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The American Sciences of Coal Perhaps in no country have more frequent inquiries been made in relation to coal; to its infinite varieties, adaptations and modifications; its innumerable depositories and its geographical distribution, than in the United States of America. —Richard Cowling Taylor, Statistics of Coal (1848) 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 scienti fic problem: what was coal? To anyone not familiar with the story of the Albert mineral, it might seem astonishing to learn that nineteenth-century men of science could not answer that straightforward question. Was coal not the most common mineral in the world? Yes, according to Richard Cowling Taylor’s Statistics of Coal. Taylor’s big book was loaded with facts from every place that had coal, from local weights and measures, through regional prices and production, to national imports and exports;it also displayed the“general outlines”of the science of coal,which,Taylor boasted, was his generation’s greatest achievement. It was no small irony, then, that the Albert mineral did not fit those outlines. Indeed, the controversy revealed how far from established they were. To get a glimpse of the trouble caused by coal, readers of Taylor’s tome need go no further than the first page where he listed “mineral combustibles,” “bituminous substances,” and “fossil fuel” as synonyms for coal. Nowhere did he define these terms or explain how they were related to one another. For Taylor, coal was what coal did; it fueled industrial expansion and stimulated science. Coal does indeed have a rich scientific history, one that Taylor captured succinctly , yet unwittingly, in his list of synonyms. Coal, however, has not figured very largely in histories of science.1 As an object of inquiry, nineteenth-century 69 CHAPTER 3 men of science treated coal as both a mineral and a rock. Its dual nature corresponded roughly to the two disciplines—chemistry and geology—that lay claim to it. Chemists studied coal in laboratories and tried to figure out what it was made of and what it could be made into, whereas geologists worked in the field,where they investigated the age,origin,and structure of coal deposits.Coal was thus a boundary object binding together two disciplines and at the same time separating them. In a sense, the Albert trials simply brought inside the courtroom a disciplinary division already well established outside it. Mineral Coal One curious feature of the Albert trials was the noticeable absence of any mineralogist . There were certainly men of science who studied minerals—Benjamin Silliman Jr. and Augustus A. Hayes, for example—but they identified themselves as chemists and thereby signaled to the judges and juries that the authority for classifying coal or asphaltum lay with a science other than mineralogy . This shift in the interpretation of minerals, from natural kinds to chemical compounds, is a story beyond the scope of this book;2 however, it can be recapitulated and brought to bear on the scientific history of coal and the Albert mineral through a discussion of the career of James Dwight Dana.3 By temperament and training, Dana was a natural historian, an arrant compiler , sorter, and systematizer of facts. He had gone to Yale in 1830 to study with Benjamin Silliman Sr. (1779–1864), professor of natural history and chemistry, but it was Charles U. Shepard (1804–1886), professor of mineralogy, who taught him that the mineral kingdom was a vital branch of natural history.4 Dana learned that minerals had to be studied in their totality to reveal their natural affinities. Totality meant other minerals, not geographical or geological aspects. A “natural system,” Dana explained, was “a transcript of nature” in so much as it consisted of “those family groupings into which the species naturally fall.”5 The natural system had been introduced by the famous Swedish systematist Carl Linnaeus. In his Systema naturae (1768), Linnaeus had classified coal and asphaltum as bituminous substances,a family of minerals characterized by their inflammability and pungent odor. “Bitumen” was what made these minerals burn and smell so bad, and it was thought to be of organic (meaning vegetable) origin. Bituminous substances comprised a continuous spectrum ranging from liquid petroleum through semisolid asphaltum...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781421402857
Related ISBN
9780801890031
MARC Record
OCLC
612809998
Pages
448
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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