The Sciences of Observation and their use in the development of the United States, 1770-1820

Simon Thode Johns Hopkins University 2012-2013 Dissertation Research Fellow
The Sciences of Observation and their use in the development of the United States, 1770-1820 I undertook my residence in Philadelphia as a PACHS research fellow during the month of November, 2012. I was here to carry out research for my dissertation, which focused on the practice of the observational sciences in the first few decades of the United States. During this time, I focused primarily on practices in the field, on the fringes of American society, in places such as the Western Country (now the Midwest) and the Old Southwest. I visited the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Through my research at these institutions, I believe that I have significantly broadened and developed my knowledge of the subject matter, and have discovered new material that will add greater focus and depth to my doctoral dissertation. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I spent the vast majority of my time examining the papers of Thomas Hutchins, the Geographer General of the United States under the Continental Congress. As I stated in my fellowship application, Hutchins’ work provides a point of connection between the subjects I am interested in examining: his activities and publications on the western country were well known and widely disseminated in the late eighteenth century. Thanks to my fellowship, I was able to spend a number of days going carefully through this collection, identifying material that reinforced associations between Hutchins’ methods and the methods of his contemporaries in their approaches to the observation and description of new lands. Some of the personal relationships between this figures, which I was able to trace in these papers, allowed me to compare and contrast methods and modes of scientific observation (often published in distinct mediums and undertaken in military and civilian domains, in astronomy, land survey, and geography) and to develop a larger picture of the available practices of the day. Despite existing in distinctive fields, the work of these historical actors could be seen as stemming from common traditions, which created networks of practitioners who exchanged knowledge and ideas with one another. At the Library Company of Philadelphia, I examined a number of almanacs, astronomical and survey treatises, and treatises on military training. In the past few months, the issue of training became more important in my research, for example in the methods my historical actors used for undertaking astronomical observations, or in the military influence on examinations of the landscape. Understanding the ways in which someone in the field approached these experiences was essential to understanding these sciences as practices and not just as collections of ideas. The Library Company offered a number of sources that helped me to grasp the types of methods and instruments observers preferred, and how they went about their work. In addition, material at the American Philosophical Society was of great assistance. I was able to examine numerous meteorological and astronomical manuscripts there, including the work of David Rittenhouse. I also looked at the publications of Andrew Ellicott, who undertook land and boundary surveys, made instruments, and published texts on how to take astronomical observations. Finally, I spent a great deal of time at the American Philosophical Society. There, I was able to look at printed and manuscript expedition journals, including those of Andrew Ellicott, George Hunter and William Dunbar—all of who explored the old southwest. I also had access to a number of very useful printed geographies and secondary literature books. However, perhaps the most important source for making connections between my actors and their work was an examination of the institutional correspondence of the Society. The study of this resource offered a large number of instances from which I was able to draw concrete connections between the different people I am interested in, as well as anecdotes and accounts of their interests and concerns. Perhaps most interesting in this correspondence was the way in which these actors portrayed their projects, and justified their ideas and beliefs in the practice and promotion of the role of science in the development of a state. This fellowship from the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science has given me the opportunity to advance my dissertation research, as well as to make contacts and to discuss my work with knowledgeable librarians, archivists, and scholars. I would like to thank the Center very much for its support in this endeavor.