Eliphalet Nott saw the future and tried to gamble his way there
Looking at the heroic 1857 group portrait "Men of Progress", by the nineteenth-century artist Christian Schussele, a technology enthusiast might wonder who was the man sitting at the center of the picture, surrounded by such well-known giants of invention and science as Samuel F. B. Morse, Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, and Joseph Henry. Only a loyal alumnus of Union College, in Schenectady, New York, would ask, “Who are all those guys standing around Eliphalet Nott?”
Yet though he is little remembered outside the college he served as president for more than half a century, from 1805 to 1866, Nott’s achievements rival those of his better-known contemporaries. He was more than an inventor. He was a pioneer in areas that only in the late twentieth century have come to be recognized as vital: uniting science and the liberal arts in university education, securing state support for that combination, and linking the campus to regional technology development.
At a time when a college president was usually an upper-class clergyman unwilling to dirty his hands at manual labor, Nott went into his workshop and invented a new type of coal-burning stove that would be used from Schenectady to Switzerland. At a time when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton kept science distinctly subordinate to the classics, Nott created a degree program at Union that put equal emphasis on each of the two cultures. At a time when state lotteries in support of education were going into a century-and-a-half-long eclipse after some well-known abuses, Nott secured for Union one of the last of the great lottery windfalls— and in the process demonstrated that the fears of abuse were only too well founded. At a time when education and business were separate spheres, Nott became a manufacturer and an entrepreneur as well as an educator.
In all, a man of unexpected modernity. Yet to depict him as a late-twentieth-century figure in an 1820s frock coat could be misleading. For though he speaks to our time, he was distinctly a man of his own. Most particularly, he was a man of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, when the United States joined its experiment in democracy with the first steps into industrialism, a time of extremes of opportunity and inequality, a time of universal optimism about the uses of science and the rise of science as an independent profession for dedicated experts. Above all, it was a great time for a man on the make, one hindered not too severely by the moral scruples of the austere giants of an earlier generation.
We owe our knowledge that Eliphalet Nott was such a man to an industrious twentieth-century scholar of American studies named Codman Hislop. Setting out in 1932 to chronicle Nott’s life, Hislop plunged into a wilderness of business records, investigation re- ports, and letters, emerging four decades later with a portrait of a man who was indeed inventor, educator, and reformer, but also something more: a secret gambler whose duplicity and continually and secretly redoubled bets created ethical problems that today’s educators seeking again to tie universities more tightly to industry cannot afford to ignore.
To see Nott from both sides, look at him in his prime, in the late 1820s, and at his best, when he stepped into the classroom to teach. He was nominally teaching philosophy, but here was a man who combined philosophy and practicality. He had been building for two decades a college that now rivaled Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in enrollment and appeal. As an inventor and a stove manufacturer he was hot on the trail of a solution of a key need of the time, a stove that could burn anthracite coal. As a reformer he held views on abolition and temperance that commanded nationwide attention.
In the course he was teaching, “Nott on Kames,” he was taking on the views of an obscure eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher named Lord Kames, a lesser representative of the school that included Adam Smith and David Hume. But, more to the point, by taking on Kames, he was taking on the values of an educational establishment particularly centered on one of the big three universities, Princeton. That university taught a philosophy that had served as a formal basis for the austere republicanism of America’s revolutionary generation. The philosophy was called “common sense” because it depicted the natural world of science as very much what we perceive it to be with our common sense while it codified ethics in a strict and formal manner.
No, Nott told his students, the truth was the other way around. Recent discoveries in electricity, light, and heat, not to mention such fields as mesmerism and phrenology (Nott was far from alone among his contemporaries in failing to separate the categories we would now call science and pseudoscience), had shown that “natural philosophy” was far from a commonsense matter. Ethics, on the other hand, would yield to commonsense solutions.
The ethical common sense was the course’s highlight. Who could forget the lecture on sex by the learned “old Prex,” accompanied by a vocal rendition of “Be an angel, my dear, in the morning. But oh, be a woman at night”? When Nott proclaimed he could not recall a student who had engaged in excessive fornication and not gone on to die at an early age, more than one nervous listener must have wondered at the definition of excessive . In lecture after lecture Nott pounded home the main point: A practical understanding of how the world worked, whether in regard to fornication, finance, or the fabrication of stoves, was more important than book learning.
Any Princeton-trained professor might have wondered about Nott’s credentials to teach philosophy at all. Born in 1773 in Connecticut, Nott had been a child prodigy who was reading the Bible at age four. But his family, though well connected in the Connecticut clergy, had fallen on hard times and could not afford much education for a second son. Nott’s only academic degree, a master of arts, resulted from a mere two months at Rhode Island College (now Brown University). He had also trained as a “tractor,” a medical healer who used metal pieces (“tractors”) to attract the seeds of illness and draw them out of a patient’s body; he was “frightened out of it,” he later testified, when “so many died” after a few initial successful cures, so he headed for the frontier. In New York’s Cherry Valley he was possibly a clergyman and definitely a schoolteacher, coauthor of an almanac, and author of a treatise titled “Federal Money.”
It remains unclear how that training suddenly, in 1798, catapulted him into the pulpit of the most prestigious church in Albany, New York, where he preached to such parishioners as Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Gouverneur Morris. Such a congregation demanded eloquence, and after some initial difficulty Nott trained himself in it. “I sat all this time perfectly entranced, chills running over me,” one listener wrote after a Nott sermon. When parishioner Burr gunned down parishioner Hamilton in a duel, Nott responded with a condemnatory sermon so well received that it echoed down the century in reprint after reprint.
His eloquence and his sound embrace of both social reform and political conservatism won him in 1804 a job that did not look like a promotion. Accepting the presidency of Union College meant moving from the center of a major capital to the nearby but distinctly downscale town of Schenectady. The school, founded in 1795, had spent its first decade in a not very successful struggle for survival that precluded educational reform. The curriculum stuck to religion and the classics. But in his first baccalaureate address, Nott gave notice that this would change. “Go with Newton,” he said. “Span the heavens and number and measure the orbs … examine the regions of organic nature.” Not the usual message of a college president in a time when, in the words of two historians, “American colleges mostly devoted their energies to controlling unruly students, their curricula to rote learning of classical languages, rhetoric and simple mathematics. In today’s terms, they resembled high schools.”
Nott’s four-man faculty had its hands full controlling its unruly 105-boy student body, ages seven to eighteen. But their vigorous president had energy left over for much more: observing an eclipse of the sun in 1806 and writing up a detailed description; adding astronomy, chemistry, and mathematics to the curriculum in 1807; and scoring a major coup in 1810 by hiring the Swiss émigré Ferdinand Hassler, perhaps the most distinguished mathematician then in the United States.
Still, Nott’s most concentrated efforts went into acquiring money and putting it to use. In 1807, after the death of his first wife, he married the widow of an Albany merchant and immediately put her fortune to work for Union. With its help, he launched a series of bets that —doubled again and again—became the theme of his career.
His wife’s money made possible the beginning, though hardly the completion, of an ambitious building effort. Quietly, lot by lot, he assembled a suitable seventy-acre site on a plateau east of town. He hired a well-known French architect, Joseph Jacques Ramée, to design a campus that in scale and classical elegance corresponded not to Union’s actual status and means but to Nott’s vision for it.
To fund his vision he launched in 1805 a campaign to have the state legislature authorize a “literature lottery,” and he plowed his wife’s money into that as well. A few other schools, including Columbia University and Hamilton College, were brought on board to achieve broader political palatability; but the principal beneficiary was Union, and the energy behind the eventually successful lobbying campaign was Nott’s.
By 1827 the lottery had sold more than five million dollars’ worth of tickets, and more than four hundred thousand dollars of the proceeds was targeted for Union. But this was not enough to finance Nott’s expansive plans. By then Union had passed Princeton in enrollment and was surpassed only by Harvard and Yale. Its graduating classes numbered more than one hundred. Nott was building up the seventy-acre campus. He added a professor of chemistry and rooms full of scientific apparatus, such as a high-pressure steam boiler. He followed up in 1828 by establishing a revolutionary “dual curriculum,” permitting students to choose between the traditional classics-based college program and a new one divided equally among science, mathematics, and a collection of courses in modern languages, social studies, and law. One third of the students in the succeeding years chose the new curriculum.
To finance the school’s continuing expansion, Nott made an ethical gamble when payments of the lottery money came in slowly and behind schedule. He negotiated with his lottery partners a series of modifications of the original agreement, most of them secret and at least one involving the backdating of a document. The changes redirected a substantial share of the payments into a special President’s Fund controlled by Nott alone. There the payments mingled with and became indistinguishable from his private fortune and went into a mushrooming collection of speculations.
He was frank about what he was doing and why, and he answered objections to his policy in a way that former students of “Nott on Kames” would have found familiar. “Your remarks about my own conduct are sound in theory but do not apply precisely to the actual circumstances of the case,” he wrote to a clergyman colleague in 1829. “Institutions live forever—officers die. I have been aiming at present effect—but my attention has been diverted to laying a foundation to build on. … Unless the financial arrangements are successfully made, the college, situated as it is, will go down.”
After the lottery the next of his financial arrangements was in the stove business. In such time as he could spare from administration, finances, and teaching, Nott retreated to a laboratory on the Union campus and conducted experiments aimed at developing stoves that would burn a newly available fuel, anthracite coal. The canal system that Americans were building in the 1820s greatly reduced the cost of shipping this rocklike, relatively inexpensive, high-heat-content fuel from the mines of eastern Pennsylvania to distant cities such as Schenectady.
Nott would later be popularly known as the philosopher of caloric. The era’s most prominent scientific theory of heat treated it as a material substance named caloric; Nott was honored for supposedly proving the practical impact of the theory. But he was not a man to engage in theorizing. Even as his experiments were beginning, he established a stove company in Sehenectady and started selling anthracite “burners.”
By 1832 his entrepreneurship and experiment had resulted in the Nott stove. A typical model was a box six feet tall constructed of sheet iron. It combined two main features that made it a commercial success: It was a base burner—that is, the coal was fed in from the top and burned from the bottom, so that it would feed itself by gravity—and that base-burning fire rested on a specially designed rotary grate capable of scooping off ashes and depositing them in a drawer beneath the fire. By this means Nott avoided the problem of choking the fire with ash, which had hampered many previous fully enclosed bottom-burning coal stoves.
The invention owed less to philosophy than to the persistent trial-and-error efforts of Nott and two ironworkers who served as his stove founders. They helped him make empirical findings such as that “the finer grate bars are cast, the longer they will endure.” Such practical results played a far larger role than the caloric theory in the success of the Nott stove.
Nott exploited his invention as aggressively as he exploited his literature lottery. His principal patent covers the rotary grate. It was obtained in 1832, at a time when other stovemakers, including Jordan Mott of New York, had evolved the same combination, but Nott succeeded in convincing the government that it was part of a packet of patents he had applied for back in 1826, thereby giving it a clear priority. The surviving patent documentation at Union College belies this claim, for the 1826 patents concern industrial applications. But with his validated patent Nott was able to reach an accord with Mott. The best evidence for their willingness to share honors and the market is artistic. Mott sits beside Nott at the center of that Schussele painting. And why are the two stove makers in the center? Because the patron who commissioned the painting was Jordan Mott.
Other stove makers were more harshly dealt with. One Poughkeepsie, New York, mechanic who challenged the Nott patent found his claims rebuffed by a special arbitration panel appointed by the courts. Of the panel’s four members, one was a Union College trustee, one was a trustee of Hamilton College (a beneficiary of Nott’s lottery), and one was a former Nott parishioner.
Nott’s son Howard established a manufacturing company in Albany to make the stoves, and by the early 1830s the business promised a steady income. The records of the Philadelphia distributor of Nott stoves, preserved at Union College, indicate sales there of perhaps one thousand dollars per month; Nott’s stove came to heat Philadelphia’s U.S. courthouse, its library, its orphan asylum, and the homes of numerous well-to-do citizens. With such broad use, which extended throughout the country and even overseas, came fame: Nott stoves were praised in a short story by James Fenimore Cooper and a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The praise was well deserved. Operation of the stove might be a bit complex, and the danger might persist that unburned gases could explode in the coal magazine (usually with annoying rather than damaging force), but for all that, the Nott stove was the first truly practical solution of the problem of burning anthracite coal in a fully enclosed stove for interior heating.
By now the lottery had made Union College potentially the richest college in the nation (only potentially because of the tangled web of financial agreements among Nott and his lottery partners). The dual curriculum had made it the nation’s most progressive college. Its alumni would include college presidents spreading the Nott gospel, such as Francis Wayland of Brown University and Henry Tappan of the University of Michigan, two of the leading educational reformers of the era, and such prominent politicians as Sen. William Seward, later Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and President Chester A. Arthur. Nott himself not only had successfully combined the roles of educator and industrialist but also was a leader in reform movements ranging from temperance to world peace.
But the habit of redoubling his bets was too deeply ingrained to give up. Early receipts from the stove business and the President’s Fund lottery money went into a more ambitious industrial venture: the Novelty Works, in New York City. That manufacturing shop aimed to pioneer a new application for anthracite coal: firing steamboats.
Nott’s basic idea here was sound and not even totally original. The steam boiler would consist of metal tubes carrying water through a brick oven, where it would be converted to steam. This tubular boiler promised both lower fuel cost than the conventional wood-fired tank boiler and freedom from the explosions that were an enormous hazard on steamboats.
But in contrast with the slow, smallscale development of the stove, this time Nott overreached himself. The Novelty Works—managed by Nott’s son Joel together with an enthusiastic but unbusinesslike former steamboat skipper, Capt. Hezekiah Niles—announced a quick solution to the problem of firing steamboat boilers with anthracite. At the same time, the company purchased a steamboat, named it the Novelty , and went into the transportation business between New York and Albany. Neither side of the venture was successful. Joel Nott and his mechanics never solved the problem of fabricating metal boiler tubes that could withstand the heat of the anthracite fire; Niles and his boatmen couldn’t compete with the established Hudson River steamship operators. Amid the national financial panic of the mid-1830s, the Novelty Works collapsed into insolvency. It later became one of the nation’s leading sources of successful steam-engine and boiler innovation under new management that did not include Nott.
If success had not satisfied Nott’s gambling urge, neither could failure dampen it. Through another decade after the collapse of the Novelty Works, the now-mingled streams of lottery and stove revenues and Nott’s personal fortune went into one venture after another. It seemed that whenever a potential partner reached him with a good story, the now widely respected president of the nation’s third-largest college redoubled his bets: from Brooklyn and Long Island real estate to a Connecticut copper mine and a secret and unsuccessful attempt to buy back the Novelty Works.
It took the trustees of Union College a surprisingly long time to ask where their lottery earnings had gone. Only in 1849 did they conduct their first fullscale investigation. By then the tracks had been thoroughly muddied. The doctor himself blandly denied all wrongdoing, but the investigating committee filed a report concluding that he had used Union’s funds “interchangeably with his own” and that his financial activities were “dangerous to the morals of the young, and to the trustees who permitted it.” A committee of the New York State Senate in 1853 concurred with these factual findings but added that it was satisfied with Dr. Nott’s “integrity and honesty of purpose.”
Both conclusions were kept secret, for the trustees of Union College were in a dilemma. They wanted to get their money, especially after a national financial depression in 1857, but they did not want to blacken the name of their president and thus the college. So they reached a compromise with Nott. They would officially conclude that he had acted honorably. He would, for the time being, keep the funds under his control; upon his death a substantial portion of his fortune would be dedicated to a “Nott Foundation” at Union.
Alas, that wasn’t the end of trouble. One of Nott’s former partners came forward and put in a claim on a big share of the Nott fortune. The Union trustees created another committee, one that recognized that this time no face-saving compromise would be possible. It concluded flatly that the president had defrauded the college and demanded immediate repayment. Keeping Union’s ship afloat required quietly but decisively throwing Nott’s reputation overboard.
Nott died in 1866 at the age of ninety-two, his financial sins largely unpublicized and his public reputation still largely intact. His many gambles finally paid off for Union College over the next four decades, not in a flood of money that would enable Union to remain in the top rank of American colleges but in a trickle that enabled it to just barely retain the Ramée campus. So how had Nott’s gamble fared? Union did not join the big three. Only in Schussele’s picture, and not in the American popular pantheon, does Nott rank alongside Fulton, McCormick, and his friend Joseph Henry. His Hamilton sermon and his thoughts on philosophy are as forgotten as Lord Kames.
Yet for all that, his gamble was a winning one. The Nott stove was a spectacularly successful piece of popular technology, vastly widening the use of anthracite coal to heat homes and touching more lives more directly even than the telegraph. The Nott stove helped the Albany-Troy-Schenectady triangle, which had been a center for foundries and stove works before Nott came along, remain “Stove Valley” for a long time. By 1850, in Troy alone, nearly seven hundred men at seven foundries turned out seventy-five thousand stoves a year.
Union College never changed its name to Nott University, but surely it should have. Nott’s educational ideas were sound both for his own times and for ours: science deserves a place as one of the liberal arts. Union has long since ceased to eclipse Princeton—in part because Princeton accepted Nott’s views, hired Joseph Henry as its professor of natural philosophy, and gradually raised science to a mainstay of its undergraduate curriculum and graduate program. Meanwhile, Nott’s philosophy took root in the nation’s state universities, in large part because of his student Henry Tappan, who established at the University of Michigan that combination of science and classics. And across the United States small, privately endowed colleges such as Oberlin, Swarthmore, Haverford, Reed, and many more contribute far out of proportion to their size to the nation’s stock of scientific manpower.
So do not paint Nott out of that group portrait. View him as a warning about too loosely mixing education and moneymaking. Put his inventions in perspective. But recognize that in terms of showing a young nation its way into the future—a future that would never return to the austere agrarian-based republicanism of the revolutionary generation but would come to terms with the unleashed forces of commerce, invention, and science—Eliphalet Nott won his gamble.