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Bill Thayer

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The following text is reproduced from (the report of the) Twenty-Fourth Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy, June 9th, 1893.

 p105  William Holmes Chambers Bartlett
No. 429. Class of 1826.
Died, February 11, 1893, at Yonkers, N. Y., aged 89.

Professor Bartlett was born in September, 1804, in Pennsylvania, but as his parents removed to St. Louis while he was yet an infant, Missouri became the state of his adoption and his future home. During the period of his childhood and youth he had but few advantages, for his parents were not possessed of abundant means, and the opportunities for public school education were, in this comparatively new country, exceedingly limited. Notwithstanding these difficulties young Bartlett, by his great natural aptitude, very early attracted the attention of some of the more prominent men of his neighborhood, and they  p106 enlisted the influence of Senator Thomas H. Benton in his behalf so successfully, that he was appointed a Cadet to the Military Academy in 1822, when he was but little over seventeen years of age.

So successful was his career at West Point, that he soon placed himself at the head of his class and maintained this position throughout the whole four years' course, graduating in 1826 with the highest honors in a class of forty-one members. During the last two years of his Cadetship he served as an Acting Assistant Professor of Mathematics, having thus early displayed evidences of that talent and aptitude for scientific subjects, which afterwards gained for him so distinguished a reputation.

Upon graduation he was promoted into the Army as a Brevet Second Lieutenant of Engineers, but was retained on duty at the Academy as an Assistant Professor of Engineering until August 30, 1829. During part of this time he was employed as an Engineer in the construction of Fortress Monroe, Virginia, and from 1829 to 1832 in that of Fort Adams, Newport Harbor, Rhode Island. Subsequently he was assigned to duty in the office of the Chief of Engineers at Washington, where he remained until November 22, 1834, when he was returned to the Military Academy as Acting Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. This assignment was doubtless in anticipation of his full promotion to the full professor­ship, for he succeeded his distinguished predecessor, Professor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Edward H. Courtenay, when the latter resigned his position December 31, 1834, being appointed thereto by President Andrew Jackson, April 20, 1836. He administered the duties of this office until February 14, 1871, when, at his own request, he was placed on the retired list of the Regular Army as a Colonel.

The Military Academy dates its successful career as an educational and disciplinary institution from the assignment of Brevet Major Sylvanus Thayer to tis reorganization and government, in July, 1817. His strong salient points of mind and character, that eminently qualified him for the execution of this important trust, were, according to General Cullum, — "decision,  p107 firmness, analytical power, organizing capacity, knowledge of agents, skill to control, high aspirations, purity of purpose, stainless honor, enlarged views, and towering ambition." The enlightened and cordial support of John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, for the first eight critical years of his administration, and of Secretaries Barbour and Porter, during the remainder of his sixteen years of continuous command, enabled him to thoroughly impress these valuable characteristics upon a sufficiently large number of pupils, graduates of the Academy, who, in their turn, have happily exemplified his wise prevision in their lives and conduct.

This is especially true of three of his pupils, who afterwards administered for over forty years, the three most important departments of instruction at the Military Academy. These were: Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mahan, of the Class of 1824, Professor of Military and Civil Engineering from 1830 to 1871; Bartlett, of the Class of 1826, Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy from 1834 to 1871; Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Church, of the Class of 1828, Professor of Mathematics from 1837 to 1878. All were head men of their respective classes and each established his respective department of instruction on essentially the same basis as it exists today. Mahan, the talented geometrician, Bartlett, the thorough analyst, and Church, the clear expositor, though very diverse in their special characteristics, were solidly united in their love and devotion for the Academy. The record and traditions of the Academic Board clearly demonstrate that the wonderful creation of Thayer's genius, received by these able men as a sacred trust, has been faithfully administered and transmitted, not only unimpaired, but with added luster, to their successors of to‑day.

Professor Bartlett, on assuming the duties of his department, continued the text-books and methods of his predecessor, until he was able to make suitable modifications more advantageous to his pupils. Mechanics was taught from Courtenay's translation of Boucharlat until September, 1850, when it was replaced by Bartlett's Synthetical Mechanics. Some opposition having developed against this work, on the ground that it was of too elementary a  p108 character for students familiar with the calculus, he prepared his Analytical Mechanics to replace it, and the latter was adopted as a textbook August 29, 1853. His "Treatise on Optics," the first of his text-books to be prepared, was introduced into the course February 16, 1839, and it continued to be used until it was superseded by his less difficult, but more comprehensive work, "Acoustics and Optics," September 27, 1852. "Bartlett's Spherical Astronomy," adopted by the Academic Board September 5, 1855, was the last of his series of scientific text-books. While all of these works were of a high grade, clearly and concisely written, and valuable contributions to the higher scientific education, his lasting fame will rest more solidly upon his Analytical Mechanics. This work passed through nine editions and was used in many institutions of well established scientific reputation. He always expressed a just pride in the success he had attained in its preparation, and it exhibits in a marked degree the special tendency of his own talent for generalization. He distinctly perceived that all natural phenomena are nothing more than particular exhibitions of a great general law, but yet capable of being most simply expressed by a single formula. His perception of this great truth is thus eloquently expressed in his preface:

"The design of the author is to give to the classes committed to his instruction, in the Military Academy, what has appeared to him a proper elementary basis for a systematic study of the laws of nature. The subject is the action of force upon bodies — the source of all physical phenomena — and of which the sole and sufficient foundation is the comprehensive fact, that all action is ever accompanied by an equal, contrary, and simultaneous reaction. Neither can have precedence of the other in point of time, and from this comes that character of permanence, in the midst of endless variety apparent in the order of nature. A mathematical formula which shall express the laws of this antagonism will contain the whole subject, and whatever of specialty may mark our perceptions of a particular instance, will be found to have its origin in corresponding peculiarities of physical condition, distance, place and time, which are the elements of this formula.  p109 Its discussion constitutes the study of Mechanics. All phenomena in which bodies have a part are its legitimate subjects, and no form of matter under extraneous influences is exempt from its scrutiny. It embraces alike, in their reciprocal action, the gigantic and distant orbs of the celestial regions, and the proximate atoms of the etherial atmosphere which pervades all space and establishes an unbroken continuity upon which its Divine Architect and Author may impress the power of His will at a single point and be felt everywhere. Astronomy, terrestrial physics, and chemistry are but its specialties; it classifies all of human knowledge that relates to inert matter into groups of phenomena, of which the rationale is in a common principle; and in the hands of those gifted with the priceless boon of a copious mathematics, it is a key to external nature."

Twenty years later, in the ninth edition of the same work, in referring to this formula, he says: "That formula was no other than the simple analytical expression of what is now generally called the law of the conservation of energy, which has since revolutionized physical science in nearly all its branches, and which, at that time, was but little developed or accepted. It is believed that this not only was the first, but that it even still is the only treatise on Analytical Mechanics in which all the phenomena are presented as mere consequences of that single law."

It is greatly to Professor Bartlett's credit that he held firmly to his purpose of laying the solid foundations of scientific principles in the minds of his pupils, and never yielded in after years to the more ephemeral and easier methods of the modern schools. He recognized the great and lasting value, to the young officer in his future military career, of brain development by the methods of analysis, and the vital importance of teaching him to think and reason for himself. His course of instruction was always regarded as the most difficult at the Academy, but its mastery gave an increased self-confidence and a readier willingness on the part of the pupil to meet manfully greater difficulties. his illustrative lectures, familiarly known to the Cadets as "Experiments," were always eagerly anticipated and were full of interest and  p110 instruction, given as they were in an easy, fluent, conversational style.

In his daily intercourse with his pupils he had a kindly and considerate manner; very patient and forbearing up to a certain point of dullness or stupidity. In such cases when the slower operation of the student's mind failed to point out the very evident next step, then he sometimes lost his patience and his temper, only however for a moment, for his kind-hearted affection was soon made manifest by renewed attempts at elucidation. He was very much beloved by his pupils for he always greeted them in a kindly manner, and was interested in their personal affairs in a fatherly way. His disposition was sunny and genial as a general thing and he was able often to gain many advantages for the Academy by overcoming opposition by gentle persuasion rather than by open antagonism. His devotion to the Academy was unbounded and so great was his love for the work he had to do with his classes, that when circumstances unexpected by him forced him to decide whether he should remain at the Academy or accept the very advantageous position pressed upon him in 1871, he found the decision not an easy one to make. It was only because the duties of the new position which he accepted demanded for a considerable period the continuous employment of all his analytical powers, that he was enabled to bear the separation from his Alma Mater with reasonable composure.

This change in his life was brought about in this way. Some time previous to his retirement he had been invited to examine into some questions relating to life insurance, as presented by the Mutual Company, of New York, and with the assistance of his colleague, Professor Church, he made an exhaustive study and report on the whole matter. This proved to be so valuable that he was not only invited but urged by the President of the Company, Mr. Frederick Winston, to accept the position of Actuary, and which he finally did. The remaining active years of his life were devoted to his new duties, and it was not till at the age of eighty-five he sought a well earned repose in his home at Yonkers, on the Hudson. In the performance of his duties as Actuary  p111 he found time to solve many interesting problems, the results of which he published under the title "Mortuary Experience of the Mutual Life Insurance Company, of New York, from 1843 to 1874."

Near the close of the Academic season of 1840, Professor Bartlett, desiring to improve the course of Theoretical and Practical Astronomy, applied to the War Department for permission to visit and inspect the workshops and observatories of Europe. His application was favorably considered and his request at once granted. His report, submitted to Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Totten, Chief of Engineers, Inspector of the Academy, on February 16, 1841, is a masterly description of the principal observatories at Greenwich, Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, Armagh, Edinburgh, Paris, Munich, and Brussels. After his return he made use of the knowledge he had gained in the equipment of the observatory of the Academy.​a A fine Transit was purchased November 7, 1842, and the Mural Circle July 16, 1844. With these as working instruments, to which was afterwards added a good Equatorial, he devoted all the time he could spare from the exacting duties of instruction in other branches of his course, to the faithful observation of the heavenly bodies and to such computations as were necessary for their reduction. The success that many of his pupils afterwards attained in the important boundary and exploration surveys testifies in a high degree to the value of his course of instruction, and to the thoroughness that he exacted from his pupils in their astronomical work.

He contributed many articles of a scientific character to the literature of his day, one of which, entitled "Strains on Rifled Guns," was of such value as to be preserved in the publications of the National Academy of Sciences. He had the honor of being one of the Corporators of this Institution, March 3, 1863, and was a member of the Philosophical Societies of Philadelphia and Boston. The College of New Jersey, Princeton, New Jersey, conferred the degree of A. M. on him in 1837, and Geneva College that of LL. D. in 1847.

While engaged in the construction of Fort Adams as a  p112 young officer of Engineers he had the good fortune to engage the affections of Miss Harriet Whitehorne, daughter of Samuel Whitehorne, a merchant of Newport, Rhode Island. They were married February 4, 1829, and have enjoyed the rare felicity of loving companion­ship for more than sixty-four years. Of the eight children, the fruit of that union, three sons and two daughters are yet living, spared to comfort the loving mother and devoted wife in her declining years.

Professor Bartlett died at Yonkers, New York, February 11, 1893, in his eighty-ninth year, a sincere believer in the doctrines of Christ and in the hope of a blessed immortality.

P. S. M.

Thayer's Note:

a It was in 1841 that the West Point Observatory was established; Bartlett is properly considered its founder.

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