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California Crude The real enemy to the Survey comes almost exclusively from the fact that I cannot be used as a tool to forward nefarious speculations & it has its basis in this “petroleum swindle” as I call it. —Josiah Whitney to J. Peter Lesley (1870) 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 produced in southern California. In stark contrast, his former friend, Benjamin Silliman Jr., reveled in the boom and in 1864 went out to California as a consultant and found a fabulous wealth of oil. On the surface, then, the disagreement between Whitney and Silliman was scientific; was there oil in southern California? Deeper down, their differences were personal and professional.What role were men of science supposed to play in the discovery and development of mineral resources? It was a familiar question , but this time the stakes were very high. The government geologist was pitted against the consulting chemist, public versus private science. The answers to those questions were debated in the most appropriate of places, the National Academy of Sciences where in 1874, after the California survey had ended, Whitney brought charges against Silliman of having abetted a great petroleum swindle. Whitney wanted the academy to censure Silliman for his commercial speculations and to expel him. Silliman asked the members to condone consulting and to exonerate him. The Silliman-Whitney controversy scandalized men of science and forced them to confront the most significant moral question of all: what was the proper place of science in America? 273 CHAPTER 10 Surveying California rushed into statehood in 1850 with the discovery of gold and all those seeking its glitter. Within five years, gold production faltered and with it the state’s economy. In the Mother Lode region along the Sierra Nevada’s western flank, prospectors’ pans, rockers, and sluices had cleaned out the nuggets from the easy-to-sift gravel beds. Bigger, more mechanized operations took over the streams and rivers, while other mining companies began to chisel out quartz veins and drive shafts deep into the hard rock. These large-scale activities required capital, and so the governor called on the California legislature to establish a survey to lend “practical” aid to the mining interests. The governor also made sure to include farmers in his plea for a survey by assuring them of the usefulness of soil examinations. The legislature responded in April 1860 with a bill authorizing“an accurate and complete geological survey”and directing the state geologist to furnish a report with “proper maps and diagrams” along with “a full and scientific description of [the state’s] rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals , and of its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same.”1 The California survey was a big event in American science and has been treated as such by historians, yet not for its scientific achievements but rather for its struggles. From the moment of his appointment in April 1860, Whitney began complaining about the dirty necessities of public accountability and the conniving of commercial interests. Sympathetic scholars have responded accordingly . They have pitched the survey’s story as a contest between “pure” and “applied” science, an unavoidable conflict between elite knowledge and democratic values. Petroleum fueled the drama, which, inevitably, reads like a tragedy for Whitney, the pristine man of science whose higher ideals were corrupted by the baseness of gritty politics. The survey’s end punctuates the argument about nineteenth-century Americans’ so-called indifference to basic research .2 But no state survey was ever meant to be pure or permanent, and Whitney, like most geologists, was well aware of the clamorous politics of nineteenthcentury science. Compared to contemporary surveys,Whitney’s struggles seem unremarkable. Surveys were designed to be useful. Whitney’s practical shortcomings thus cannot be redeemed by his theoretical high-mindedness. In one regard, Whitney’s survey might be seen as a relative success: it lasted fourteen years, from 1860 to 1874, longer than any previous one.3 Such longevity, ironically , suggests some lobbying skills and political adroitness on Whitney’s part. It certainly warrants an examination of how he kept the survey going against so many supposed enemies. The first feature of the California survey worth...


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MARC Record
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