Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1935:
WILSON, BEFORE AUDUBON

by John H. Lienhard

Today, an unlikely ornithologist. 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.

America's first great ornithologist was not James Audubon, but Alexander Wilson. And he was born, not in America, but in Scotland, in 1766. His father was a reformed smuggler, who worked as a merchant when Alexander was young, and then went back to smuggling.

As a late teenager, Wilson became a peddler and a would-be poet. Robert Burns was, by then, the rock star of Scottish poetry, and Wilson wanted to be the next Burns. He published his first book of poetry when he was 24 and, though he appears to've had the poetic voice, he did not yet have Burns' imagination. To do what Burns had done, you had to do more than just sound like him.

Wilson's poetic career took an unsavory turn when he wrote a poem accusing a local factory owner of cheating his workers. Instead of publishing the poem directly, he sent it to the owner anonymously, saying he'd suppress it for a price. Big mistake! He was convicted of blackmail and so destroyed by the whole mess that he fled to America in 1794.

He became a schoolteacher in Delaware. Meanwhile, his attention veered off to the birds he was seeing in America. He began honing his knowledge of birds and his skill as an artist. When he reached the age of forty, he was secure enough in his new abilities that he set out to catalog American birds. He solicited subscribers to a projected series of lushly illustrated books on ornithology. He even got Thomas Jefferson to buy into the project.

Over seven years time, he traveled ten thousand miles throughout America. He wrote eight volumes of his Ornithology. They contained illustrated and detailed descriptions of 264 species. Forty-eight had been previously unknown. With all that work and wilderness travel, he finally died of dysentery in 1813. To've done all he did in just a few years time was astonishing. And he left his entire estate to a woman he'd known back in Delaware.

When Wilson met Audubon in Louisville, he asked him to subscribe to the series. Audubon smiled and showed him his own splendid drawings. Wilson was deeply chagrined by their fine quality. Yet biographer Robert Cantwell remarks that Wilson did not paint decorations, but birds as they existed in nature. His unity of text and drawing was actually much better than Audubon's. Wilson's volumes came out a decade before Audubon's and Wilson worked alone. Audubon hired other artists to complete his drawings.

Wilson may not have been either Burns or Audubon. But the strengths of both fused in his work. Just after he'd become an American citizen he wrote a poem about eagles above Niagara Falls:

Now 'midst the pillared spray sublimely lost,
And now, emerging down the rapids tost,
Swept the gray eagles; gazing calm and slow
, On all the horrors of the gulf below.

It's all there, in a scant four lines: Wilson's Romantic vision, his love of birds, and his celebration of a lush new country.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


A. Wilson, Wilson's American Ornithology. Arno and the New York Times, 1970. This is a direct reprint of an emended edition of Wilson's collected work with the imprint, Boston: Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1840.

W. Stone, Alexander Wilson, Ornithologist. Leading American Men of Science, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910, pp. 51-69.

R. Cantwell, Wilson, Alexander. Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.

The Life and letters of Alexander Wilson. (Clark Hunter, ed.) Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1985. (For the poem that I quote, and its context, see pg. 76.)



Alexander Wilson
Gold-winged Woodpecker

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.