1902 Encyclopedia > Benjamin Silliman, Sr.

Benjamin Silliman, Sr.
American chemist and geologist

BENJAMIN SILLIMAN (1779-1864), American chemist and geologist, was born in 1779 at Trumbull (then called North Stratford), Connecticut. His father, Gold Selleck Silliman, was brigadier-general in the war of the revolution, and had also held important civil positions. The history of the family points to an Italian origin, but Daniel Silliman, the first to settle in the United States, came from Holland. Silliman received his early education at Fairfield, Connecticut, at that time the residence of his father's family, and in 1792 he entered Yale College, where he graduated in 1796. He then studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1802, while a tutor in Yale College, to which position he had been appointed in 1799. In 1802 a professorship of chemistry and natural history was established in the college, and he was at once elected to fill it. He spent portions of 1801 and 1802 in Philadelphia in preparation for his work, and the year 1804 he spent in Europe, chiefly in England and Scotland, where he attended the lectures of Hope and Gregory, and also formed the acquaintance of Davy, Wollaston, Brewster, Leslie, and other eminent men of science. As a result of this visit he published A Journal of Travels in England, Holland, and Scotland, and of Two Passages over the Atlantic in the years 1805 and 1806 (2 vols., 1810), which had a marked success. In 1813 he began service with the medical department of Yale College as professor of chemistry and pharmacy, and continued to give instruction there for many years. In 1818 he founded the American Journal of Science and Arts, a periodical devoted to the physical sciences, which has been, and is, the most important American scientific serial. In 1851 he made a second journey to Europe, of which he likewise published an account in two volumes, edited by his son, who had accompanied him. In 1853 he became professor emeritus, but he continued to lecture for a year or two longer. His closing years were quietly spent in unabated mental activity at New Haven until his death in 1864. Though devoted to scientific pursuits, he interested himself in the public movements of the time.

One of Silliman's earliest scientific publications was an account of the famous meteorite which fell in Weston, Conn., December 14, 1807. This account, which excited great public interest in the country, was reproduced abroad, and was read before the Royal Society of London, and also before the French Academy. Among his other scientific labours may be mentioned his experiments upon the fusibility of various substances in the flame of the com-pound blowpipe of Hare, then a novelty in science, and upon the vaporization and transference of the carbon in the voltaic arc from the positive to the negative pole, which he was the first to observe. He also repeated the experiment by which Gay-Lussac had separated potassium from its hydrate, and obtained the element in its metallic form, doubtless for the first time in the United States. Other professional labours were an exploration of the coal formations of Pennsylvania in 1830, and an examination of the gold mines of Virginia in 1836. In 1832 and 1833, by appointment of the United States Government, he made a scientific investigation of the culture and manufacture of sugar, embodying his results in a voluminous report published by the Government. Though Silliman published a large number of scientific papers upon chemical and geological subjects, his reputa-tion was more especially due to the courses of public lectures which he delivered in the college and in various cities and towns of the United States. The happy combination of a graceful and interesting style with unwonted splendour of experimental illus-tration gave these lectures an unprecedented popularity, and they exerted a powerful influence in awakening and developing a taste for scientific matters throughout the country.

Besides the works already mentioned, Silliman published in 1808 an American edition of Henry's Chemistry, with notes, in 1827 an edition of Bakewell's Geology, and in 1830 Elements of Chemistry, in two volumes. An account of his life, by Prof. George P. Fisher, of Yale College, was published in two volumes in 1866.

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