Thursday, July 24, 2014

Joseph Nicollet and the Upper Mississippi River

On July 24, 1786, French geographer, astronomer, and mathematician Joseph Nicolas Nicollet was born. He is best known for mapping the Upper Mississippi River basin during the 1830s. Nicollet's maps were among the most accurate of the time and they provided the basis for all subsequent maps of the American interior

Jean-Nicolas Nicollet Nicollet was born in Cluses, Savoy, France. He was very bright, showing aptitude in mathematics and astronomy that earned him a scholarship to the Jesuit college in Chambéry and led him to begin teaching mathematics at age 19. Wishing to further his education, he went to Paris and attended the École Normale Supérieur. He taught in Paris for a brief period before, in 1817, becoming secretary and librarian at the Paris Observatory. At the Observatory he continued his education, studying under mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. He continued teaching mathematics and, in 1818, he gives his posts as Astronomer attached to the Royal Observatory in Paris and Professor of Mathematics at the College of Louis-Le-Grand. Working at the observatory, Nicollet discovered a comet and built a reputation as an expert in astronomy and physical geography. Afterward, he worked as a mathematics professor at the Collège Louis-le-Grand during the 1820s [1].

Nicollet rapidly made a fine reputation for himself both as a teacher and as a mathematical astronomer at the Observatory, receiving the Legion of Honour for his excellent work. Using his mathematical skills, he applied the principles of mathematical probability to the stock market believing that he could make his fortune. His probability considerations did not allow for the French Revolution of 1830 which caused the stock market to crash. Nicollet was ruined financially. Penniless, he emigrated to the United States in 1832. Nicollet hoped to boost his reputation among European academics through his work in the United States. He intended to make a "scientific tour" of the country and had a goal of using his expertise to accurately map the Mississippi River Valley.

He arrived in Washington, D.C., where he met with scientists and government officials, discussing scientific surveys of the country. Nicollet traveled to New Orleans, from where he intended to proceed to St. Louis, Missouri. But, because of a cholera outbreak, travel became difficult. After a delay of 3 years, Nicollet finally arrived in St. Louis in 1835. Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Nicollet gained support for his plan to map the Mississippi River from the American Fur Company and the wealthy Choteau family. Overall, Nicollet led three expeditions exploring the Upper Mississippi, mostly in the area that is now Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Nicollet was frequently ill due to his weak constitution and exposure to the elements. He was nothing if not determined and, after studying the southern portion of the river, he turned his attention to the location of the source of the river. In the summer of 1836, he arrived at Fort Snelling, where he was taken in by Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro’s family, who provided Nicollet with all the supplies he needed for his visit to the source of the river. As travelling north on the river with a few companions, he continued making notes on his geographical position and drawing the landscape [2]. In this first expedition, Nicollet explored the Mississippi to its source of Lake Itasca and the nearby Mississippi tributary, the St. Croix River. The results of this expedition corrected an error in Zebulon Pike's 1805 map, which placed the mouth of the Crow Wing River too far to the west, rendering all maps of this area inaccurate.

In his second expedition in 1838, his goal was to map the area between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in order to correct the western maps affected by Pike's mistake. A third expedition took Nicollet northwest from Iowa along the Missouri River toward Fort Pierre, South Dakota. On September 11, 1839, Nicollet returned to Washington, D.C. where he worked on consolidating the information collected during the expeditions. He fully intended to return to Minnesota to continue his work, but failing health led to his death in Washington in 1843. Later that year, a book containing much of his work, Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi, was published.

At yovisto, we don't have a video lecture about Joseph Nicollet. But, you can learn more about the Mississippi river in the 1951 documentary 'People along the Mississippi'.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Isaac Singer and the Sewing Machine

Woman working with singer machine (ca. 1914)
Image Source: Library of Congress
On July 23, 1875, American inventor, actor, and entrepreneur Isaac Merrit Singer passed away. He made important improvements in the design of the sewing machine and was the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Isaac Merritt Singer was born in 1811 in Pittstown, new York and worked as a mechanist, starting from the age of 12. He joined a traveling theater group when he was 19 and continued his work as a machinist between performances. Singer invented a rock drill in 1839 and sold the patent for $2000 shortly after. He founded his own acting group and toured through the Unites States until they ran out of money. [3] Singer now managed to find financial supporters for his patented machine for carving wooden type for printing presses and he moved to Boston in order to work on his machine in Orson Phelp's machine shop. Phelps held a license to build sewing machines for the Lerow & Blodgett Company. Unfortunately for Singer, his carving machine was not successful, because most printers had switched to metal type. One day, Phelps asked Singer for help with one of his Lerow & Blodgett sewing machines. The inventor agreed and immediately found ways to improve the machines. It is said that it took Singer only 11 days to create a new and significantly better machine compared with with Lerow & Blodgett's. He redesigned the sewing machine in a way that it could stitch continuously in curved lines. He replaced the needle bar on an arm hanging over the table and introduced the foot pedal instead of a hand crank. Phelps, Singer, and the financial supporter Zieber formed a company and the inventor received a patent for his machine in 1851. [1]

Shortly after, Singer got rid of his partners and sided with a lawyer named Clark, who helped the inventor through a series of law suits. A patent pool was then created by which all parties were able to profit. However, Singer's profit was the largest since his machine enjoyed the most success on the market. Already in the early 1860s, Singer's sewing machines turned out to be the most successful in the world. Many assume that the triumph on the market was due to the high quality of the machines as well as the liberal credit terms, the company offered to its customers. In 1863, the Singer Manufacturing Company was founded and Singer himself moved to England. At that time, Singer was no longer involved in the manufacturing process and he passed away on July 23, 1875. [1]

In 1855, a Singer sewing machine was awarded a first prize at the World's Fair in Paris. The success of the machines grew even more, when the company opened large showrooms, for instance at the Broadway in New York City. The company also introduced interchangeable parts and reduced the machines' size and weight through the years. By 1880, an Edison electric motor was used to drive some Singer sewing machines and large factories across Europe and the Americas have been opened. By 1927, the first Singer Sewing Centers opened, offering sewing courses and enjoying a large success as well.[2]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a Singer Sewing Machine commercial from the 1950s.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Friedrich Bessel and the Distances of Stars

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846) [1]
On July 22, 1784, German mathematician and astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel was born. He is probably best known for his works in mathematics, where he discovered the eponymous Bessel-functions, which are critical for the solution of certain differential equations.

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel was born in Minden, Westphalia (today Germany), as second son of a civil servant. Bessel attended the Gymnasium in Minden for four years but he did not appear to be very talented, finding Latin difficult, although he later succeeded in teaching the ancient language to himself. At the age of 14 Bessel was apprenticed to the import-export concern Kulenkamp at Bremen. At first Bessel received no salary from the firm. The business's reliance on cargo ships led him to turn his mathematical skills to problems in navigation. This in turn led to an interest in astronomy as a way of determining longitude.

In 1804 Bessel wrote a paper on Halley's comet, calculating the orbit using data from observations made by Thomas Harriot and William Lower in 1607 [2]. This brought him to the attention of a major figure of German astronomy at the time, Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, the leading comet expert of his time. Olbers recognised at once the quality of Bessel's work and Olbers gave Bessel the task of making further observations to carry his work further. The resulting paper, at the level required for a doctoral dissertation, was published on Olbers' recommendation. From that time on Bessel concentrated on astronomy, celestial mechanics and mathematics.

In 1806 Bessel accepted the post of assistant at the Lilienthal Observatory, which gave him valuable experience observing planets, in particular Saturn, its rings and satellites. He also observed comets and continued his study of celestial mechanics. In January 1810, at the age of 26, Bessel was appointed director of the new founded Königsberg Observatory by King Frederick William III of Prussia. There he published tables of atmospheric refraction derived from James Bradley's observations of the positions of 3222 stars made around 1750 at Greenwich (Bradley was English Astronomer Royal from 1742 to 1762), which he had already began in 1807. While the observatory was still in construction Bessel elaborated the Fundamenta Astronomiae based on Bradley's observations. It was not possible for Bessel to receive a professorship without first being granted the title of doctor. A doctorate was awarded by the University of Göttingen on the recommendation of Gauss, who had met Bessel in Bremen in 1807 and recognized his talents.

Since 1819 Bessel determined the position of over 50,000 stars assisted by some of his qualified students. With this work under his belt, Bessel was able to achieve the feat for which he is best remembered today: he is credited with being the first to use parallax in calculating the distance to a star. Bessel showed in 1838 that 61 Cygni, a star barely conceivable with the naked eye, apparently moved in an ellipse every year. This back and forth motion, called the annual parallax, could only be interpreted as being caused by the motion of Earth around the Sun. Astronomers had believed for some time that parallax would provide the first accurate measurement of interstellar distances—in fact, in the 1830s there was a fierce competition between astronomers to be the first to measure a stellar parallax accurately.

In 1838 Bessel publicly announced that 61 Cygni had a parallax of 0.314 arcseconds; which, given the diameter of the Earth's orbit, indicated that the star is 10.3 lightyears away (by today's measurement of 11.4 lightyears, Bessel's estimation did only deviate by ca. 10%). Another major discovery by Bessel was that the two bright stars Sirius and Procyon execute minute motions that could be explained only by assuming that they had invisible companions disturbing their motions. The existence of such bodies, now named Sirius B and Procyon B, was confirmed with more powerful telescopes after Bessel’s death [3]. Besides these activities, he was ordered to undertake a geodetical survey of East Prussia ("Ostpreussische Gradmessungen"). From the differences between geodetical and astronomical coordinates, Bessel derived the figure of Earth as an oblated spheroid with ellipticity 1/299.15 (Bessel Normal Ellipsoid). Bessel also contributed significantly to mathematics and invented the so-called Bessel functions (also called cylindrical functions) in 1824.

Bessel died in Königsberg on March 17, 1846 at age 62 from a long mysterious disease which we now know was probably intestine cancer.

At yovisto you can learn more about astronomy in a popular lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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If you like the daily blog posts of yovisto about the history of science, please support us by clicking on the amazon links and making your next amazon purchase via our offered links. Nevertheless, please do also support your local (real world) bookstore at the corner of the street.