It was on this day in 1848 that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, known as AAAS, was created. It was founded by 78 scientists, all members of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists. They wanted to increase the scope of their group to include all the sciences, and they modeled themselves on the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Despite their British model, American science in the 1840s had a different focus than European science. In Europe, scientists were more interested in theoretical work — there were big breakthroughs in chemistry, physics, evolution, and electromagnetism.
In 1845, Alexander van Humboldt published the first part of his five-volume work Cosmos, an attempt to bring together all the fields of science into one book. Humboldt was an international celebrity, adored in America — scientists sought his endorsement, journalists declared that he was “without rival in all the branches of human knowledge,” and everyone from politicians to inventors tried to link their names to his. The media were constantly comparing American scientists to Humboldt, usually unfavorably.
There were some American scientists working in this mold, many of them founders of AAAS. In 1846, Joseph Henry, a scientist who worked on electromagnetism, was elected the first secretary of the Smithsonian. In 1848, zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz started work on a museum of natural history at Harvard. Benjamin Peirce was a mathematician and astronomer; in the 1840s, he was hard at work researching and publishing An Elementary Treatise on Plane and Spherical Trigonometry (1840) and two volumes of An Elementary Treatise on Curves, Functions, and Forces (1841 and 1846).
But in general, while Europeans were focusing on more theoretical scientific pursuits, Americans were engaged in a very practical side of science: technology. The word scientist did not even exist until the 1830s, and the line between scientist and inventor was a blurry one. There were plenty of important American inventions in the 1840s. Samuel Morse sent the first successful telegraph. Robert McCormick sold his first McCormick reaper, a machine that cut grain much more efficiently than a farmer with a scythe. Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, which finally made rubber stable (before that, it would melt in the heat and freeze in the cold). John Rand invented the metal paint tube, which revolutionized the art world — before that, painters used pig bladders; they were hard to use outside because they frequently burst, and painters could only use one color at a time.
Americans were also focused on geology and botany, which went hand in hand with America’s westward expansion — there was plenty of uncharted territory to explore and catalog. One well-known paleontologist and geologist was Edward Hitchcock, the man who came up with the idea for the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists, the parent organization of AAAS. He conducted geological surveys of New England, and studied fossils from the Connecticut Valley. Hitchcock spent the 1840s working on his greatest passion: natural theology, an attempt to explain the Bible through the lens of a contemporary understanding of geology. To the end, Hitchcock — like many of his contemporaries, including Louis Agassiz — strongly opposed Darwin’s theories of evolution.
After the American Association for the Advancement of Science was officially created on this day in 1848, the scientists adjourned. They met again at 4 p.m. the same day to talk science instead of organizational details, and they spent the next few days doing exactly that. One of the most warmly received presentations at the first meeting was a paper by oceanographer and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, “Wind and Current Chart.” He explained that hundreds of ship navigators were sending data to the naval center for recording, and he declared: “Never before was such a corps of observers known.” The attendees were enthusiastic about this early citizen science.
During these early years, every AAAS meeting was a major event for the city in which it was held, the focus of media coverage and speculation. AAAS members became small-time celebrities and were even given discount tickets to ride the railroads. More than 2,000 people joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science during its first 12 years. It was suspended during the Civil War, but resumed in 1866 and is still going strong today. They have been publishing the journal Science since 1880, which today has a circulation of more than 135,000.