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NO 10


One of the most interesting books of our time is the life of James Clerk Maxwell. It is so because the great attainments of the professor in science serve as effective back-ground for the very attractive personality of the man himself.

It is not given to all men to follow even, where Maxwell led. Indeed, the number who can read understandingly his scientific papers, appreciating thoroughly their value, is very limited. That this is so, emphasizes the fact that it is not altogether upon these contributions to science, that the secret of our great interest in the man depends. A man may be great to the profession because of his work. To the lay mind, the charm which most interests is the degree of intimacy it is able to establish between itself and greatness. We always are pleased and ready to make the personal acquaintance of greatness; and the character of the distinguished one is doubly attractive, when in this intimacy with common minds, it compels not less affection than admiration from them. The character of William Ferrel is very much alike to that of Maxwell.

Gentleness of disposition and evenness of character are to be found in the lives of most of those who are pre-eminent in science. Newton's comparison of himself to a boy on the seashore, is only the exemplification of the modesty and self-depreciation {P. 442} that quicken minds intent on knowledge, almost with the first aspiration. And herein, no doubt, is the reason why, with so many men of science, the affection with which their lives called forth remains when the admiration which their work elicited has subsided. The rule is so general that an exception serves but as an illustration. The life of Francis Bacon, with all its splendors, was a failure; because he did not display in his dealings with men the sincerity and integrity that are so strongly insisted upon, and are so essential in the experimental sciences. His manner of meeting the world, the scientific minds of our time know not, nor desire to know. It is foreign to their nature to win by yielding, and they wait rather than adapt themselves to the moment. Their ideal life is one marked by direct and steady, even if slow, progression, and not one in which progress, "like that of a tacking ship, is the resultant of opposite divergencies from the straight path." [Huxley, "Science and the Bishops." Nineteenth Century, October, 1887.]

The trait of character most marked in Professor Ferrel , is just this indifference to personal position, and an extreme diffidence. To better understand these traits of character, it is necessary to know something of the circumstances of birth and surroundings, and their probable influences. These, it would seem, were not calculated to help or encourage him in early life, in the following the natural bent of his mind. Some men are spurred on to fame, by the presence and admiration of friends. The opportunities seem to but await the man; and his success is none the less creditable, even if under such stimulus. But in equity, the more credit must be adjudged the man, successful under drawbacks, than to another reaching an equally exalted station, but whose whole career had been favored by all that weighed against his competitor. This must be remembered in making, not improperly, I think, a comparison between two men, Maxwell and Ferrel, very much alike in disposition and bearing, working in fields not far removed, but under somewhat different circumstances of life. Maxwell was the brightest intellect that ever paused to spend itself on problems of light and electricity. Ferrel in a less pronounced career, with care {P. 443} and in quiet, built a science, and lifted meteorology from a mass of observations and description, with a few self-appearing general laws, to an exactitude requiring the most refined methods of mathematical discussion. Maxwell's character, like his work, is beyond criticism. His life was without flaw, and we love his memory. Yet, "adverse circumstance," in Maxwell's career, was a factor altogether unknown. The honors which he bore so well, came to him, in both time and degree, as they should. With Ferrel, in this relation, it has been very different, and his lot has been the usual one of a long, wearying struggle against difficulties. His explanation of the effects of centrifugal force, and his theory applying it to the general atmospheric circulation, were in print many years before proper recognition of their importance came. The first of his papers bearing directly upon meteorology, was published as early as 1856. It was in the form of essays, contributed to the Nashville Journal of Medicine and Surgery. The intention of the author was to show a possible explanation, in the deflective effects due to the earth's rotation, of the general circulation of the atmosphere. The diminution of atmospheric pressure at the poles and equator, and the increase at the tropics; the gyratory motion of storms and the deflected courses of ocean currents, Ferrel sought to explain, as the necessary consequences of forces which have their origin in the rotation of the earth on its axis. This line of reasoning, furthermore, accounted for, without straining of facts, the prevailing wind directions in the middle latitudes. In 1858-60, the ideas advanced in the earlier paper, which, in addition, had been printed in small pamphlet form, were treated of in a more extended paper, and contributed to Runkle's Mathematical Monthly, and also reprinted in pamphlet form shortly after. This paper was again reprinted under the title, "Motions of Fluids and Solids on the Earth's Surface," as one of the Professional Papers of the Signal Service.* [Professional Papers, No. VIII. Reprinted with notes, by Frank Waldo.] In this paper Professor Ferrel proposes a complete analytical investigation of the general motions of fluids surrounding the earth, as determined by given forces arising from the combined effects of attraction, {P. 444} and the rotation of the earth on its axis. The first half of the paper is occupied with the discussion of the general equations of motion relative to the earth's surface. It is necessary to have these equations set forth clearly and understood at the outset, as they are the working tools of the author in his solutions of the various problems mentioned above. The more important of the results obtained by these methods, and given in detail, in the latter half of the paper, are:

1st. A fluid mass surrounding the earth, and assuming that the resistance to its motion, offered by the earth's surface, is not considerable, will have a figure, the surface of which is slightly depressed at the equator, bulges out at about the latitudes of 35o , and is depressed at the poles much more than at the equator.

2nd. Between the parallels of 35o and the poles, the motion of this fluid will be easterly, while between these parallels and the equator, this motion will be westerly. This gives an explanation for the trade winds, altogether different from the theory ordinarily given, in which it is assumed that the tendency of the lineal velocity of the air, to remain the same, when moving to and from the equator, results in these winds.

3rd. A body free to move on the surface of the earth experiences a force, arising from the earth's rotation, tending to give it a right-handed deflection in the northern hemisphere, and left handed in the southern.

< The general laws as stated above received considerable attention and discussion; in France, soon after publication, particularly at different sittings of the Academy. In this country and England they seem to have passed without comment until recent years, when more attention has been directed to the study of meteorology. They are now recognized by all prominent writers as fundamental propositions in the study of meteorology. The direct outcome of the application of these methods of reasoning to the general motions and pressure of the atmosphere, is, in brief, the recognition of deflective effects in general movements, and in particular or [of?] storm movements of the atmosphere; the determination of the places on the earth's surface where east and west motion of the atmosphere is destroyed, or {P. 445} in other words, the regions of calm belts, the maximum heights of atmosphere, near the parallels of 30o, and the general circulation of the winds. These last may be remembered, more easily, by the aid of a comparison made near the end of the third section of the paper.* [Professional Papers of the Signal Service, No. VIII, page 40.] "The general motions of the atmosphere in each hemisphere form a grand cyclone, having the pole for its centre and the equatorial calm belt for its limit." The denser portion of the atmosphere, however, is in the middle, and we have descending currents at the pole or center of the cyclone, instead of the ascending currents so familiar in the ordinary cyclone where the more rare portion of the atmosphere is in the center.

Incidentally, the explanation of the destructive elements in a tornado follows from our author's theory, and it gives the only explanation, accounting for the peculiar features of storms of this class.** [For an exposition of Ferrel's Theory of Tornadoes, the reader is referred to Davis's "Whirlwinds, Cyclones and Tornadoes," p. 82, et. seq.] The center of a tornado may become nearly a vacuum under the influence of centrifugal force developed by the gyratory motion of the atmosphere. Similarly with water-spouts. The explanation of their origin and energy follows, as a matter of course. "A water-spout is generally first formed above, in the form of a cloud, shaped like a funnel or inverted cone. As there is less resistance to the motions in the upper strata than near the earth's surface, the rapid gyratory motion commences there first. The cold air above is drawn down, and coming in contact with the warm and moist atmosphere ascending in the middle of the tornado, condenses the vapor and forms the funnel-shaped cloud. As the gyratory motion becomes more violent, it gradually overcomes the resistances nearer the surface of the sea, and the vertex of the funnel-shaped cloud gradually descends lower, and the imperfect vacuum of the center of the tornado reaches the sea, up which the water has a tendency to ascend to a certain height, and thence the rapidly ascending spiral motion of the atmosphere carries the spray upward until it joins the cloud above, when the water spout is complete." ***[P. 40, loc.cit.]


In 1856, Professor Ferrel wrote an article on "The Problem of the Tides," for Gould's Astronomical Journal (IV, 173) and in 1858 he published in the same journal (V. 97, 113), "Influences of Earth's Rotation on the Motion of Bodies."

Professor Ferrel's mathematical papers on the motions of the ocean are of equal significance with those on the motions of the atmosphere. The familiar "Essay on the Winds and Currents of the Ocean"* [No. I. of the "Popular Essays."] had its origin in the following way: In conversation with his friend, Dr. W. K. Bowling, [Professor then (1854) in the Medical College at Nashville, Tenn. Editor of the Nashville Medical Journal, and always a warm friend of Professor Ferrel.] Ferrel mentioned his having read Maury's "Physical Geography of the Sea," and his disagreeing with him on many points. Bowling desired him "to pitch into him," as he expressed it, and furnish a review of the book for the Medical Journal. Ferrel declined to do so, but at length consented to furnish an essay on certain subjects treated in the book, and notice Maury's views a little in an incidental way. The essay is the first of six, which have since been reprinted in Professional Paper No. XII of the Signal Service. They may be found also:

"Essay on the Winds and Currents of the Ocean" -- Nashville Journal of Medicine, 1856.

"Motions of Fluids and Solids Relative to the Earth's Surface." - American Journal of Science. 1861.

"Cause of Low Barometer in the Polar Regions and in the Central Part of Cyclones." -- Nature, July, 1871.

"Relation Between the Barometric Gradient and the Velocity of the Wind." - American Journal of Science, November, 1874.

"Meteorological Researches. Part II. Cyclones, Tornadoes, and Water-Spouts." -- American Journal of Science, July, 1881.

The last paper may be found in full, as Appendix 10 to the Coast and Geodetic Survey Report for 1878.

These essays, together, make the most admirable contribution to the popular knowledge of meteorology yet given by any one mind. Unlike his other essays, they do not require, on the part of the reader, a very high mathematical knowledge. The type {P. 447} of a purely professional paper is the one entitled, "Researches on the Temperature of the Atmosphere and the Earth's Surface."* [Professional Paper No. XIII of the Signal Service.] This discusses the subjects of solar radiation, actinometry and general temperature distribution, and is not adapted for general reading. Professor Ferrel's latest contribution to meteorology - "Recent Advances in Meteorology"**[Part II, Chief Signal Officer's Report, 1885.] - is the best summary of the principles and results of meteorology in existence. There is no attempt at description of instruments, but there is the fullest and best discussion of the problems of meteorology and the different questions of research that can be found anywhere. From 1882 to 1886, Professor Ferrel engaged in the work of the Signal Office, reserving, however, a part of his time for the Coast and Geodetic Survey, with which he had for many years been connected. It was in 1857 that he first became interested in the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, receiving from Professor Winlock, the then Superintendent, through Dr. B. A. Gould, an invitation to assist in the computations of that work. Professor Ferrel was then teaching school at Nashville, Tenn. Removing to Cambridge, Mass., in 1858, he began the preparation of his paper on the "Motions of Fluids and Solids Relative to the Earth's Surface," and followed this in 1862 with a paper read before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, entitled, "Note on the Influence of the Tides in Causing an Apparent Error of the Moon's Mean Motion." At this time, it had been shown by Delaunay and Adams that the lunar theory did not give the observed acceleration of 11" per century, as had been supposed, but only about 6", and there was needed something to account for the balance. The object of the paper was to show that, upon a very reasonable and probable lagging of the tides, the effect might be sufficient to cause this, by changing a little the length of the day, the unit of time.

This paper was read only a few weeks before Delaunay read a similar paper before the French Academy. About this time Professor Ferrel placed before the National Academy of Science, {P. 448} on the invitation of Professor Pierce [sic, Benjamin Peirce], a paper containing his discovery of two converging series with simple laws expressing the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle. This was subsequently published by the Smithsonian Institute. *[Contributions, No. 233.]

About the same time began the famous "Tidal Researches," originally intended for publication by the Smithsonian, but, on account of the author's connection** [ In 1867, soon after taking charge of the Coast Survey, Professor Pierce (sic, Peirce) offered Mr. Ferrel a position in that office, with the special duty of discussion of tidal observations.] with it at the time, published by the Coast Survey. Following these came a series of papers: "Meteorological Researches for the Use of the Coast Pilot," Part I; "On the Mechanics and General Motions of the Atmosphere," in 1875, Part II; "Cyclones, Tornadoes, and Water-Spouts," in 1878, Part III; "Barometric Hypsometry and Reduction to Sea Level," in 1881.

In 1880, Professor Ferrel became interested in the subject of a "Maxima and Minima Tide-Predicting Machine." A paper was read on this subject at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at Boston, and in the following year its construction was begun by the Coast Survey, and it is now in successful operation for tidal prediction at the office in Washington.***[Report Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1883.]

Professor Ferrel was born in Bedford County, Pa., January 29th, 1817. When twelve years of age, his father moved to a farm in Berkeley County, Va. The boy was kept rather closely at work on the farm, but completed his common school education; and even in that country school-house, with its oiled white paper instead of glass for window-panes, the mind of the future mathematician showed itself in the love for diagrams and odd scraps of scientific intelligence. The first money ever earned, (and it was not enough), went for the purchase of a copy of Park's Arithmetic. The child was too diffident to ask his father for money to buy a book, but with 50 cents earned in harvest time walked to the store in Martinsburg, only to find that the price {P. 449} of the book was 62 cents. The storekeeper, however, let him have it for the amount he had. As a young man, astronomy seemed to fire his interest, and without aid other than stray mathematical works afforded, he worked out many problems in connection with eclipses of the moon. The doors of his father's barn were of soft poplar, and upon these the youth, ostensibly engaged in threshing, drew any number of diagrams, describing circles with the prongs of a pitchfork, and drawing lines with one of the prongs and a small piece of board. Often in later years, in visiting the old homestead, the Professor would look up these diagrams. In 1839, Ferrel entered Marshall College, Mercersburg, Pa. He was always in advance of his class in mathematics. After reaching the Junior class, he spent two winters teaching school in Virginia. He then entered Bethany College, and was one of the first class to graduate from that institution, July 4, 1844. The years following were spent mainly in school-teaching, until asked to aid in computations for the Nautical Almanac. It is noteworthy that in his whole career Professor Ferrel never once sought position. Every official position has been offered him without solicitation on his part.

As an illustration of his diffidence to put himself forward in any manner, we may instance an incident in connection with his paper on "The Effect of Tidal Action in Causing an Apparent Acceleration of the Moon's Motion." This paper, containing original and important suggestions, he carried to the meeting of the American Academy at Boston time and time again, with the intention of reading, but lacked assurance. It was read at last, but deferred so long that it barely anticipated the investigations of Delaunay on the same subject. Professor Ferrel is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of Boston, of the Washington Philosophical Society, and honorary member of the Austrian Meteorological Society, of the Royal Meteorological Society, London, and of the German Meteorological Society.

A.M. [Alexander McAdie]

St. Paul, Minn., January, 1888.

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