Geohero or geochump?

A comment at a meeting GG was at got him to thinking about the popular view of scientists.  The comment was that scientists in the 19th century were heroes for Americans because they helped open up the West, while in the 20th century they were more thorns in the sides of growth.  Of course, this is so oversimplified it collapses quickly: John Wesley Powell, a hero for his explorations of the Colorado River, was viewed with great disdain when he closed claims for public lands. And post-WWII America fell in love with science in many ways. But still, when are scientists lauded and when are they scorned? An interesting pair of cases in the late 1860s and 1870s may shed light on this.

In both cases a scientist running a geological survey became aware of claims of major mineral finds within the area of his survey.  In both cases, the scientist claimed that these finds were incorrect. In both cases, the finds were not economic. Yet in one case, the scientist in question, Clarence King, was lauded, became first director of the USGS, and was viewed as one of the best and brightest America had to offer.  The other, Josiah Whitney, lost his survey and spent years grousing about the outcome. Why the difference?

First the happy case, which is explored at depth in Bruce Woodard’s Diamonds in the Salt. A clever con was being run by Philip Arnold and John Slack, working a new angle on the more prevalent salting of gold and silver mines: they would make a fake diamond mine. Leveraging money from an initial sale of part of their share in the mine, they went to England and returned with a large volume of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires which they then presented as products of their diamond mine. Charles Lewis Tiffany was called in to value the gems and claimed they were worth $1,500,000 (in fact, they had been purchased for a hundredth of that price). San Francisco investors were eager to leap into the diamond business, corporations were set up, mineral laws were to be amended in Congress (completed in May of 1872), but the great find needed to be verified by a geologist hired by the investors. While Arnold returned to London to get more gems for the site visit, the investors settled on Henry Janin to investigate the diamond mine.

Arnold had been exceptionally diligent in locating his salted diamond mine, managing to keep anybody from following him from the numerous different stops on the transcontinental railroad where he would get off. He found a butte some 75 miles from the nearest railroad stop in a virtually unoccupied corner of northwestern Colorado and proceeded to place his gems around the property. On June 1, 1872, Arnold and Slack led a small group including Janin over hill and dale to their diamond mine.  All the party were enthused as they pried diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires from the ground.  They staked out claims to 3000 acres and then returned prepare to set up their mining companies. Rumors ran amok, and prospecting parties were soon scouring Arizona and New Mexico for the diamond finds (in part because of a fake prospecting party sent out by the San Francisco investors).

The scam was revealed by Clarence King’s geological survey of the fortieth parallel.  King and his party noticed the departure of diamond groups from the railroad line in Wyoming and knew they couldn’t possibly be working in Arizona. King and his assistant and longtime friend James Gardner came to the same conclusion from evaluating the hints each had collected: the diamond mine had to be in northwestern Colorado, within the range of their survey. “It would be a blight on any geological survey” King noted “not to have known of the existence within its area” of a rich diamond deposit. In late October, King, two assistants and some trustworthy camp men headed out from Fort Bridger for where they thought the mine should be. After a few days of miserable travel in the cold and snow, they arrived at some mining claims.  Following tracks on the ground to an outcrop, they began to look for gems…and found them. That night they dreamed of the wealth of this deposit, only to realize the next day that the site was salted.  King noted that every 12 rubies yielded a diamond, and soon they found that undisturbed soil yielded nothing, as did untouched ant hills, but disturbed areas and ant hills yielded gems. An even more systematic examination of the area confirmed their suspicions: the diamond mine was a hoax.

But King had been followed to the site by a diamond dealer named J. F. Berry; when informed of the fraud, Berry noted that this was a great chance to sell short the diamond stocks. King determined that the fraud had to be publicly exposed by the men running the companies; he hurried to San Francisco to discuss this with Janin. Janin, convinced of the fraud, convened the company’s executive committee the next morning and had them hear King’s findings. The company was convinced to stop sales of stock but insisted on sending out their own group, with King as guide, to verify the fraud before announcing it. By the end of November, the fraud was revealed and the diamond bubble collapsed. Amazingly, Arnold made off with something approaching $400,000, living out the rest of his life in Kentucky, dying in 1879. King was celebrated as a true government servant, demonstrating the value of the geological survey in defeating such a clever scam.

And so science and a scientist were lauded as saving many wealthy men from an even greater loss of face and money. Arguably another such attempt didn’t end so well. For this we turn to Gerald White’s Scientists in Conflict.

The numerous tar seeps in southern California had attracted attention probably since humans first arrived and certainly since Europeans arrived, but the beginnings of the oil industry in Pennsylvania in the 1850s inspired Californians to consider anew what might lie in the subsurface.  Several small attempts to refine some of the petroleum seeps met with little success, but the presence of all the brea deposits continued to tempt would-be oil tycoons.

That Pennsylvania boom was aided by the first scientific analysis of the “rock oil” from Pennsylvania made in 1855 by Benjamin Silliman Jr. The Yale professor supplemented his salary with mining consulting starting in 1855, when he examined a copper mine and, in taking payment in stock, even served as the company’s president for a time. By 1864, he was prominent enough to have a New York banking firm and a Pennsylvania entrepreneur engage his services for properties out West. He was sent to look at mining properties in Bodie, California and one near the Colorado River in westernmost Arizona. Although these jobs paid his way and justified the trip, once on the coast he looked for more opportunities. He travelled from Bodie to Aurora to the Comstock to Mariposa and more, generating reports at a furious rate. His optimistic evaluations led to more interest in his services; although Silliman was nearly always careful to suggest that continued exploration and better extraction of metal from ore be a focus of mining companies, the general tone of his reports was frequently positive and played well in leaflets and promotions by mining corporations. When he was done with his western trip in January 1865, he had topped his academic salary by twenty times in 1864 and completion of his reports would multiple his salary ten times in 1865.

During his western swing, in June of 1864, Silliman agreed to examine oil properties of the Conway firm of California near Ventura for $2,500. He sent off a very enthusiastic letter after just under three days of work making California sound better than Pennsylvania. He was impressed enough to convince the local representative of his Pennsylvania sponsor to consider oil along with the gold properties he had been engaged to examine. Striking while the iron was hot, the Pennsylvanians locked up oil lands quickly, accumulating a quarter million acres by early 1865. Silliman’s glowing report, complete with the utter fallacy that petroleum could never be exhausted, aided the investors in attracting additional capital. An oil boom seemed in the making.

All this occurred under the watch of the California Geological Survey, headed by Josiah Dwight Whitney.  Whitney became State Geologist in 1860 in no small part because of the enthusiastic recommendation of leading geologists, but their enthusiasm was in no small part because Whitney was seen as free from the temptation to speculate on his observations. He had made his name largely on the evaluation of dozens of mines, information he integrated into an influential volume, The Metallic Wealth of the United States. In taking up the position of State Geologist, Whitney told the state legislature that he had never owned mining stock or a mine itself, something he viewed as compromising the integrity of a scientist. Exceptionally dogmatic and inflexible in his views, it was clear he and Silliman were likely to clash.

As oil activity increased in 1865, Whitney completed the eagerly anticipated Geology volume from the survey. Just as King felt compelled to defend his survey in the claims of a diamond mine he had missed, so Whitney clearly was unhappy with the growing oil claims emerging from the activity of the Pennsylvania group that seemed to paint the survey as incompetent. Taking the opportunity presented in preparing his volume, he blasted the oil concerns as basically fleecing the public,offering overpriced stock in a certain-to-fail venture. But anticipating that his opposition to the oil bubble would deny his survey continued support, he took a chair at Harvard.

In denigrating the oil reports of Silliman, Whitney offered a number of reasons why there simply could not be successful oil production in southern California. On virtually all counts, Whitney would eventually be shown to be wrong (as was so often the case for Josiah). Yet as 1865 progressed, all the new oil activity was coming to naught. Whitney’s forecast of failure in the industry seemed assured. In fact, supporters in the state legislature referred to Whitney’s attempt to derail oil enthusiasm as a positive reason to continue the survey, which was once again supported in early 1866. Rejuvenated, Whitney returned to continue the survey.

If the story ended here, there would be little difference from King’s story, but the story didn’t end here. Although funded in early 1866, Whitney and his former field chief and botanist, William Brewer, considered Silliman’s actions in producing optimistic reports not only on oil but on many of the gold and silver properties to be unethical. This only got worse when a sample of oil that Silliman reported to be excellent turned out to have been combined with high quality Pennsylvania oil. Whitney and Brewer would, over the coming years, expend considerable effort to discredit Silliman and try to get him exiled from scientific societies and his position at Yale. The claims and counterclaims really reflected poorly on all involved.

The California Geological Survey hit a major bump in 1868 when it failed to receive an appropriation to continue (the legislature only met every other year). Whitney was beside himself, convinced that it was his opposition to the oil developers three years previous that had cost his survey the cash needed to continue. He was certainly wrong; the failing oil operators were insignificant players in California politics. Instead Whitney’s continual promises of imminent publications combined with his high-handed approach to conducting the survey had finally cost him political capital in a financially strapped state. Denied continued funding, the survey languished, many publications only emerging by private subscriptions many years later. As late as 1893, Whitney bemoaned the loss of much material the survey had gathered but could never publish. Although his career never failed, his opposition to the oil interests had not allowed him to reap any rewards quite as King had. (Indeed, in the 1870s more careful operations started producing significant amounts of oil in the state, in some ways supporting Silliman’s original optimism.)

Why the difference? Certainly one reason is that one case was truly fraud, while the other was an over-optimistic evaluation of something that was there. But another was the style of response.  King’s actions were viewed as both heroic and selfless; his drive to seek out the diamond mine and examine it very closely before acting quickly to avoid others profiting from his work brought him great credit; the high drama of this enterprise didn’t hurt either. In contrast, Whitney never examined the oil seeps in southern California after Silliman’s visit, and indeed he discounted reports from some of his own staff; it was possible to ridicule his opinions as uninformed and knee-jerk. Instead of directly addressing the principals of the oil industry, he verbally tarred them as cheats from a distance. Another was the attitude each scientist took towards his survey’s goals.  Whitney was obstinate in insisting on a properly complete and thorough scientific survey; the first volume from the survey was on paleontology, which while important scientifically for being able to date geologic events, was not helpful information for those seeking to develop California.  In contrast, King made a point of having his survey’s first publication deal with problems in reducing ore in the Comstock lode. In blaming oil interests (and thus Silliman) for the demise of his survey, Whitney was blind to the repeated mistakes he had made in overpromising results and insulting the legislature. Whitney’s whole attitude made it a lot harder for others to credit his successes. Finally, King’s actions helped preserve the reputations of many captains of industry; Whitney’s, on the other hand, did little more than to suggest they were swindlers.

In the end, King’s story remains a celebrated one. Whitney’s role in the oil boom and crash is nearly invisible, overshadowed by Whitney’s failures in understanding the origin of Yosemite Valley and in touting the Calaveras skull as proof of ancient human habitation in California (not to mention inciting anger from the residents of Owens Valley after their 1872 earthquake or botching the relationship of streamflow to erosion in understanding the geology of the Sierra Nevada).

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One response to “Geohero or geochump?”

  1. Paul Braterman says :

    Some creationists still cite the Calaveras Skull(s) as evidence against evolution; eg http://www.creationhistory.com/calaverasskull.shtml , although it is included inthe list of arguments that even Answers in Genesi reects as unsound: https://web.archive.org/web/20080121164057/http://www.answersingenesis.org/Home/Area/faq/dont_use.asp

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