Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Willard who?

Why have so few American's heard of Josiah Willard Gibbs, my choice for the greatest American scientist of all time?

We are a practical people. Every American schoolchild has heard of inventors like Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell, but the theoretician Gibbs languishes in obscurity. We admire the Benjamin Franklin who invented the stove, bifocals, lightning rod, a stool that opened up into a ladder, and a rocking chair that fanned the sitter as he rocks, but we hardly know the Franklin who debated with the most brilliant natural philosophers of his time about whether there is one electrical fluid or two, and whether electrical force acts at a distance or through the agency of an electrical effluvia. Ten editions in four languages of Franklin's "Experiments and Observations on Electricity" were issued by European presses before the American Revolution, but no American edition of the book appeared until the middle of the 20th century.

Gibbs lived in an age of mechanical ingenuity and the raw aggrandizement of physical power -- the transcontinental railroad, the Atlantic cable, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the efficient killing technologies of Shiloh and Gettysburg. His own city of New Haven boasted Charles Goodyear, discoverer of the vulcanization of rubber, Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin and manufacture by interchangeable parts, and Samuel Morse, inventor of the electrical telegraph. Meanwhile, Gibbs labored away quietly, laying down the mathematical foundations that would sustain theoretical science for more than a century.