Amos Eaton

Tragedy to triumph marks life of Rensselaer Institute leader

Story by Record Reporter Susan Graves
Teacher and scientist Amos Eaton had a life beset by tragedy His determination and love of science prevailed over adversity. He lost his childhood sweetheart, four wives, and five of his children. Through it all, he never allowed personal trauma to conquer him.

Eaton became the first senior professor and the first professor of civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was a vital force in the early development of the school. He is recognized as the first to use the laboratory method in a regular course in science. Under his leadership, RPI not only organized the first laboratories for chemistry and physics for the teaching of regular courses, but also introduced field work in the U.S. through excursions devoted to the study of botany and geology.

Eaton, born in 1776 in Chatham, practiced law before he turned to science. He became associated with RPI-then known as the Rensselaer Institute-in 1824 when he was named associate professor of chemistry and experimental philosophy and lecturer in geology and land surveying by Stephen Van Rensselaer, co-founder of the school.

At Eaton's suggestion, a course in engineering and technology was established. The first degree in civil engineering and technology was established. The first degree in civil engineering to be conferred in the world was given to graduates of the class of 1835.

Henry S. van Klolster, in a speech in 1941, said Eaton's life was similar to the title of a book. "Life Begins at Forty." "Eaton at forty years of age, and with two thirds of hi life behind him, began life anew," according to an article by Jack Scanlon in the Rensselaer Polytechnic. Dr. van Klooster, at an RPI faculty-trustee dinner in 1941 said, "His fame rests on what he did after having reached full maturity. His career as a practicing attorney and land agent ended in failure. He was convicted on what we now know was framed evidence for forgery and sent to prison at hard labor for life." Gov. DeWitt Clinton granted him an unconditional pardon in 1817.

In science, he had a ready ability to adapt things and was seldom at a loss for instruments, which he made from simple materials. According to "The Biographical Record of the Officers and Graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute," Eaton was one of the first in the country to study nature in the field with his classes. As a result of his studies, in 1818 Troy had a more extensive collection of American geological specimens than at any institution in the country. Eaton published a geological survey of the district adjoining the Erie Canal, "The Natural History of the State of New York" in 1824.

Eaton was one of the few professors who gave enthusiastic support to Emma Hart Willard's school, then known as the Troy Female Seminary. "He not only taught Mrs. Willard in various subjects, but while women were being trained to teach the sciences, he himself taught at the seminary, taking charge of the new department which had been introduced at his suggestion and which contained science courses in advance of those in most men's colleges," according to "Russell Sage College the First Twenty-Five Years."

Eaton died in 1842.

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