The Lazzaroni: Science and Scientists in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America

By Lillian B. Miller; Frederick Voss et al. | Go to book overview
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Alexander Dallas Bache 1806-1867

"Chief" of the Lazzaroni was Alexander Dallas Bache, Superintendent, from 1843 to 1867, of the United States Coast Survey, the largest federal scientific establishment until the 1880s. Born in Philadelphia, the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, Bache was also descended from Alexander James Dallas, Secretary of the Treasury during Madison's administration. He showed early evidence of capacity, and at 15 was admitted to the United States Military Academy, from which he graduated with the highest honors and "without a single demerit." A three-year stint in the Army, first as assistant professor at the Academy and then as lieutenant of engineers engaged in the construction of Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island, gave him familiarity with the military an experience that proved valuable in his later career. Resigning from the Army to accept the professorship of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, Bache turned his attention to educational problems and scientific research, utilizing the facilities of the newly established Franklin Institute for his investigations. One of the more important experiments with which he was associated--noted as much for its methodology as for the fact that it represented one of the first times that government had sought the services of scientists for the solution of a practical problem--was to determine the causes for explosions in steam boilers. In its mixture of pure and applied research, the experiment presaged Bache's future work, and set a precedent for the later development of federal policy toward science and technology.

While at the university, Bache became increasingly involved in the study of the physics of the earth, particularly terrestrial magnetism and meteorology. His attempts to establish an American system of magnetic observatories resulted in the creation of an observatory at Girard College, the first of its kind in the United States.

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