NOAA reprint Charles Peirce: scholar, cartographer, mathematician and and metrologist NOAA reprint Charles Peirce: scholar, cartographer, mathematician and and metrologist


CHARLES PEIRCE, who died all but unknown in 1914, a sick, frustrated, poverty-ridden man, is today honored as one of the most original and versatile thinkers America has ever produced.

Philosophers honor him as the founder of pragmatism, logicians for his role in developing symbolic logic, mathematicians for his work in algebra, psychologists for his advances in perception theory, linguists for his contributions to the founding of semiotics (the theory of signs), and NOAA's National Ocean Survey (now the National Ocean Service) as one of its pioneering scientists.

Born Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced Purse) on September 10, 1839, he later added a second middle name, Santiago--Spanish for "St. James"--in honor of his friend and supporter William James. He was the second son of Benjamin and Sarah Hunt (Mills) Peirce, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he manifested an early interest in science. At the age of eight he began of his own accord to study chemistry, and at twelve he set up a chemical laboratory, experimenting with Liebig's bottles of quantitative analysis.

Young Peirce was stimulated during his childhood both by acquaintance with his parents' friends in the scientific, legal, and literary professions, and by the rigorous education given him by his father. Benjamin Peirce, who later became Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey (forerunner of the National Ocean Survey), was one of America's foremost mathematicians, Perkins Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Harvard University. He was also an inspiring and unconventional teacher, and a man of forceful character who supervised his son's education to such an extent that Charles Peirce could later say, "he educated me, and if I do anything in life it will be his work." Indeed, the young Peirce learned to read and write without the usual methods of instruction.

Benjamin Peirce trained his son in the art of concentration. From time to time they played rapid games of cards, from ten in the evening until sunrise, the father sharply criticizing every error. His main educational efforts with his son, however, were directed toward mathematical understanding.

The rigorous training was not immediately apparent when Charles Peirce entered Harvard University, in 1855, where, at the age of twenty-six he was awarded a bachelor of arts degree, one of the youngest in his class. But his scholastic record was poor. Undeterred, he went on to obtain a second degree of bachelor of science in chemistry, summa cum laude, the first of its kind. At Harvard, he ranked in the bottom fifth of his class. Despite his scholastic ups and downs, he was recognized as a student of exceptional promise.

Peirce's early interest in the sciences of fundamental natural phenomena was paralleled by his enthusiasm for the study of logic, the science of reasoning. His interest in science moved from chemistry to mathematics, and he sought training in the mathematically developed fields of physical science, including astronomy, physics and geodesy. Peirce's initial encounters in the physical sciences came from work he accomplished for his father.

Benjamin Peirce was employed as a part-time field investigator for the U.S. Coast Survey aiding in astronomical observations while holding his professorship at Harvard. It was this event that laid the groundwork for Charles Peirce's scientific career in the Federal government. In the summer of 1859, the Coast Survey employed young Peirce in a temporary position, similar to that of his father. The Coast Survey of that period was the nation's principal institution for research in the physical sciences in the United States. Charles Peirce readily developed technical expertise in geodesy and was appointed to a permanent position on July 1, 1861. For the first several years, he assisted his father with computations for the Coast Survey of the longitude of American astronomical stations with respect to European astronomical stations, for observations of the moon. His bent for astronomy began to show, to the point where he corrected computations made earlier by his father.

Charles Peirce was extravagant with money and had little interest in controlling his economic problems. While involved with the Coast Survey's tasks at Harvard, he took on lectures in 1864-65 at the College on the philosophy of science and joined a select group which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Elliott Cabot.

In 1867 Charles Peirce was assigned by the Superintendent of the Survey, Alexander Dallas Bache--great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin--to the Harvard Observatory. While there, he observed and measured for the first time several new lines in the spectrum of the Aurora Borealis.

Also during this period, he was assigned to a party which observed the eclipse of the sun in the United States in 1869. His father's eminence as a mathematician prompted the elder Peirce's appointment as Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey that same year. Charles Peirce was assigned additional duties by his father when he joined Benjamin Peirce's U.S. delegation for the observation of the eclipse of the sun in the Mediterranean on December 22, 1870.

Charles' professional ability was shortly recognized with his assignment to photometric research, work that would lead him into perhaps the most important period of his government career. On November 30,1872, his father instructed him to assume charge of the pendulum operations of the agency. His gravity work with pendulums led him to Europe, where he made observations on the oscillations of the pendulum in Geneva, Paris, and Berlin, and other locations. Three years later, while continuing his gravity investigations, he was asked to attend an international geodetic conference as the first American delegate so honored. Although he was appreciative of his European associates' recognition, he soon raised their eyebrows when he published a report on pendulum experiments and announced a hitherto undetected inaccuracy in the previously accepted standards for experiments on pendulums.

By the time of his return to the United States two years later, the dust had settled and his fellows in Europe had had the opportunity to investigate his results. Peirce received a vote of approval from the scientific community and was acknowledged both for having greatly increased the "correctness" of the studies and for his originality in pendulum work. He built upon this foundation in his later involvement with astronomy, gravimetry, spectroscopy, and geodesy.

As seen by Peirce, cartography had a practical application to those sciences and was related to his career. Peirce became interested in map projections in part because of what he called a lack of proper representation of the earth's surface on a flat piece of paper. Peirce pointed out that Mercator's map "represents all the surface of the earth by a strip, infinitely long . . . so that places near the poles are magnified . . . to be many times larger than the real surface that they represent." His interest in map making was further demonstrated in a report to Superintendent Patterson, dated July 17, 1879. He wrote that "the theory of conformal map projection has been studied with reference to its use in the study of gravity; and a new projection has been invented." Charles Peirce had added yet another credit to his growing list of achievements.

The Peirce projection was first called "quincunx," according to his entry in the Century Dictionary of 1889 which carried his article on "projections." Although archive records are not clear as to the date of completion of the projection, Peirce's article gave the date as 1876. Indeed, by February 26, 1877, he had reported to the Superintendent on the projection.

The "Quincuncial Projection," as it finally came to be known, has evolved through the ensuing decades as a basic cartographic tool, and was used by the Coast and Geodetic Survey for an international air route chart. Its characteristic of presenting conformal configuration of land areas with the whole sphere represented on repeating squares is ideally suited to approximate great circle routes. The straight lines of the air routes did not distort the land shape, thus achieving perfect balance.

At this time--the later part of the nineteenth century-- quantitative science, which requires exact standards of weights and measures, was given a firm foundation by the establishment of an International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France. Also during this period Peirce left his mark on the bureaucracy and emerged as an established leader in geodesy. The U.S.Coast Survey also formally identified its responsibilities, from the 1871 Act, for a geodetic transcontinental connection and altered its name to the "U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey."

From its inception, the Survey had been deeply involved with weights and measures. Colonial America under British rule used weights and measures of English origin. The principal units were the yard, the avoirdupois pound, the gallon and the bushel. These units were embodied in standards that were more or less authentic copies of the English standards. When a Swiss mathematician, Ferdinand Rudolf Hassler, was selected to head the new agency to be known as the "Survey of the Coast" (renamed the U.S.Coast Survey in 1836), he was directed to incorporate the U.S. control of weights and measures into his organization. Thus in November 1830 Hassler assumed the Directorship of the Office of Weights and Measures as part of the U.S. Coast Survey.

As the study of weights and measures evolved over the next 50 years, it came to rest with Charles Peirce who, on October 1, 1884, became the "Assistant in Charge" of the Office of Weights and Measures. He continued with this assignment until February 22, 1885, after which, for reasons unknown, he abruptly declined to serve. During this period a Joint Commission of Congress was formed under the Chairmanship of Senator William B. Allison "to consider the present organization of the Signal Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the U.S. Hydrographic Office of the Navy Department." On January 24, 1885, the hearings included testimony from Charles Peirce who stated,"the Office of Weights and Measures at present is a very slight affair, I am sorry to say." He proposed that the Office should be empowered to give certificates for weights and measures and a stronger organizational structure be considered. In view of his experience in metrology, Peirce was appointed to the Committee of Weights and Measures of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1888 he was also appointed by the President to the Assay Commission for United States Coinage.

Increasingly interested in philosophy, and increasingly dissatisfied with his government work, Peirce resigned from the Coast and Geodetic Survey on December 31, 1891, after 30 years of service. His efforts, however, had begun a movement that eventually led in 1901 to the creation of a separate agency, known today as the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology).

Charles Sanders Peirce closed a chapter of his life with his departure from government, and with his wife Juliette returned to his beloved homeplace "Arisbe," which he named after one of the Trojan cities mentioned in Homer's lliad. Arisbe is located in eastern Pennsylvania near the town of Milford, a few miles south of Port Jervis, New York. When the Peirces bought the house in 1888 it was a small square Victorian structure. Under Juliette's direction they enlarged it, adding extensions to the front and rear and a third floor where Peirce had planned to teach young students philosophy. Arisbe became the focal point of Peirce's energy, the place where he spent the last twenty-six years of his life writing most of the important works of his career.

Peirce began writing early in the morning and frequently ended in the wee hours of the following morning. At Arisbe he prepared the descriptions of his pioneering work in philosophy. He wondered why human beings have any knowledge at all; and in particular, he wanted to understand how people manage to increase the accuracy of their ideas. He wrote, "in my own mind all of my work has been exclusively the study of how to find out the truth, which is the business of reasoning in abroad sense."

During these long days and nights at Milford, Peirce's ponderings gave rise to the culmination of his years of thought, and provided the hallmark of philosophical identity, which he called Pragmatism. Peirce founded a whole new and important concept in philosophy, a uniquely American philosophical entity whose teachings stimulated international movements of thought. The theory of pragmatism clarified the conceptual stages used in philosophical discussion, by identifying "meaning" with "practice."

In 1898 William James, a noted American psychologist and philosopher of the period, first publicly used the term "pragmatism" and acknowledged Peirce's priority in the creation of the doctrine and the name it bears. Peirce disagreed with James' definition of pragmatism. In fact, when James heard Peirce lecture on the subject in 1903, he confessed that he did not understand him. Peirce soon rebelled against what he felt to be the twists that James and others gave his philosophical movement, and in 1905 coined the term "pragmaticism," which Peirce said would be "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers." Although upset with those who distorted his doctrine, he continued to develop his views and to school supporters of his thinking. He was a firm believer in the dependence or logic on ethics, argued as early as 1868 against individualism and egoism, and furthered social theories of reality and logic. His most important published philosophical contributions were contained in a series of five articles written for the Monist (a philosophical publication) between January 1891 and January 1893.

Charles Peirce had the opportunity to teach for only eight years during his lifetime. His longest academic connection was with the Johns Hopkins University, where he was a lecturer on logic from 1879-1884.

Molded from childhood into rigid patterns of thought, and graced with far-reaching insight into life, Peirce was often tormented by events. From his early adulthood he was plagued with trouble ranging from educational to marital. His first wife, Harriet Melusina Fay, was older than he, and like him had boundless energy. She joined him in his scientific work, was respected in Cambridge circles, and distinguished herself as an organizer and writer. They wered divorced in 1883, and soon thereafter he married Juliette Froissy of Nancy, France, with whom he lived until his death on April 19, 1914.

To Bertrand Russell, Peirce appeared "a volcano spouting vast masses of rock, of which some, on examination, turn out to be nuggets of pure gold." During his lifetime Peirce had only one book credited to his genius --"Photometric Researchers," published in 1878. After his death, Harvard's philosophy department, which had no place for him while he lived, found room for his papers which his wife sold in December 1914 to help meet his debts . Although his papers were unpaginated, and his life disorganized, his contribution was immeasurable. Eight volumes of his papers were published between 1931 and 1958. An additional four volumes of mathematical papers were edited by a Hunter College professor emeritus, Carolyn Eisele, in 1976.

What Charles Sanders Santiago Peirce could not attain in life, he achieved in death. Peirce scholars are found the world over. On May 6, 1963, the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey launched from Mobile, Alabama, a coastal survey ship, christened the C.S.S. Peirce in honor of its famous employee. During the United States bicentennial year, symposiums were held at Johns Hopkins University in his honor. A C.S. Peirce Bicentennial International Congress was conducted in Amsterdam the same year.

Peirce was a thinker's thinker--a man with a message and a Philosopher of Science. Today the Peirce Society, along with the National Park Service and several other state and federal agencies including NOAA's National Ocean Survey, await action by the Congress on a House Resolution that would establish a Charles S. Peirce National Historical Site in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The project would restore Arisbe as a center for philosophy and as an historical exhibit, a montage of those sciences Peirce so ably touched.