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No country has a monopoly on inventive genius. Any given scientific discovery is likely to be based on the ideas of people from different nations and different times. However, countries can encourage or discourage scientific inquiry and technological development. From its emergence as an independent nation in the 18th century, the United States has encouraged science and invention. It has done this by promoting a free flow of ideas, by encouraging the growth of "useful knowledge," and by welcoming creative people from all over the world.

The United States Constitution itself reflects the desire to encourage scientific creativity. It gives Congress the power "to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries." This clause formed the basis for the patent and copyright systems, which ensured that inventions and other creative works could not be copied or used without paying some kind of fee to the creator.

The United States of America was born during what is known in Western culture as the Age of Enlightenment. During that period of human history (usually considered to extend from 1680 to 1800), writers, philosophers and statesmen struggled to create "perfect societies" based on reason and logic.

Enlightenment thinkers rejected the superstitions, prejudices and restrictions of the past. They argued that by the use of individual reason, unlimited improvements could be made in human capacities and human happiness. They believed that government was justified only when it served the well-being of the governed. In time, they predicted, a free people would, through the use of reason and logic, wipe out ignorance, poverty, crime and war.

Above all else, Enlightenment philosophers urged the advancement of science—the understanding and use of nature's powers—to improve the human condition. They talked about an ideal "republic of science." In such a republic, reason and logic would reign supreme, ideas would be freely examined and exchanged and useful knowledge would be advanced to benefit all people.


Many of the leaders of America's struggle for independence from Britain were strongly influenced by Enlightenment ideas and endorsed the "republic of science" notion. A number of Colonial American farmers educated themselves in Latin—not in order to read ancient Roman or early Church writers—but to read the scientific works of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton was very popular in Colonial America and many Americans were very optimistic about the role of science in a free society. These included Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826), who, throughout their lives, participated in and encouraged scientific studies.

From the 1740s on, Franklin knew most of the scientists in the American colonies. He was, in a sense, the unofficial leader of the American scientific community. He also corresponded with many of Western Europe's leading scientists. In this manner, he served as a bridge for scientific information between the Old World and the New World.

By encouraging naturalists to compile information about North America's unique plant and animal life, Franklin encouraged European scientific interest in the continent. Thanks to Franklin, the findings of Pennsylvania botanists John Bartram (1699- 1777) and his son William (1739-1823) were acclaimed by European scientific societies.

To promote scientific research in America and to spread the word of the latest scientific developments in Europe, Franklin helped organize the American Philosophical Society in 1743. This was the first of many societies that have helped advance science and learning in America.

However, Franklin was also a man of action, and in the 1740s he conducted a series of experiments to advance the understanding of electricity. Franklin attended two lecture/demonstrations on electricity in the early 1740s and he became fascinated by the subject. He read about electricity in various European journals, then bought and borrowed some electrical apparatuses.

After many experiments, Franklin concluded that electricity is a power that flows

through some substances—conductors—and not through others—resistors. He also pointed out that some conductors permit a freer flow of electricity than others and if given a choice the electric flow will follow the path of least resistance.

On the basis of experiments and observations, Franklin claimed that lightning is a form of electricity. This had been suggested before, but Franklin was the first to prove it.

Franklin described his experiments in a series of letters to British scientist Peter Collinson. Later these letters were published as a book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America, which was considered a major contribution to theoretical science at the time.

Based on the knowledge he acquired of electrical discharge paths, Franklin invented the lightning rod as a protective device for homes and public buildings, and he urged members of the Philosophical Society to promote useful knowledge for the benefit of the people. He contributed many useful inventions, including the Pennsylvania stove, bifocal glasses and a four-pane lamp for street lighting. From the beginning then, American science has always had a practical side.

Jefferson also stressed the practical aspects of science. For years, Jefferson and William Bartram exchanged seeds, plants and botanical information in an effort to improve American farming. On his diplomatic trips, Jefferson collected seeds and information about crops in other countries. Then he studied the feasibility of introducing those crops to parts of the United States. He introduced various types of rice, olives and grasses.


With Franklin and Jefferson, the dividing line between science and technology was often blurred. That was usually not the case in Europe at the time. There, scientists or natural philosophers, as they preferred to call themselves, pursued knowledge for its own sake. They often talked about "true science" as something apart from the concerns of everyday life. They usually left the application of science to mechanics and tradesmen. But there was a wide knowledge gap between the two groups and little effort was made to bridge it.

Early science in America could not afford such luxury. American scientists were very much involved in everyday affairs. They were also mindful of Franklin's advice to promote useful knowledge.

Most American scientists of the late 18th century were involved in the struggle to win American independence and forge a new nation. These scientists included the astronomer David Rittenhouse (1732-1796), the medical scientist Benjamin Rush (1745- 1813), the botanist Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815) and the natural historian Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827).

During the American Revolution, Rittenhouse helped design the defenses of Philadelphia and built telescopes and navigation instruments for the United States military services. After the war, Rittenhouse helped write Pennsylvania's constitution. He also designed road and canal systems for the state. Finally he returned to studying the stars and planets and gained a worldwide reputation in that field.

As Surgeon General, Benjamin Rush saved countless lives of soldiers during the Revolutionary War, by promoting hygiene and public health practices. By pioneering new medical treatments, he also made the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia an example of medical enlightenment for the whole world. After his military service, he established the first free clinic in the U.S.

Though Charles Willson Peale is now best remembered as an artist, he was also a renowned natural historian, inventor, educator and politician. He kept a record of new inventions in America and wrote about them in a series of letters to Thomas Jefferson. He also created Peale's Museum, which housed the young nation's only large collection of North American natural history specimens. Peale excavated the bones of an ancient wooly elephant or mammoth, near West Point, New York. Along with members of his immediate family, he spent three months assembling the skeleton. When it was finished, he devoted a special Mammoth Room to it in his museum.

Peale's Museum was extremely popular with scientists, students and people in general. The museum fostered a broad interest in the plants, animals, gems and minerals of North America. It also started an American tradition of making the knowledge of science interesting and available to the general public. This tradition is still very much alive. There are hundreds of natural history, science, technology and engineering museums in the United States today. The most prominent is the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., established by Congress in 1838, with funds willed to the young United States by an English chemist, James Smithson.


Near the end of the 18th century, science in the newly created United States was imbued with a pioneering or frontier spirit. It was also isolated by the broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from the mainstreams of scientific thought and research in Europe. Science books and equipment were in short supply in America. American scientists often "invented" products and processes that already existed in Europe.

In addition, the United States was a relatively poor nation. There were neither public nor private funds available for large- scale scientific research and leisurely study. Two American universities—the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University in Massachusetts—had several distinguished scientists on their faculties, but they were not in a position to compete with the long-established, well-endowed universities in Europe.

Despite all that, America had certain advantages and attractions for scientists from other lands. American science was closely linked with the needs and feelings of the people. It was also democratic and free from the restrictive traditions of Europe. Many of the leaders of the new nation were enthusiastic about science and warmly welcomed scientists and technologists from other lands.

One of the first to come was the British chemist, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Though Priestley was one of the leading scientists of his day, his work was frequently ridiculed in Britain because his political opinions were at odds with those of the government. So Priestley came to America for as he put it, "the sake of pursuing our common studies without molestation."

Later, Priestley wrote that the United States government "by encouraging all kinds î talents, is far more favorable toward the sciences and the arts than any monarchical government has ever been." He added, "A free people will in due time produce anything useful to mankind."

Priestley was the first of thousands of world-renowned scientists that have come to the United States in search of a free, creative environment. Many, like Priestley, came to escape prejudice and persecution. Their numbers have included the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the mathematician Theodore von Karman (1881- 1963), Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), producer î the world's first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction and Vladimir K. Zworykin (1889- 1982), the inventor of the electronic television camera.

Other scientists came to the United State to share in the nation's rapid growth and the opportunity to apply new scientific ideas to practical uses. Alexander Graham Bell (1847- 1922) moved down from Canada to patent an< commercially develop the telephone and also to work on related inventions. Charles P. Steinmetz (1865-1923) came to America for the opportunity to develop new alternating current electrical systems at General Electric. (Steinmetz was also a refugee from persecution.) Later, other scientists came to share in the nation's new, outstanding research facilities. In the early decades of the 20th century, financial resources for the support of scientific research were plentiful and scientists working in the United States could hope for considerable material, as well as intellectual, rewards.


No scientific development occurs in a vacuum Scientists are drawn to centers of scientific achievement. There, new ideas breed more new ideas.

Throughout the 19th century, Britain, France and Germany were the leading sources of new ideas in science and mathematics. These new ideas included: Dalton's atomic theory; Humphrey Davy's electrochemistry discoveries; Darwin's theory of biological evolution; Joule's theory of the conservation ol energy; Kelvin's relationships between heat and electricity; Rutherford's theory of the atomic nucleus; Lagrange's celestial mechanic; formulas; Marie and Pierre Curie's studies of radioactivity; Roentgen's discovery of x-rays; and Mendel's ideas on heredity.

The period from 1810 through 1910 was ã glorious 100 years for science in Western Europe. Major breakthroughs were made in understanding and, in some cases, controlling events and systems in nature—from the structure of atoms to the movement of stars.

Scientific achievements in the United States during the same period seem pale in comparison to European developments. However, American scientists and technologists were far from idle. Thousands of products that make life easier, safer and more enjoyable for people were developed by

Americans during the 19th century.

In the early part of the century, many developments—particularly in toolmaking, agriculture and construction—were made with little reliance on scientific knowledge and methods.

Many later developments—particularly those involving electricity, magnetism, chemistry, biology and structural mechanics— required a basic understanding of scientific discoveries and principles. This linking of scientific understanding and technological know-how led to a type of applied science for which Americans became renowned.

The most outstanding American applied scientist of the 19th century was Thomas Alva Edison (1897-1931), who is credited with more than a thousand original inventions.

Edison investigated numerous scientific discoveries to see if those discoveries could be put to practical use. In the tradition of Franklin and Jefferson, Edison's primary goal was the adaptation of science to benefit people. Though Joseph Swan built an incandescent electric lamp before Edison, Edison's design was more practical. Both inventors used carbon filaments in a high vacuum; however, Swan's low-resistance filament didn't last nearly so long as Edison's high resistance filaments. Furthermore, Edison's light bulbs could be turned on and off individually while Swan's bulbs could only be used in a system where several lights are turned on or off at the same time.

Edison backed up his incandescent lamp development with the creation of entire electrical generating systems. Within 30 years, his developments put electric lighting into millions of homes.

Another landmark application of scientific ideas to practical uses was provided by the Wright brothers of Dayton, Ohio. In their small bicycle shop, they became fascinated with descriptions of the glider experiments of a German inventor named Otto Lilienthal. Though a leading American scientist of the day said it was impossible, Wilbur and Orville Wright resolved to build a powered flying machine.

The brothers did not just start building a machine. They read everything they could lay their hands on about gliding. They also built a wind tunnel and several glider models to gain a knowledge of air motion and pressure around the plane surfaces. They gained knowledge of the lift and drag of various wing shapes. They studied all aspects of motion in three dimension—pitch, up and down motion of a craft's nose; roll, a banking movement around the craft's axis; and yaw, a left or right movement of the craft. They also studied ways to control these motions and came up with a wing warping system.

Combining scientific knowledge and mechanical skills, the Wright brothers built and flew several gliders. Then on December 17,1903, they flew a powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flying machine.

An even more classic example of applying abstract scientific principles to create a new field of technology was provided by three American physicists in the 20th century.

Drawing on Max Planck's quantum theory and Albert Einstein's explanation of photoelectric phenomena, John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brittain of Bell Laboratories invented the transistor in 1948.

The transistor—a solid-state replacement for the vacuum tube—revolutionized electronics.

When it was invented, the transistor was smaller and required less power than a vacuum tube. But that was just a beginning. With the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, the pace of electronic and computer technology was greatly increased. Today, thousands—even millions—of integrated circuits can be placed on silicon chips no bigger than postage stamps. This means that tremendous amounts of electronic circuitry can be packed into small packages. As a result, book-sized computers of the 1980s can outperform room-sized computers of the 1960s.

An American invention that was barely noticed in 1948 has created the computer age. And the progress of that age is changing the way millions of people work, study, conduct business transactions and engage in research.

Computers are products of science and technology that are, in turn, having an enormous impact on science and technology. Mathematical computations and information- processing operations that once required weeks can be performed in minutes through the use of computers. All aspects of basic research, experimentation data gathering, testing and analysis have been improved by computer use.

Beyond the laboratory, computers are streamlining and quickening the operations of factories, farms, foundries, schools, stores, libraries and hospitals. Computers are being used increasingly to aid in medical diagnosis and record keeping. Computers are also revolutionizing the design, manufacture, testing and marketing of new products. Computer- controlled robots are performing more and more production functions. Entire computer- controlled factories, distribution centers and communication networks are likely to appear in the near future as scientists explore the development of advanced thinking machines or artificial intelligence.

Not only are computers being used to develop and manufacture numerous products, they are also increasingly being incorporated into the products. Most cars, trains, ships, appliances, machine tools, weapons, communications equipment, cash registers, toll booths, assembly systems, etc. contain computer circuits.

Date: 2015-02-28; view: 1834

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