« AnteriorContinuar »
observation. When a mere boy, he was intent to learn all that was going on in the great world around him; and this appetite for knowledge enabled him to lay up a body of reminiscences, drawn from his early youth and from every period of his life, which made him, in his old age, a truly instructive companion. He was an attentive and inquisitive spectator of the opening scenes of the revolutionary drama in Boston, from the massacre through all the intermediate events, including the destruction of the tea, to the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. He was equally well stored with facts in reference to men and things during all the subsequent period of his life; and what he knew he related in a style of narrative, such as those who enjoyed his acquaintance, can scarcely expect ever to find equalled.
In this connection it is necessary to remark,-as it was a distinguishing trait in the character of Dr. Prince, and one worthy of imitation by all,-that vigorous, unremitted, and universal as was his thirst for knowledge, it was invariably kept within the bounds of prudence, propriety and good feeling. Probably no man ever lived more free from the charge of being a prier into other persons' affairs, or a tattler of their failings. He did not appear to have a sense to discern the private frailties or follies of men. His lips were never known to circulate scandal or gossip. During his long ministry I do not believe that he has ever been even suspected of widening a breach by tale-bearing, of raising a laugh at another's expense, or of uttering a syllable to the disparagement of a single member of the community. All the notices he took, and all the cicumstances he related in which other men were concerned, were only such as could be made to point a general moral, and illustrate a principle of human nature, without affecting any individual injuriously. What I have now said will commend itself to his friends as a true and accurate feature of his character, and it strikingly illustrates his judgment and prudence, the integrity of his mind, the tenderness of his feelings, and his strong sense of justice towards all men.
His passion for knowledge, receiving a particularly strong bias from the manual occupation to which he served an apprenticeship, inclined him, with peculiar interest, to the pursuit and cultivation of the several branches of Experimental Natural Philosophy. On the 10th of November, 1783, just four years from the day of his ordination, when 32 years of
age, he communicated to the scientific world his improved construction of the Air Pump. His letter, giving the first account of it, addressed to President Willard, of Harvard College, may be seen in the first volume of the Memoirs of the American Academy. The present generation can form no conception of the interest awakened by this admirable invention, not only in this country, but throughout Europe. His name was at once enrolled among the benefactors and ornaments of modern science, and on that roll it will remain inscribed until science itself shall be no more. The philosophical journals of the day emulated each other in praising the scientific research and the profoundness of reasoning displayed in the construction. The American philosopher was allowed to have surpassed all former attempts in the same. department. His name is recorded, by an eminent writer, in connection with that of the famous Boyle, among "those who have improved the instruments of science and of whose labors we are now reaping the benefit."* The machine is still called, by way of distinction," the American Air Pump," and its figure was selected to represent a constellation in the heavens, and imprinted upon celestial globes.
His reputation was thus established among the first philosophers and mechanicians of his age. He received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Brown University, in Rhode Island, and was admitted to the several learned and philosophical societies of the country.†
It will not be expected of me to enumerate in detail the various improvements made by Dr. Prince in philosophical instruments. He introduced some of great importance into the microscope, and contrived an alteration in the kaleidoscope, by which a world of wonders, the brilliancy and glory of which transcend all that the eye of man ever contemplated, or his imagination conceived, was revealed to view, as existing in the darkest and roughest metals and rocks beneath our feet. His last work of the kind was a stand for a telescope. This was a great desideratum in science. As telescopes must be so made as to revolve in every direction,
* Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy, by George Adams. London, 1799, Vol. I. p. 44-54. Rees's Cyclopædia, Art. Air Pump. Analytical Review, July, 1789. Nicholson's Journal, Vol. I. p. 119. The best account of the American Air Pump is to be found in Dobson's Supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Art. Pneumatics.
† He was admitted a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Jan. 29, 1793.
horizontally and perpendicularly, it had always before been supposed necessary to support them on a point, upon which it was found impossible to prevent a greater or less vibration, thus introducing uncertainty, to some extent, into the observations of astronomers. Dr. Prince contrived a stand, on which the telescope rests in a solid bed, with perfect firmness, and at the same time is movable in every direction and by the slightest touch of the finger. The following is the conclusion of the description given by him of this ingenious structure, as published by the American Academy. "I made the brass work myself, and finished it on my birth day,-80 years old."
It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to Dr. Prince's claims upon the gratitude of the scientific world. His modesty and indifference to fame were so real and sincere that it never occurred to him to take pains to appropriate to himself the improvements and discoveries he had made.
Fortunately for the cause of science, his whole philosopical and literary correspondence has been preserved. All his own letters, and many of them are very elaborate and minute, containing full discussions, and, frequently, drawings executed by the pen, were carefully copied out into manuscript volumes. These manuscript volumes are the monuments of his genius, and the only record of his contributions to the cause of science. It was his custom, when he had made an improvement in the construction and use of a philosophical instrument, instead of publishing it to the world, to communicate a full description of it, by private letter, to the principal instrument makers in London. During his whole life, down to March 19th, 1836, the date of his last letter to Samuel Jones, of London, he has, in this manner, been promoting the interests of science, while his agency, to a very great extent, has been unknown to the public.
A long letter, occupying ten closely written pages, is found under the date of Nov. 3d, 1792, addressed to George Adams, of London, and containing a full description of an improved construction of the lucernal microscope. On the 3d of July, 1795, he wrote another letter to Mr. Adams, describing still further improvements in the same instrument. Without making any public acknowledgment of his obligations to Dr. Prince, Mr. Adams proceeded to construct lucernal microscopes upon the plan suggested by him. Shortly after the
death of Mr. Adams, which occurred in the latter part of 1795, an article appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, signed by John Hill, a distinguished cultivator of science, in which the importance of these improvements was shown at large, and illustrated by a plate. The writer stated that he had procured his instrument from Mr. Adams a short time before his death, and that Adams intimated to him, at the time, that he had been indebted for some important suggestions in its construction, to "a clergyman." The purpose of Mr. Hill's communication seemed to be, in part to make known the improvement, and in part to draw out the clergyman who had invented it. Dr. Prince's attention was directed to Mr. Hill's publication by his London correspondent, but I do not find that he answered the inquiry, at the time, or took any steps to secure the credit, with the readers of the Gentleman's Magazine, of the beautifully and truly ingenious construction which had attracted so much curiosity and admiration. He probably preferred to let the subject drop, rather than keep it before the public to the disadvantage of the memory of his friend.*
The fact that Mr. Adams neglected to make him known as the author of these improvements was, however, freely remarked upon by others. One of his philosophical correspondents, in a letter, dated London, March 3d, 1798, thus alludes to the subject: "I am rather surprised that the late Mr. Adams appears not to have made known the person to whom he was under so many and repeated obligations." But while such remarks fell from others, they were never known to pass the lips of Dr. Prince. The feelings they express were not permitted to enter his breast. It was a beautiful and most noble trait in his character, and one which was impressed upon the notice of every observer, that he was incapable of jealousy and suspicion. So far from allowing himself to harbor unkind feelings towards Mr. Adams, or to indulge the idea that he had treated him with injustice, he rejoiced in his reputation, delighted to promote his prosperity, and when he heard of his death was most deeply and tenderly affected.
After the death of Mr. Adams, his successor in business,
* Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 66, 2d part, 1796, pp. 897, 1080. When Mr. Dobson, of Philadelphia, published the Supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Dr. Prince caused Mr. Hill's description to be reprinted in it, under the article Optics.
Mr. Wm. Jones, sought Dr. Prince's correspondence in language of which the following is a specimen, extracted from a letter, dated London, Feb. 18, 1797: "A correspondence with you, sir, will be as flattering to me as it is desirable. I have long heard of your knowledge and expertness in science, and shall be happy to receive any communications that have resulted from your study and experience."
In a letter, dated July 3, 1797, Mr. Jones repeats his solicitations, as follows: "Your celebrity as a philosopher is not a little known in this country. Mr. Jefferson, many years ago, mentioned your name to me, and showed me the description of your air pump. A correspondence with you respecting science and instruments, will be highly gratifying to me, and what small leisure an unremitting attention to business will permit, I shall be happy to snatch occasionally for your information."
The correspondence, thus commenced with this enlightened and philosophical mechanician, was continued with him, and after his death, with his brother, without intermission, to the close of Dr. Prince's life, and became the foundation of a sincere and most interesting friendship. It is indeed delightful to witness the genial influence of scientific pursuits upon the affections, binding together the hearts of those between whose persons an ocean had always rolled.
The letters of Messrs. William and Samuel Jones are full of expressions of admiration and gratitude towards Dr. Prince. In one of them, dated March 3, 1798, Mr. Jones says, "It is to to you that the Air Pump and Lucernal owe their present state of perfection and improvement." In another, dated September 29, 1798, he says, "In all respects I think you have made the Lucernal as complete and as simple as it can be made." Under the date of March 4, 1798, Mr. Jones acknowledges the adoption of Dr. Prince's "very useful and ingenious emendations" in the construction of the "astronomical lanthern machinery."
Thus a constant intercommunication of friendly offices was kept up for nearly forty years. The correspondence is creditable to the Messrs. Jones in every point of view. On the part of Dr. Prince, it contains a body of instruction such as can no where else be found, and would be regarded as an invaluable directory, by all whose business or whose pleasure it is to make use of the instruments of science.