Coastal Identities: Science, Technology, Commerce and the State in American Seaports, 1790-1850

James Risk is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of South Carolina. In 2015-2016 he was a Research Fellow of the Consortium. Read more about his project below. My research focuses on the intersection of science, technology, commerce and the state in early American seaports. Seaports were the commercial, political, and social centers of American society in the early republic, despite the nation’s manifest destiny and westward looking agenda. As the commercial, political, and social centers of the early nineteenth century, America’s eastern port cities provided a unique environment for the advancement of science. Seaports were the ideal loci for the intersection of science, technology, commerce, and the state. While it is easy to perceive of port cities as gateways of exchange or end nodes on a global trade network, this view overlooks the valuable contributions seaports made to the construction of knowledge. Early republic seaports were scientific and technological laboratories at the vanguard of developing science and the arts in the United States. Their position as the economic centers of the young nation made the advancement and preservation of commerce a critical feature and primary concern for the advancement of American science. To answer the question of how science, technology, commerce and the state intersected in the early American republic, I visited five Consortium member archives. These included the Hagley Museum and Library, the American Philosophical Society, the Smithsonian Institute’s Dibner Library of Science and Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The last two institutions were visited prior to my Consortium Research Fellowship and provided a great deal of foundational material for starting my dissertation. Economic success was critical for the security and survival of both local ports and the nation. As private citizens and public officials sought to connect their port with national and international markets, they turned to science and the practical arts to solve a multitude of commercial problems. Technical reports archived at the Hagley Museum and Library, such as William Jones’ Remarks on the Proposed Breakwater at Cape Henlopen (1826) and Captain William Turnbull’s Practical Treatise on the Strength and Stiffness of Timber (1833), highlight the relationship between early American science, technology, commerce, and the state and confirm the importance of each in the development of the others. Separately, these reports show isolated, and often local, examples of scientific practice in American seaports, yet when taken together, these papers demonstrate the much more contentious and very political national character of science in the early American republic. Early in the nineteenth century, this national character was dominated by foreign scientists and mechanics, such as Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler and James Maud(e) Elford. Many of these foreigners portrayed Americans as inept at science and scientific discovery. Publication of the technical reports became one way for American scientists and mechanics to show the United States’ maturity in the field. By the 1840s science in the United States had matured. American scientists, such as Alexander Dallas Bache, Maria Mitchell, and Joseph Henry, began corresponding internationally with renowned scientists and mechanics. This correspondence, which is archived at the American Philosophical Society as part of the A. D. Bache Collection and the Maria Mitchell Papers, along with the almanacs of Benjamin Banneker, an early republic African-American scientist, helped me identify a diverse lot of scientists and mechanics that included individuals from every race, class, and gender. The diversity of American science in the early republic will be highlighted in chapter 2 of my dissertation examining American seaports as scientific and technological laboratories. Correspondence between Bache and British mathematician Charles Babbage regarding the latter’s mathematical theory on illumination provides the opening vignette for this chapter. The highlight of my fellowship came at the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library of Science and Technology. There, I held a letter written by Augustin Fresnel dated 1816. Fresnel was a French civil engineer best known for his invention of the Fresnel lighthouse lens in 1821. Although the United States procured two Fresnel lenses in the late 1830s, full-scale adoption of the French technology was not realized until the early 1860s. The adoption of the Fresnel lens is at the intersection of science, technology, commerce, and the state. The United States’ delayed embracing of this superior port technology is an important episode in the history of American science and technology. It illustrates the extent at which the state intervened to promote the advancement of American arts and science while simultaneously attempting to safeguard and expand American commerce. I examine this intersection of science, technology, commerce, and the state in chapters 4 and 5 of my dissertation. Prior to my fellowship, the John Rowe Parker Collection at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts and the James Buchanan Papers, Logan Family Papers, and the George Gordon Meade Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania provided foundational and supporting material for several chapters on commerce, the environment, and experimentation. Correspondence in the John Rowe Parker Collection allowed me to fill in some gaps on a national communication network that often appears in the secondary sources as decentralized and specific to individual seaports. This collection is used extensively to demonstrate the role of science in establishing national standards and the rise of nationalism in the United States. The opportunity provided by the Consortium Research Fellowship proved invaluable for completing the research portion of my dissertation. Without the Consortium’s support, I would not have been able to complete this project. Additionally, discussing my project with past fellows Douglas O’Reagan and Andrew Berns offered the chance to consider new ideas and find ways to incorporate those ideas into my research. Douglas encouraged me to consider the social effects of science and practical arts on the historical actors highlighted in my work, which will make my research more interesting to a wider audience. Andrew provided feedback on drafts of my first chapter. I am also grateful for the support I received from Lucas Clawson at the Hagley Museum and Library and Lilla Vekerdy at the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library of Science and Technology. Both suggested additional resources for my project which I have incorporated into my project.