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Geological Enterprise Coal is power, it is the foundation of manufacturing industry, the greatest source of national wealth; and administers largely to the comforts of man. . . . It hurls the train along the rail-road, the boat across the mighty deep; it lights the city traveller along his midnight way, and warms the shivering peasant after his daily toil. —Abraham Gesner, Remarks on the Geology and Mineralogy of Nova Scotia (1836) 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 America and a major exporter to the United States. To seaboard cities like Boston and New York, Nova Scotia’s coal was closer, easier to transport, and hence better priced than Pennsylvania’s. To American and British geologists, Nova Scotia’s coasts were among the best sites in the world to study the age and origin of coal. The geology of Nova Scotia, however, was much like its coal, something to be possessed and shipped around the North Atlantic as well as to be explored and explained.When the American geologist-chemist Charles Jackson began to study the province in the late 1820s, he started a contest over who would create and control the scientific knowledge of Nova Scotia. In that struggle, Jackson’s principal adversary would be Abraham Gesner, a country surgeon turned geologist ; but others, like the British gentlemanly geologist Charles Lyell, would soon join in. Which one was to be the expert on Nova Scotia? The answer depended on what,exactly,a geologist had to offer,and to whom. For Gesner, geology was the necessary prerequisite to finding the all-powerful coal and sending it on its civilizing mission. Such scientific optimism was wel11 CHAPTER 1 comed in Nova Scotia as well as in neighboring New Brunswick, where in 1838 Gesner was appointed the provincial geologist, the first such position in any British colony.2 The context and consequences of that unprecedented initiative warrant historical examination; for Gesner found a great coal field.“It exceeds in its dimensions any found in Great Britain,” he declared, “and is one of the largest ever discovered upon the globe.”3 Gesner’s discovery caused quite a stir in scientific and commercial circles; but it also raised poignant problems about how to reconcile geological information with mining investments and about the proper role a surveyor should and could play in developing the coal he finds. As it turned out, Gesner’s role was not what some in New Brunswick anticipated , and so, by the early 1840s, he, like many former surveyors, was in search of ways to make a living doing science. By accompanying Gesner on his various employments, historians can gain some new insights into scientific entrepreneurship as well as the culture of coal in early nineteenth-century America. Plagiarism, Patronage, and Expertise Abraham Gesner was born in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, “the garden of Acadia,” on 2 May 1797.4 One of twelve children of Henry Gesner and Sarah Pineo, he received little formal education, nothing more than “the ordinary instruction of the grammar schools of the day,” although he was “a great reader.”5 As a young man, Gesner experimented with a number of moneymaking schemes, including a partnership in an ill-fated venture to trade Nova Scotia horses for West Indies rum.When that business ended in shipwreck,Gesner settled down to farming , and in 1822 he married Harriet Webster, the daughter of Isaac Webster, a prominent physician from Kentville. Gesner, however, proved as adept at farming as he was at horse trading.Attempts at scientific agriculture put him in debt, and soon he was under house arrest, much to the chagrin of the wealthy Websters , who were forced to bail out their son-in-law. In return, Gesner agreed to give up farming,and in 1825,with his father-in-law’s backing,he traveled to London to study surgery at Guy’s Hospital and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. There Gesner received his only formal instruction in science, most likely chemistry and materia medica. Within a year, though, he had returned home upon learning of the death of his second son.6...


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