Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2032:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a conservative voice in a radical cause. 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.

Almira Hart was born in Connecticut in 1793. She came from a long line of New England aristocrats. Like my own grandmother, she was the youngest of her father's seventeen children. Almira was educated by her older sister, who did a fine job. Almira went on to become a science teacher.

You might expect to see seeds of social reform being sown here. Social reform was a hallmark of her family, and it was at the center of the lives of so many women science educators we've met in this series. But Almira was not stamped out of any familiar mold.

She married one Simeon Lincoln, and they had two children by the time he fell ill and died. Now thirty, she kept on teaching and she wrote her first science textbook, Familiar Lectures on Botany. She married again at 38 to a prosperous lawyer, John Phelps -- a father of six children. And they had two more children.

Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps kept writing textbooks. At 66, she became the second woman to be named a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Let's look at the 1850 version of her botany book. It tells a lot about Almira Phelps. Most textbooks in her day used either dialog or questions-and-answers, but not her. She believed in systematic exposition. She begins by telling us that the Universe is composed of mind and matter. Since God is immaterial and pure mind, the study of the mind takes two forms: theology and philosophy. The study of matter takes three forms: natural philosophy, chemistry, and natural history. Botany is a part of natural history.

Once all things are in their proper boxes, she begins an encyclopedic subdivision of botany. Her book exudes intellectual authority. She pauses only to tell us that some naturalists have, "to the great discredit of science ... formerly shown an unhappy tendency to skepticism."

I doubt she ever read that wonderful monk, Pierre Abelard, who said, "By doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiring we perceive the truth." She invites no questions. Indeed, she largely writes in the second person: "You have [now] been taught the principles [of] the Linnaean system." "After what you have now learned ... you will feel a new interest in ..." and so forth.


Almira Phelps strongly supported the radical cause of educational equality for women. Yet she was vocally opposed to women's suffrage. She wrote articles against women being allowed to vote.

Well, science is no list of facts -- it's a means of questioning. Phelps was a positive force despite her dislike of skepticism. Her books were vast reservoirs of information and, while that's not science, information is the grist of science. Her didactic authority caused others to accept her presence in a male arena. In the end, she advanced not only equity in education, but the very cause of suffrage that she so vehemently opposed.

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

(Theme music)

M. B. Ogilvie, Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century. (Cambridge: MIT PRESS, 1986): pp. 147-148. See also the article in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography.

A. H. Lincoln, Mrs. (Now Mrs. Lincoln Phelps), Familiar Lectures of Botany, Practical, Elementary, and Physiological ... (New York: Huntington and Savage, 1850). (All images on this page are taken from this source.)

A. H. Lincoln, Mrs., Familiar Lectures of Botany, Practical, Elementary, and Physiological ... (New York: Huntington and Savage, 1844).

I am grateful to Barbara Kemp, UH Library, for calling my attention to Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps.

Top figure below: some fine images in Phelp's book. Bottom: Phelps's disquisition against skepticism in science.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.