Science and Technology

The history of science and technology in Tennessee dates to the early settlement era when explorers recognized the geological and botanical diversity of the state. Soon after the initial tasks associated with homesteading were completed, a survey of the mapping and geological resources of the state began. Gerard P. Troost, who arrived in Tennessee from New Harmony, Indiana, in 1827, played the most important role in this work. In 1831 he became the first Tennessee state geologist, adding the duties of completing a geological survey to his teaching responsibilities at the University of Nashville. Tennessee became the fourth state to undertake a geological survey, but whereas other states abandoned the effort, Troost continued this work until his death in 1850. His reports were published in several languages, and his students mapped ten other states. In addition, Troost’s many protégés taught geology in numerous colleges and universities and edited scientific journals. Interest in geology and mineralogy continued in the post-Civil War era under the influence of James M. Safford and Joseph B. Killebrew.

Several other Tennesseans later achieved prominence in exploration and mapping as well. In the mid-nineteenth century, Matthew Fontaine Maury, who grew up in Tennessee, mapped the seas, discovered the Gulf Stream, and laid the foundations for the National Weather Bureau. His oceanographic work earned him the sobriquet “Pathfinder of the Seas.” At the end of the century, Edward Emerson Barnard combined his interests and knowledge in astronomy and photography to make the first photographs of the Milky Way. He discovered one of the moons of Saturn and a ninth magnitude star in the constellation of Ophiuchus, which is named in his honor. In the twentieth century P. V. H. Weems wrote the award winning textbook Air Navigation (1931); taught air navigation to Charles Lindbergh; patented the Mark II Plotter and other apparatus and methods for navigators’ timekeeping; and established the Institute of Navigation. Toward the end of his life, he taught a pilot class in space navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy. William R. Anderson, another naval officer, commanded the nuclear submarine Nautilus in its pathbreaking voyage under the polar icecap, and Rhea Seddon became one of the first American women to travel into space and conduct experiments.

Troost maintained a collection of fossils, minerals, artifacts, and botanical specimens at his Museum of Natural History in Nashville. His research and the collection excited the curiosity of other educated Tennesseans, who emulated his collections and developed impressive skills as nonprofessional collectors and observers. In both the antebellum period and the post-Civil War era, faculty members at Tennessee academies, colleges, and universities prided themselves on their collections of artifacts and fossils. Interest in natural science acquired such public support that both men and women studied geology in many colleges and academies.

Interest in fossils developed along with a fascination for the artifacts from earlier human activity in the state’s prehistoric past. Tennesseans quickly recognized the archaeological wealth that lay below the surface, and early historical societies determined to collect, document, and preserve these artifacts. In 1877 the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its twenty-sixth Annual Meeting in Nashville, the first such meeting in the South after the Civil War. During the course of the meeting, much attention was given to geology and Indian culture, and some participants opened nearby Indian gravesites at Fort Zollicoffer or joined post-meeting excursions to explore the botanical and geological characteristics of southeast Tennessee.

Like that of other southern states, Tennessee’s industrial development lagged behind its agricultural production throughout the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the state led the South in antebellum iron manufacturing, an area where local ironmasters proved technologically innovative. Soon after Montgomery Bell purchased the Cumberland Furnace from James Robertson, he gained a reputation as a profit-minded iron manufacturer. In 1818 Bell purchased land at the Narrows of the Harpeth River, an area in Cheatham County where the Harpeth River loops back in a four-to-five-mile reverse that drops some seventeen feet. There his slaves constructed one of the nation’s earliest man-made tunnels through the Narrows. Bell offered the area as a site for a federal armory, and after the government passed on the offer, he established Patterson Forge on the site.

In post-Reconstruction Tennessee, enthusiasm for technological progress among proponents of a “New South” outran the financial means to implement a program of statewide industrialization. Local boosters championed railroad construction, promoted the establishment of textile mills and iron manufacturing, and encouraged the expansion of telephone and electrical services. At the 1877 AAAS meeting, Nashvillians experienced their first telephone call, when copper line was strung from the home of Sarah (Mrs. James K.) Polk to the nearby home of Adam G. Adams. Though the two houses were within shouting distance, neighbors talked and played piano pieces over the wire, to their great amusement. At that same meeting, urban leaders looked to science to provide cost-effective measures to supply cities with clean water and improve public health while educators promoted mechanical and agricultural studies in elementary and secondary schools to create a more scientifically oriented class of farmers and workers.

Similar demands reappeared at the state’s Centennial Celebration in 1897. Promoted by railroad interests, the exposition carried out a theme of technological advancement, deliberately contrasting the innovative and mechanical methods of “modern” farmers and workers with the outdated techniques of more traditional (and presumably less enlightened) farmers and laborers. Like other forms of boosterism, the Centennial Exposition promised a future made easier and more productive through technology.

By the turn of the century, many Tennesseans could take advantage of several technological innovations. Wives of prosperous farmers enjoyed the use of sewing machines and the “Busy Bee” washer. Farmers consulted the columns of urban newspapers for weather information, crop prices, and agricultural advice–all made more readily available through advances in communications, information gathering, and lowered costs in printing. Residents of the county seats built generating plants to provide electricity, installed telephones, and piped water to homes.

Many of the conveniences associated with town living were made accessible to mill workers as industrial leaders looked to the state for supplies of raw materials and low-wage workers. Refining the latest technology to allow undereducated workers to perform what would otherwise be complex operations, companies ranging from Bemis Brothers Bag Company in West Tennessee to rayon mills in Elizabethton and Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport employed thousands, housing them in company towns that, while not lavish, offered many modern conveniences. In Memphis, technological changes produced new uses for the area’s staple product, cotton. Cottonseed and cotton linters, earlier discarded, became valuable products as the cottonseed oil business emerged with the new industrial focus on chemical production. Likewise, World War I put new emphasis on cotton linters in the production of smokeless powder, while the development of rayon fiber added to the value of the cotton by-product.

At the same time that Tennessee mill workers entered new industrial areas and began living in company towns, farmers experienced the not always welcomed intrusion of railroads and mining and timber companies. Farm families who had always maintained a self-sufficient lifestyle now found themselves drawn into a cash-based market economy. Many farmers felt the “threats” to family life more challenging than the economic changes. The market economy offered non-agrarian opportunities to young men and women, challenged traditional folk knowledge, and, many believed, undermined religious training. The lightning rod that attracted the unfocused rural concerns was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Concern about the social and religious implications of Darwin’s scientific theory of natural selection had percolated under the surface since the 1870s. Although newspapers printed jokes about evolution, and progressive-minded reformers proclaimed no conflict between science and faith, the problem occasionally surfaced in academic circles. Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, the featured speaker of the 1877 meeting of AAAS, shocked conservative Nashvillians when he declared that evolution was scientific truth. The following spring Vanderbilt University trustees abolished the position of Professor Alexander Winchell for his defense of the theory of evolution. The degree to which Tennesseans of all intellectual talents remained skeptical of evolution or remained silent in the face of public opinion can be seen in the 1925 enactment of the Butler Bill. A prosperous farmer, community leader, and Primitive Baptist from Macon County, John Butler proposed a law to prohibit the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower form of animals.” (1) Neither the fledgling Tennessee Academy of Sciences nor the University of Tennessee officially protested.

Spurred by dreams of economic revival, entrepreneurs in Dayton inveighed upon John Thomas Scopes, a young high school biology instructor, to allow himself to be charged with breaking the new law and test its constitutionality. The ensuing trial brought notoriety to the town and state but hardly enhanced the reputation of either. The “Monkey Law” remained on the statute books until 1967; Scopes’s conviction was overturned on a technicality; and Dayton acquired the present Bryan College. Arguably the most important outcome of the trial and the scathing publicity surrounding it was the articulation of the defense of southern tradition prepared by the Vanderbilt writers and historians known as the Agrarians. The 1930 publication of their position, entitled I’ll Take My Stand, offered a statement of principles that attacked the “Cult of Science” and industrialization as “extravagant” and the enslaver of human energy. These intellectual agrarians argued that industrialization, the product of technology, devalued labor, rendered employment insecure, created consumer-driven societies, undermined religion and the arts, and destroyed the amenities of life.

Unfortunately for the proponents of a more traditional lifestyle, the state had arrived at the moment of monumental economic and social transformation, as first the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and then Oak Ridge and related wartime industries brought a massive shift in population from the countryside into the towns and cities, and the ready availability of cheap electricity altered the way Tennesseans lived, worked, and played. In 1933 the Tennessee River Valley became the living laboratory for one of the largest technological and social experiments in history.

Having identified the South as the nation’s number one economic problem, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the transformation of the Tennessee Valley the centerpiece of his New Deal legislation. Charged with providing flood control, fertilizers, and electricity to the area, the TVA uprooted farmers, provided jobs, created parklands, reforested depleted woodlands, broke the power of private utility companies, attracted outside investment, and built model communities. Suddenly, technology and science in the form of a federal agency provided answers to poverty, poor education, and limited opportunities. Though not all Tennesseans welcomed the changes, many rallied to the support of the new agency–though not always for the same reasons–in anticipation of a more technologically oriented future.

In the wake of this federally inspired and federally financed change, Tennessee became the backdrop for the transformation of scientific research when Anderson County was named as a site for the ultrasecret Manhattan Project. Providing isolation, an abundance of cheap electricity, and a patriotic workforce, Oak Ridge became, in the words of Wilma Dykeman, the twentieth-century frontier. In the development of Oak Ridge, both as a wartime research installation and in its continuing role as a national laboratory, Tennesseans participated in the transformation of science. Until the wartime institutionalization of science on behalf of national interests, American scientific research had been conducted largely by individual scientists. Working in academic, industrial, or private laboratories, they usually addressed technological problems; the development of scientific theory remained the specialty of Europeans. Often poorly funded, scientific research depended in large measure on the generosity of individual benefactors.

World War II in general and the Manhattan Project in particular transformed scientific research into “Big Science.” Utilizing the theoretical knowledge of an international academic community, the technological expertise of the American industrial community, and the funding of the federal government, Oak Ridge portended the future of science. The project drew scientists from a global community, but its scope (and mandatory secrecy) compartmentalized the research so that each team of scientists and technicians worked on a single facet of the project without having the knowledge of and/or the responsibility for the whole. The demands for technical support and specialized equipment also surpassed the financial abilities of business or educational institutions. Tennessee and Tennesseans moved to center stage as the pioneers in the nuclear age and the advent of modern scientific research.

The development of “Big Science” profoundly affected the state’s higher educational system. Professors of chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, and biology quickly recognized Oak Ridge as an academic and research bonanza. The proximity of the University of Tennessee made it a natural beneficiary, but other public and private institutions also developed working relationships with the government’s laboratories. At UT, department heads in physics and chemistry quickly moved to provide Oak Ridge scientists with joint appointments at the university and to acquire consulting appointments at Oak Ridge for themselves and their faculty. In the immediate postwar years, UT developed its first Ph.D. programs; not surprisingly, they were in chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

Graduate students and university faculty were not the only beneficiaries of the technological and scientific changes instituted by the TVA and Oak Ridge and later by the Arnold Engineering Development Center at Tullahoma. The presence of three high-profile facilities attracted other industries and technological support services. By the mid-1950s state educators recognized the need for an expansion of higher education facilities to accommodate the rising numbers of potential college students (as baby boomers came of age) and to provide technical education to prepare Tennesseans for the modern job market. By the time the state implemented the recommendations advanced in the 1950s, emphasis had shifted from the establishment of a single four-year institution to the construction of several two-year community colleges and additional technology centers which now are within easy driving distance for most Tennesseans.

Although nostalgia for a simpler life beckons Tennesseans, most of the state’s citizens, like most Americans, are wedded to the scientific and technological world in their work as well as their lifestyles. A glance at local economies shows Tennesseans producing automobiles and auto parts, staffing hospitals and ancillary laboratories, and manufacturing synthetic fibers, paints, and plastics. Nobel Prize-winning scientists now conduct their research in Tennessee laboratories. Tennesseans are engaged in space exploration, genetic mapping, the development of designer drugs, transplant surgery, computer programming, environmental and ecological research, and the development of new energy sources. Tennessee courts have made new case law as they determined the fate of frozen human embryos. Local school boards grapple with the competing demands of parents who want the latest scientific knowledge for their children and those who want to insert creationism into the science curriculum. Having rescued the land from the ecological disasters of the early twentieth century, Tennesseans face renewed environmental problems, some of which have been generated within the state and others that arrive on the air currents and streams that enter from other areas. As in previous generations, Tennesseans remain more comfortable with science that provides answers than with science that theorizes. In 1996 the Tennessee General Assembly debated evolution again, this time without acting on their words. In this area, as in its newfound identification with modern science, Tennessee continues to act as a microcosm for the development of national issues.

Suggested Reading

Joe P. Dunn and Howard L. Preston, eds., The Future South: A Historical Perspective for the Twenty-first Century (1991); Leland Johnson and Daniel Schaffer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory: The First Fifty Years (1994); Thomas K. McCraw, TVA and the Power Fight, 1933-1939 (1971); James Summerville, “Science in the New South: The Meeting of the AAAS at Nashville, 1877,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 45 (1986): 316-28; Alvin Weinberg, The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer (1994); Margaret Ripley Wolfe, Kingsport, Tennessee: A Planned American Community (1987)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Science and Technology
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 15, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018