Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/September 1875/Sketch of Professor Hilgard



WE this month present to our readers the portrait of Julius E. Hilgard, First Assistant of the United States Coast Survey, and President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the meeting in Detroit, which takes place on the 11th of August of the present year. Mr. Hilgard was born in January, 1825, in the town of Zweibrücken, in Bavaria, where his father hold the position of Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Palatinate of the Rhine. At the age of nine years he came to the United States with his father, who settled on a farm near Belleville, Illinois, where his education, classical and mathematical, was continued by parental instruction, aided by the part he took in the education of several younger brothers. At the age of eighteen he went to Philadelphia, and pursued the study of civil engineering under the advice of such eminent engineers as Roberts and Trautwine. His ardent desire for knowledge attracted the attention of Dr. Patterson, Prof. Bache, and other members of the Philosophical Society; and, soon after Prof. Bache took charge of the Coast Survey, he attached young Hilgard to the corps of assistants which he was about to form, and which, under his training, has attained so eminent a position as a scientific body. Hilgard was soon recognized as one of the leading spirits of the work, and by zeal in active service, untiring application, and the improvement wrought in all branches of the work that he touched, rose to the position of Chief of the Bureau of the Coast Survey at headquarters in Washington. To this position, which he holds at the present time, he was assigned at the beginning of the war of the rebellion, which called forth the best efforts of every member of the Coast Survey, and brought into play its resources of important information gathered during previous years.

Mr. Hilgard's scientific work has chiefly been in connection with his practical labors, consisting of researches and discussion of results in geodesy and terrestrial physics, and in perfecting methods and instrumental means connected with the same. The annual reports of the Coast Survey contain numerous papers from his hand on the application of the method of least squares to geodesy, on determinations of latitude, azimuth, and longitude; on methods of precision in measuring lengths, and on terrestrial magnetism. In 1872 he executed, in connection with the telegraphic determination of the longitude between America and Europe through the French cable, a similar termination between the observatories at Paris and Greenwich, which supersedes the value previously admitted, correcting it by nearly half a second of time. His essay on "Tides and Tidal Action in Harbors," first published as a lecture before the American Institute, is remarkable for its lucid and terse exposition of principles without the aid of mathematical symbols. While possessing great facility in employing the aid of the higher mathematics, Mr. Hilgard systematically avoids, as far as practicable, their introduction in his writings, preferring to use logical statements of the processes of reasoning.

As part of the duties of his office, Mr. Hilgard has charge of the construction and verification of the standards of weight and measure for the United States, and, by order of Congress, has been for some years past engaged in preparing metrical standards of great precision for distribution to the several States. In this connection he was appointed a delegate to the International Metrical Commission, which met at Paris in 1872, having for its object the construction of new metrical prototypes of great precision and permanence, and which has since resulted in the establishment of an International Bureau of Weights and Measures at Paris, under the direction of a committee, of which Mr. Hilgard is a member. A valuable and instructive treatise on "Methods of Precision in measuring and weighing" was read by him before the Stevens Institute of Technology, but has not yet been published.

When, in 1863, the National Academy of Sciences was chartered by Congress, Mr. Hilgard was one of the original members named in the act. He is at present the home secretary of that scientific body. The compliment of honorary membership has been conferred upon him by the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Boston. His frequent communications to the Philosophical Society of Washington are evidence of a very active interest in scientific research, maintained notwithstanding the exactions of his arduous official labors. A work of great interest, which he is now conducting outside of his official sphere, is a magnetic survey of the United States, prosecuted at the expense of the Bache Fund, arising from a bequest of the late Alexander Dallas Bache to the National Academy of Sciences.

No small part of Mr. Hilgard's services to science and education is to be found in the readiness and obliging disposition with which he has constantly given information and rendered facilities by the loan of instruments and apparatus to persons engaged in scientific research or instruction. Besides meeting numerous requests of this kind at home, he has given his best aid and advice to the equipment of government surveys in the Sandwich Islands and in Japan. Although Mr. Hilgard's scientific work has been generally limited to the sphere embraced in his practical pursuits, he has been a very active student in other branches of science, especially dynamics and molecular physics.