Founding and Early Work


The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was signed into being by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863. As mandated in its Act of Incorporation, the Academy has, since 1863, served to "investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art" whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

The idea that the United States should have a national organization devoted to the promotion of the sciences and technology was not new. As early as 1743, Benjamin Franklin had founded the American Philosophical Society (APS). Thirty-seven years later the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded, and sixty years after that, the National Institute for the Promotion of Science was organized. By the mid-nineteenth century, these organizations were joined by the Smithsonian Institution and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

But the immediate roots of the NAS can be traced back to the early 1850s and a group of scientists based largely in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group, which began meeting informally in 1853, called themselves the "Scientific Lazzaroni" in self-mocking reference to the beggars and street people of Naples. The original Lazzaroni consisted of Superintendent of the Coast Survey Alexander Dallas Bache, naturalist Louis Agassiz, Harvard Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy Benjamin Peirce, astronomer Benjamin Gould, and Harvard Professor of Greek and Latin Cornelius Felton. The group was soon joined by others, including Joseph Henry, who was perhaps the leading scientist in America at the time. But it was Bache who gave the most explicit and public expression of the idea of a national scientific academy.

In his speech as outgoing president of the AAAS, Bache in 1851 publicly recommended that the federal government establish a body for the promotion of the country's science. Bache called for "an institution of science...to guide public action in reference to science matters." Such a body would act as a centralized organization to be consulted by the government in matters of science and technology. By 1858, Agassiz in a private letter had outlined the structure and organization of an academy of sciences.

The demands of the Civil War, which broke out in 1861, were conducive to the formation of a scientific consulting body. Many citizens attempted to contribute to the war effort by submitting inventions and related proposals to the government to do with as it saw fit. In order to expedite the evaluation of these approvals, Henry proposed to the Navy Department the formation of an advisory agency for the testing of new weapons. In February 1863 Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles approved Henry's plan, and the Permanent Commission, made up of Henry, Bache, and Rear Admiral Charles Henry Davis, was established.

In the meantime, Agassiz had enlisted the support of Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson. With Wilson's help, Agassiz, Bache, Peirce, and Gould reworked a plan drafted by Davis and came up with a bill for the incorporation of the National Academy of Sciences. Wilson brought the bill to the Senate on February 20, where it was passed on March 3rd. It was passed by the House of Representatives later that day, and was signed into law by President Lincoln before the day was over. The National Academy of Sciences had officially come into being.

Our Early Work for the U.S. Government

Shortly after the 22 April 1863 meeting at which the National Academy of Sciences was organized, the institution received its first request for advice. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, requested a study on the "uniformity of weights, measures, and coins, considered in relation to domestic and international commerce." Accordingly, the NAS set up a Committee on Weights, Measures, and Coinage to undertake the study. After holding several meetings of its members in Philadelphia, Cambridge, and Washington, the committee submitted its report to Secretary Chase on 7 January 1864. It recommended a thorough survey of other countries' systems of money and measures, and requested that its work be extended to encompass such a survey. Interestingly, the committee over the course of its discussions came to feel that the United States should adopt the metric system of weights and measures.

The Committee on Weights, Measures, and Coinage was exemplary of subsequent NAS activities on a number of counts. First, in undertaking to carry out a survey of a current problem, it established a working method that would provide a model for most of the institution's study bodies. Secondly, it offered its conclusions and recommendations in the form of a report transmitted to the requesting agency. And lastly, its having taken the form of a topic-specific committee not only conformed to a recommendation made by NAS President Bache in the institution's first Annual Report to the United States Congress, but set an organizational precedent that would be followed by the majority of study units of the NAS as well as its subsequently founded operational arm, the NRC.

Although the Academy was founded in time of civil war, its first study was not related to the war effort. But requests for advice on matters related to the war were soon to come. Very shortly after the Committee on Weights, Measures, and Coinage was brought into being, the Navy Department requested no less than three studies, two of which were addressed to subjects directly related to the capabilities of the Union fleet, and one of which concerned wind and current charts used for commercial navigation. On May 8, Admiral Charles H. Davis, a Navy officer and charter member of the Academy, called upon the Academy to consider ways for the Navy to protect the bottoms of its new iron-hulled ships from corrosion and other damage induced by salt water. A Committee on Protecting the Bottoms of Iron Vessels was duly appointed and given the task of advising a Navy commission, in existence since March 1863, on possible solutions to the problem. In January of the following year the committee issued a brief report in which it could recommend no decisive solution, but called instead for further investigation pending Congressional appropriations. These latter were not forthcoming, and the committee's work ended inconclusively.

The committee ultimately failed to devise an effective means for protecting the bottoms of iron ships, but the fault appears to have rested not with the committee itself, but instead with the limitations of the technologies available at the time. As late as fifty years after the committee's work came to an end, the Navy Department was still investigating various types of ship's paints in order to come up with the most protective composition.

On the same date that he requested the Academy to undertake its investigation into the protection of the bottoms of Union ironclads, Admiral Davis requested that the Academy "investigate and report on the subject of magnetic deviation in iron ships." In response, the Academy's Committee on Magnetic Deviation in Iron Ships, commonly known as the "Compass Committee," was formed. At the time of Admiral Davis's request, the Union Navy was rapidly adding iron-built ships to its inventory. Most of these were iron-clads—wooden-hulled ships plated with iron above the waterline—but some had hulls of iron construction or decks protected with iron plates. The large amounts of iron in these ships caused onboard compasses to deviate, thus making navigation an inexact and potentially dangerous affair. The Compass Committee was thus charged with recommending ways to correct this deviation. In January 1864 the committee issued a substantial, 73-page report in which it recommended the use of appropriately placed bar magnets to counteract local attractions acting on ship compasses. Following on its recommendations, the committee itself from March through September 1864 oversaw the correction of compasses on twenty-seven Union ships.

The Compass Committee was notable not only for having brought its study to a successful conclusion, but for having set the precedent of issuing a substantial printed report. This is a precedent to which the majority of the institution's study groups continue to conform.

The Federal government, through Congress and various agencies and departments, continued to request Academy studies on a number of subjects through the end of the Civil War and afterward.

The NAS in the Late Nineteenth Century

Although the end of the Civil War in 1865 eliminated the immediate circumstances leading to the founding of the Academy, the government continued to find a need for the young scientific consulting body. The immediate aftermath of the war brought with it problems in need of solutions, and thus in January of 1867 the Academy found itself asked to evaluate the viability of zinc-coated cast iron blocks for use as headstones on the graves of soldiers killed in the war. The Academy thus formed a Committee on Galvanic Action from the Association of Zinc and Iron, which, as described in its report, conducted an experiment by

...attaching to one end of the wire of a galvanometer a plate of zinc and to the other end a plate of iron. These two plunged in a vessel of water slightly acidulated by sulphuric acid, gave rise to a powerful current of galvanism from the zinc to the iron. While the zinc was rapidly corroded the iron remained unaffected...

The Committee's conclusion was that the proposed zinc and cast iron headstones would not last perpetually. Whether or not their decision was directly influenced by the Academy's advice, Congress in 1872 decreed that headstones in national cemeteries would be made of "durable stone."

During the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s the Academy was called on to report on a diverse set of subjects. A partial list of the committees formed in response to government requests during this period illustrates just how diverse these subjects were. There were Academy committees on Proving and Gauging Distilled Spirits and Preventing Fraud (1866); on Metric Standards for the States (1866); on Means of Distinguishing Calf's Hair from Woolen Goods (1875); on Waterproofing the Fractional Currency (1875); on the Restoration of the Declaration of Independence (1880); and on Quartz Plates used in Saccharimeters for Sugar Determinations (1887). While some of the topics the Academy was asked to pronounce upon may appear trivial in retrospect, they do reflect the concerns of an agricultural nation in the process of industrializing.

Perhaps the most important services the Academy performed for the country during this period were recommending the establishment of the US Geological Survey, and helping in setting up a national forest service. In 1878, the Academy was asked to evaluate five independent surveys of public land west of the Mississippi then taking place under military and civilian leadership. An Academy Committee on a Plan for Surveying and Mapping the Territories of the US was thus set up and given the charge of devising an overall plan for surveying the Western territories. Among other recommendations, the committee proposed that a new government agency, the US Geological Survey, be established within the Department of the Interior. Through a subsequent act of Congress, the committee's major proposals were enacted. This was the first time an Academy committee had helped establish a major scientific government agency.

Nearly two decades later, in 1895, the Academy was asked to address the problem of the general neglect of American forests. Accordingly, a Committee on the Inauguration of a Rational Policy for the Forested Lands of the US was appointed. The resulting committee report, transmitted to the Secretary of the Interior in May of 1897, recommended that in the short term, military units should be sent to protect public forest areas from fire and despoliation. The committee's recommendation for the long term was that a permanent national forest service be established to oversee and patrol public forests. After a decade of political haggling, the Academy's recommendation was made law in 1905 as the Forest Service was set up under the Department of Agriculture.

Despite the successes of the survey, forestry, and other studies, by the 1890s, the government had been calling on the Academy with lessening frequency. This relative lack of activity had given some of the institution's membership cause for concern. But the Academy was soon to come out of its torpor thanks to an emerging group of activist members who would go on to revitalize the institution and establish the National Research Council under Academy auspices.

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