Today, we meet two very special teachers. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
J. Dorman Steele was born in 1836
in Lima, New York, the son of a clergyman. He finished
college, became a teacher, and was a principal at only
twenty-three. He married a music teacher, Esther Baker,
daughter of another clergyman, just before the Civil War.
In 1861, Steele raised a regiment and went off to fight
in Virginia. He was badly wounded, hovered for weeks
between life and death, and then finally returned to
another principal's post in New Jersey. From then until
J. Dorman died at the age of only fifty, he and Esther
worked together. They became major
late-nineteenth-century textbook writers. They also had
some very sound beliefs about teaching. When he found
discipline foundering in one of his schools, J. Dorman
I [became convinced] that the germinal idea of
discipline was self control; and that the true aim of the
schoolmaster was not to teach the pupil how to be
governed by another, but how to govern himself.
We might well remember that
when we're tempted to create discipline by imposing strict
controls. It was Steele who created the honor system, and
he had fine success with it.
The Steeles also believed that textbooks often became
self-indulgently long. They realized that textbooks must
also be self-disciplined. In 1867, J. Dorman published the
first of his Fourteen Weeks series -- a set of science
textbooks, each meant for a fourteen-week course. Most are
less than three hundred pages in length.
Esther and J. Dorman Steele also coauthored a Brief
Histories textbook series. There again is that fine
emphasis on brevity. One biographer thinks that these were
the best of the many Steele books.
But what I have are several of J. Dorman's science books,
and they're all fascinating. The fourteen-week physiology course seems
very old-fashioned since he wrote it just before medicine
began making huge advances. His physics book, on the
other hand, followed an enormous leap forward in that
field, and he was right on top of it.
He accurately articulates the new mechanical theory of
heat. He also tells us that radiant energy rides upon the
ether, which occupies all empty space. That idea was also
new, and it lasted until relativity and quantum theory
Fine illustrations draw you in, as does the prose. What
comes through is something that marks any great textbook.
It is love: love of the subject, love of teaching, love
for the students who use the book. Both Steeles were
fueled by strong religious imperatives. When J. Dorman
died, Esther wrote this on his tombstone:
His true monument stands in the hearts of thousands of
American youth, led by him to look through Nature up to
And the last line of his physics book is a piece of
advice equally valid as religious conviction or as
secular common sense. He says,
To the thoughtful mind, all phenomena have hidden
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Steele, J. D., Fourteen Weeks in Human Physiology.
New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1872.
Steele, J. D., Fourteen Weeks in Physics. New
York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1878.
Steele, J. D., Popular Chemistry. New York: A.S.
Barnes & Company, 1887.
Steele, J. D., and Jenks, J. W. P., Popular
Zoology. New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1887.
(This book was completed posthumously by Jenks. For more
on Jenks, see Episode 1071.)
See also article in the Cyclopaedia of American
Biography and other biographical dictionaries.
From Steele's Popular Chemistry
From Fourteen Weeks in Physics
From Steele's Popular Zoology
Steele shows an instructor how to use the blackboard
to illustrate the reflection and magnification of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.