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The Strange Case of the Albert Mineral No mineral found in New Brunswick has awakened more interest than this. None is so peculiar in its nature and associations, none has been the subject of greater controversy, both scientific and legal. —L. W. Bailey, The Mineral Resources of the Province of New Brunswick (1893) 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 them to its consulting chemist Charles Jackson. In his private laboratory, Jackson studied the mineral, and on 17 April 1850, at a meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History, he announced“a new kind of fuel recently discovered in New Brunswick.”1 The Albert mineral (as it will be called) was unusual. Jet black, glossy, and “free from smut,”a sort of black dirt, it broke with a“broad conchoidal fracture like obsidian,”was a little softer than rock salt,and had a specific gravity of 1.107. When heated,the mineral softened and melted and then gave off “an abundance of bituminous liquid analogous to Petroleum.” Jackson ran two distillation trials (see table 2.1)—heating the mineral until no further gases (volatile matter or bitumen) could be drawn off from the residue (fixed carbon or coke). The high percentage of volatile matter was remarkable. The only known mineral containing more than 50 percent was asphaltum. Jackson thus decided that, although “[i]t was regarded as Cannel Coal of a particular kind,” the Albert mineral was actually “a very beautiful variety of Asphaltum.” “This sub41 CHAPTER 2 stance,”he predicted,“is particularly valuable for the production of gas for illumination .”2 Jackson’s assessment would prove to be the source of much controversy,both scientific and legal. The controversies arose when Gesner tried to use the mineral for what Jackson had suggested. In the winter of 1850, Gesner organized a gas company in Halifax and a mining company in New Brunswick. Gesner’s entrepreneurial forays precipitated two celebrated legal cases. The cases, one in Nova Scotia and the other in New Brunswick, turned on the issue of ownership. To the litigants, the key to rightful possession lay in the ability to say what, exactly , the Albert mineral was. Gesner, the plaintiff in both cases, wanted to classify the mineral as asphaltum, whereas the defendants wanted to call it coal. Legal rights thus seemed to rest on mineral identity. To strengthen their legal positions, both sides called upon men of science to testify in court. Because the employment (and deployment) of scientific expert witnesses was a relatively new thing in America, the importance of the Albert cases can be judged by the large number and high prominence of the experts willing to serve.3 More than a dozen well-known British and American chemists , geologists, and naturalists testified. Within the courtroom, these experts soon discovered that their reputations as arbiters of science,along with their social standing and personal integrity, were as much on trial as the mineral rights. For historians,the Albert trials present excellent case studies of the making (and unmaking) of scientific authority. The high-stakes cases also reveal the degree to which the law depended on men of science and, conversely, how scientific expertise was reinforced (or undermined) by the courts. Beyond the courtroom, the Albert mineral was equally contentious. It raised fundamental issues about how to classify minerals and how to determine the age and identity of rocks. Complex and often heated arguments erupted over the relevance and value of various geological, paleontological, chemical, and physical criteria. At a deeper level, the differing criteria reflected the contested disciplinary domains among geologists, chemists, and mineralogists. Laying claim to the Albert mineral meant extending and defending the limits of disci42 coal Table 2.1. Charles Jackson’s Experiments on a New Fuel from New Brunswick (April 1850) 1st Trial 2nd Trial Volatile matter or bitumen 58.5% 58.8% Coke or fixed carbon 41.5% 41.2% plinary boundaries. Thus what began as a legal disagreement over the ownership of a peculiar kind of fuel escalated into a far-reaching scientific controversy...


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