof. Bache with the Smithsonian Institution we can not have better testimony than that of him who was identified with the institution for more than thirty years, its first secretary. Prof. Henry says: "In 1846 he had been named in the act of incorporation as one of the regents of the Smithsonian Institution, and by successive re-election was continued by Congress in this office until his death, a period of nearly twenty years. To say that he assisted in shaping the policy of the establishment would not be enough. It was almost exclusively through his predominating influence that the policy which has given the institution its present celebrity was, after much opposition, finally adopted."[2] Not the least of Bache's services to the institution was securing Henry for its secretary. The latter states, in the place just quoted, that "it was entirely due to the persuasive influence of the professor" that he was induced to take the position.

Although not fond of physical exertion. Prof. Bache had been accustomed to spend part of each summer in a tent at some station of the survey on the top of a mountain, where he took part in the measurement of angles and directed the movements of field parties at other stations. The civil war brought added labors upon him so that his constant presence in Washington was required, and his health no longer obtained the yearly recuperation of this season of outdoor life. Being solicited by the Governor of Pennsylvania to plan lines of defense for Philadelphia, he consented, although overburdened with other public duties, and personally superintended the construction of some of the works. Unaccustomed for many years to direct exposure to the sun, this undertaking brought on the first indications of the malady that ended his life. He had been subject to attacks of "sick headache"—a tendency which he seems to have inherited—and now various symptoms of softening of the brain came upon him in succession. For several months he was very anxious about the business of the Coast Survey, and with difficulty could be restrained from attempting to perform the duties of his office. As the malady increased, however, his attention was gradually withdrawn from the exterior world, with which he almost ceased to hold active communication. A trip to Europe, covering a period of eighteen months, produced no permanent benefit. He died a short time after his return, at Newport, R. I., February 17, 1867.

The ability and worth of Dallas Bache brought him many and high honors. There were few for our leading learned societies that did not number him among their associates. He was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850 and 1851, of the American Philosophical Society in 1855 and 1856, and of the National Academy of Sciences from its establishment in 1863 until his death. He was a member also of the Royal Society of London, the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, the Institute of France, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal and Imperial Geographical Society of Vienna, the Royal Academy of Turin, the Mathematical Society of Hamburg, the Academy of Sciences in the Institute of Bologna, the Royal Astronomical Society of London, and the Royal Irish Academy of Dublin.

The degree of LL. D. was conferred upon him by the principal American universities, and he received several medals from foreign governments for his distinguished services to science in the course of his labors on the Coast Survey and in other researches.

Mr. Bache was gifted with quick apprehension, and at the same time with deep intelligence, which is not always allied to the former quality. He had also great power of application. When at the head of a body of workers those under him were always nerved to do their best, because they saw that the master did not spare himself. He was always ready to learn from others. He would listen carefully to younger men if he saw that they had ideas which might be developed to good purpose. After arguing vehemently in opposition to the views of his brother on a matter under consideration, he would often come out on the same side of the question, and explain that his contention was designed to draw out arguments.

In his home he dropped science, and was a genial companion of old and young. Although not prepossessing in face, he was charming in manner and disposition. He was a very lovable man, and there was always plenty of company at his house in Washington. His favorite relaxation was reading light novels. He had a great appreciation of humor, but failed in trying to contribute humorously to the entertainment of others.

As an evidence of his high appreciation of abstract science derived from original investigation, he left his property in trust to the National Academy of Sciences, the income to be devoted to the prosecution of researches in physical and natural science, by assisting experimenters and observers, and the publication of the results of their investigations.

Appended to the memorial address by Dr. Benjamin A. Gould already cited is a list of the published scientific papers of Prof. Bache, embracing one hundred and twenty-three titles, besides thirty-five annual reports, and twenty-one reports on harbors made jointly with Messrs. Totten and Davis.

  1. Address in commemoration of Alexander Dallas Bache, by Benjamin Apthorp Gould, delivered before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, August 6, 1868.
  2. Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, i, 197, 198.