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Scientists and Swindlers

Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820–1890

Paul Lucier

Publication Year: 2008

In this impressively researched and highly original work, Paul Lucier explains how science became an integral part of American technology and industry in the nineteenth century. Scientists and Swindlers introduces us to a new service of professionals: the consulting scientists. Lucier follows these entrepreneurial men of science on their wide-ranging commercial engagements from the shores of Nova Scotia to the coast of California and shows how their innovative work fueled the rapid growth of the American coal and oil industries and the rise of American geology and chemistry. Along the way, he explores the decisive battles over expertise and authority, the high-stakes court cases over patenting research, the intriguing and often humorous exploits of swindlers, and the profound ethical challenges of doing science for money. Starting with the small surveying businesses of the 1830s and reaching to the origins of applied science in the 1880s, Lucier recounts the complex and curious relations that evolved as geologists, chemists, capitalists, and politicians worked to establish scientific research as a legitimate, regularly compensated, and respected enterprise. This sweeping narrative enriches our understanding of how the rocks beneath our feet became invaluable resources for science, technology, and industry.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology


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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

The first step in thanking everyone is finding the right metaphor. In a book about commercial science it would seem appropriate that I should say something about paying debts and obligations, but I am going to choose a metaphor that reveals something about me and the way I work. It is soccer, a sport that I have enjoyed playing all my life and one that I am now coaching for boys and...

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Introduction: Money for Science

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pp. 1-8

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a scientist in possession of experience and expertise must be in search of funding. Today supporting someone to do science is routine. Scientists abound in universities, private foundations, government agencies, and corporate research and development laboratories. Science is a job, and scientists are professionals. For most of the nineteenth century, neither was true. Science had few established sources of...


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Chapter 1. Geological Enterprise

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pp. 11-40

Nova Scotia might not seem the obvious place to begin a history of American coal, but it is a natural one. Since at least the eighteenth century, observers had commented on the splendid exposures of coal along its coasts, especially at the Joggins on Chignecto Bay, an arm of the Bay of Fundy.1 Beginning in the 1830s, Nova Scotia was the largest producer of coal in British North...

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Chapter 2. The Strange Case of the Albert Mineral

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pp. 41-68

In early 1850, in Albert County, New Brunswick, John and Peter Duffy opened a mine. The mine lay within the bounds of Abraham Gesner’s great coal field of New Brunswick, but what the brothers dug out did not seem like ordinary coal. To find out what it was and its value, they shipped some to Halifax, and from there samples went to the Boston Gas-Light Company, which sent...

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Chapter 3. The American Sciences of Coal

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pp. 69-107

The decisions handed down by the supreme courts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick brought closure to the legal and commercial questions surrounding the Albert mineral, but they did not resolve the question of fact. On the contrary, the Albert trials reinvigorated a long-standing and difficult scientific...

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Chapter 4. Mining Science

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pp. 108-140

According to Charles Jackson, American geologists’ ability to discover, describe, and develop mineral resources had created a problem. Smatterers in science were capitalizing on their success by soliciting commissions as mining engineers. These so-called surveyors, who “know nothing about mines or minerals or the art of tracing a vein over irregular ground,” contributed directly...


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Chapter 5. The Technological Science of Kerosene

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pp. 143-161

In a review of Abraham Gesner’s latest book, Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum, and Other Distilled Oils (1860),1 the use of the term “technological science” was both apt and revealing, for it described Gesner’s ability to explain the chemistry and geology of coal as well as the processes for manufacturing coal oil. Gesner had firsthand experience of this intricate working relationship...

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Chapter 6. The Kerosene Cases

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pp. 162-185

During the winter of 1858–1859, as Kerosene was fast becoming the best-selling lamp oil in America, a legal dispute erupted in the United States and Great Britain. On one side was Abraham Gesner, the inventor of “Kerosene,” and on the other stood James Young, a Scot, who held a United States patent for “Paraffine.” The high-stakes cases were about which patent, Kerosene or...


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Chapter 7. The Rock Oil Report

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pp. 189-207

If this modest introduction to a routine consulting report hinted at anything unusual, it was Silliman’s mention of “somewhat extended researches.” The impact of those researches would prove to be anything but typical or timid. Within a decade, commentators were pointing to Silliman’s report as the catalyst to developments in American petroleum.1 By the turn of the twentieth century...

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Chapter 8. The Elusive Nature of Oil and Its Markets

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pp. 208-243

There was something old and something new about petroleum. Many regions where it occurred naturally in pools or springs had been mapped by geologists, and samples from around the world had been analyzed by chemists for their mineralogical compendia. Still, no one expected relatively large amounts to exist in the shallow subsurface until Edwin L. Drake bored his famous well....

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Chapter 9. The Search for Oil and Oil-Finding Experts

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pp. 244-272

In February 1865 James Hall was in a quandary. The oil boom was in full swing, and he was “[p]ressed with outside business.”1 But he had strained the tendons in his foot and could not walk.“To get my foot in a condition to travel,” he told J. Peter Lesley, he would have to refuse many engagements.2 It was all “very disheartening,”Hall lamented,“to be unable...

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Chapter 10. California Crude

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pp. 273-312

When Josiah Whitney penned those lines, he had been director of the California Geological Survey for a decade, and for nearly half the time he had been predicting its termination because of the wicked influence of petroleum interests. Whitney abhorred the oil boom and rejected any predictions of oil being...

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Epilogue: Americanization of Science

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pp. 313-323

How to measure civilization? There were many ways: fine arts, literature, religion, government, education, industry. Not surprisingly, Popular Science Monthly decided that “the best criterion of the position which a nation has gained in the scale of civilization is the contributions which its men [of science] have made toward the understanding and conquest of Nature.” By this...


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pp. 325-395

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 397-409

The most important sources for any study of consulting are the papers of the men of science, and to a large extent, this book is based on manuscript sources. The most useful are found in the J. Peter Lesley Papers at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, which contain Lesley’s correspondence with capitalists and mining companies, as well as many drafts of his consulting reports, along with maps and bills for his professional services. The American Philosophical Society also holds the papers of...


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pp. 411-426

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402857
E-ISBN-10: 1421402858
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890031
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890039

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 40 halftones, 6 line drawings
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology
Series Editor Byline: Merritt Roe Smith, Series Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 612809998
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Scientists and Swindlers

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Subject Headings

  • Petroleum industry and trade -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Petroleum industry and trade -- Canada -- History -- 19th century.
  • Coal trade -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Coal trade -- Canada -- History -- 19th century.
  • Science and law -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Science and industry -- Moral and ethical aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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