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Practical Purposes: Readers in Experimental Philosophy at the Boston Athenaeum (1827-1850)

Scott B. Guthery
Docent Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Robert W. Hayden
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This is a book about what books were taken out of a library called the Boston Athenaeum by people interested in experimental philosophy. You might well wonder why is is being reviewed here. A pair of thumbnail biographies may help.

A distant cousin of your reviewer was the geologist and explorer Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. FVH was born poor but managed to make it through college just before the time period covered in the book at hand. He then wanted professional training to become a geologist and so he went to medical school. If that sounds odd, consider that at that time further education normally prepared one for medicine, the ministry, or the law. Medical training was the only one of those that included natural science. So we are talking about an era in which the academic disciplines we know today were mostly non-existent.

Our second biography is of Warren Colburn, who figures in the book at hand in multiple roles. He too grew up poor. He showed aptitude for mathematics and mechanics and initially trained as a machinist. However, he yearned to learn more of mathematics and managed to prepare himself for Harvard, where he was at the top of his class in mathematics, but not in more gentlemanly subjects. For his thesis he computed the orbit of a comet that had recently passed through based on Laplace’s Celestial Mechanics — not yet published in English. He also provided yet another alternate form of Euclid’s fifth postulate, his only known excursion into pure mathematics.

Evidently Colburn spent some time teaching arithmetic to children while at Harvard, because within a year of graduation he published an arithmetic textbook that became the standard one in the United States for most of the nineteenth century. He also founded a school where he taught for a couple of years. In that capacity, he often visited the homes of his students. Thus he met Patrick Tracy Jackson, who was one of the Boston Associates. This group essentially created the Industrial Revolution in the United States, beginning with the textile industry. Their first step was to figure out how to weave thread into cloth using water-powered machinery, which they did in an experimental mill in Waltham, MA (now the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation). Colburn impressed Jackson, who hired him to run this mill. When it was a success, the Associates built the city of Lowell, MA, to produce textiles. Soon Colburn was in charge of their operations there where he contributed inventions for producing textiles. Colburn was perhaps unusual with careers as a machinist, mathematician, mathematics educator, businessman, and inventor, but these fields were not that far apart in his day.

Creating an industrial revolution requires a lot of scientific knowledge, and many of the creators, including Jackson, acquired that knowledge by taking books out of the Athenaeum. This book traces what books were taken out by whom while the Boston Associates industrialized the United States. The “experimental philosophy” in the subtitle supported that, but is not what we think of as science today. The root of the word “philosophy” is “love of wisdom” while “experimental” here meant that this wisdom should come from observation and experiment rather than verbal reasoning. And “experiments” back then were things an average adult could replicate to verify a claim. Being tied to everyday experience, it was also highly practical. The book contains too much detail to summarize here, but the library patrons discussed were mostly men like Jackson and Colburn, with a wide range of interests both scientific and practical. In modern terms, this book looks at what STEM books such people were taking out of the Athenaeum and what they were doing with that knowledge. It uncovers myriad interconnections among people and disciplines and the Industrial Revolution. An excellent companion volume would be Dirk Struik’s Yankee Science in the Making, and the book under review is recommended to anyone who enjoyed Struik’s.

This is the second volume your reviewer has read from this publisher and both suffered from a lack of a good editor with a sharp pruning knife. This volume is at least twice as long as it needs to be. The appendices, most of the graphs and tables, and many details would seem to be of interest only to the specialist. Yet the history related here could be of interest to a much wider audience. The mathematics and science involved is fairly elementary by today’s standards, and would not be much of a barrier, but the excess of detail may try the patience of the general reader, which is most unfortunate. Even so, the author is to be congratulated for unearthing such a wealth of information.

After a few years in industry, Robert W. Hayden ( taught mathematics at colleges and universities for 32 years and statistics for 20 years. In 2005 he retired from full-time classroom work. He contributed the chapter on evaluating introductory statistics textbooks to the MAA’s Teaching Statistics.

The table of contents is not available.