Biography of Robert Hare


Robert Hare was an American chemist who developed high temperature blow-pipe and a voltaic battery having large plates, used for producing rapid and powerful combustion, called a deflagrator. Robert Hare was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 17 January, 1781. He was a son of Robert Hare, Sr., an English emigrant who early established a largebrewery in Philadelphia and Margaret Willing, and nephew of Thomas Willing, the political leader and president of the Bank of North America.

As a young man, Hare attended the Academy of the University of Pennsylvania, the highest level of formal education he would receive. Possessed of an innate mechanical aptitude, at Penn, Hare developed a passion for chemistry while attending the lectures of James Woodhouse, and in later years the pairing of instrumental and intellectual prowess made him one of the foremost chemical experimentalists and technical innovators in the nation.

The Hare’s hydrostatic blow-pipe

Before he turned 20, Hare had begun to experiment toward a method of generating higher temperatures than possible in contemporary furnaces, adapting a keg from his father’s brewery to develop an instrument he called the hydrostatic blow-pipe – the oxyhydrogen blowtorch. This was an instrument in which oxygen and hydrogen, taken from separate reservoirs, in the proportions of two volumes of hydrogen to one of oxygen, are burned in a jet, under pressure. It gives a heat that will consume the diamond, fuse platinum, and dissipate in vapor, or in gaseous forms, most known substances. He was able to melt sizeable quantities of planium with this blowpipe.

The small pamphlet that Hare wrote to describe his invention, “Memoir on the Supply and Application of the Blow-Pipe” (Philadelphia: Chemical Society, 1802), brought him international renown when it was republished in the prestigious English Philosophical Magazine and the French Annales de Chimie. The elder Silliman, who was engaged with him in a series of experiments with this instrument in 1802-’3, subsequently distinguished it as the “compound blow-pipe.” ” This apparatus,” says Silliman, “was the earliest and, perhaps, the most remarkable of his original contributions to science.

” He read a supplementary paper giving an “Account of the Fusion of Strontivres and Volatilization of Platinum, and also a new Arrangement of Apparatus ” before the American philosophical society in June, 1803. Later, it was discovered that when such a blowpipe flame acted on a block of calcium oxide, a brilliant white light resulted – limelight. His device was also the ancestor of the modern welding torches. Largely on the strength of this single invention, Hare was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1803 and was awarded an honorary medical degree by Yale in 1806, and frown Harvard in 1816.

Still barely in his majority, Hare continued to work for his father’sbrewery. Among his inventions in this time is the valve-cock or gallows-screw, by means of which communication between cavities in separate pieces of apparatus is made perfectly air-tight.

In 1809, the availability of the chair at the University of Pennsylvania vacanted by the death of Joseph Woodward opened an opportunity for Hare to turn his full attention to the subject he loved. After he was denied the appointment for lack of a medical degree, Benjamin Rush intervened to persuade the trustees to create a new position in the Medical School in Natural Philosophy. In 1810, Hare accepted, but since his course was listed only as an elective, he had few matriculants, and resigned two years later due to the lack of remuneration.

Returning to his father’s brewery, Hare entered into a bleak period. Assuming full managerial responsibilities for the brewery following his father’s death, Hare ran into financial ruin during the economic chaos of the War of 1812. His efforts to make a living at selling gases and running a druggist’s concern in Providence, Rhode Island (where his wife’s family resided), were unavailing, but his fortunes changed in 1818, when William and Mary College offered him a position as Professor of Natural Philosophy and later that same year, when theMedical School at University of Pennsylvania appointed him as Professor of Chemistry. He returned to Philadelphia and remained at the University for almost thirty years until 1847.

As an instructor, Hare was at his best with advanced students but was generally appreciated for his dramatic demonstrations of chemical principles, often employing apparatus he had developed himself. His “Compendium of the Course of Chemical Instruction” (Philadelphia: Auner, 1828) went through at least four editions before 1840, and is considered one of the most thorough chemical textbooks in antebellum America. Although he taught chemistry to an immense number of medical students, his greatest contributions to his field were as an experimentalist and an innovator in the production of chemical apparatus. Robert Hare was one of the first to use the electric measurements in chemical analysis applying a mercury electrode.

He also attained a high reputation as a chemist, and was the author of a process for de-narcotizing laudanum, and also of a method for detecting minute quantities of opium in solution. He was also responsible for isolating elemental boron and silicon, becoming the first American to produce metallic calcium, and was an active researcher in electrical theory and the devising of electrical apparatus. Among his most important inventions were the calorimeter (1819), the deflagrator (1821) for producing powerful electrical currents, the litrameter for measuring the specific gravity of fluids, a hydrostatic balance, a cryophorus, and a gas density balance. He donated his equipment to the fledgling Smithsonian Institution in 1849, only to have them destroyed by fire years later.

Hare’s hydrostatic balance. For comparing the densities of liquids by measuring the height of two columns of liquid produced by applying suction to the short centre limb. Comprising a three-limbed glass tube, with 250 mm of rubber tubing on the centre limb, mounted on a stand with a scale 61 cm long with the zero at the bottom. The column height readings are facilitated by means of two sliding distance rods which may be adjusted so that their lower ends just touch the free surfaces of the liquids.

Cryophorous. This demonstrates the principle of rapid freezing by evaporation. These can also be used as water hammers, demonstrating that water falls as a solid in vaccum.

Deflagrator is a form of the voltaic battery having large plates, used for producing rapid and powerful combustion. A modified form of this apparatus, devised in 1820, was employed in 1823 in volatilizing and fusing carbon. It was with these batteries that the first application of voltaic electricity to blasting under water was made in 1831, and the expertments were conducted under the direction of Dr. Hare.

Aqueous Sliding Rod Hydro-Oxygen Eudiometer, ca. 1830s. Robert Hare designed and used this eudiometer to measure the oxygen content of air in both chemical experiments and public health studies.

In 1839 Hare was the first recipient of the Rumford premium for his oxyhydrogen blow-pipe, and his improvements in galvanic apparatus. Dr. Hare was a member of the American academy of arts and sciences, of the American philosophical society (1803), and an honorary life-member of the Smithsonian institution. His contributions to scientific literature were large.

In Silliman’s “American Journal of Science” alone he published nearly 200 papers. He was also an author of many books, e.g. “Chemical Apparatus and Manipulations” (1836);” Compendium of the Course of Chemical Instruction in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania” (1840); ” Memoir on the Explosiveness of Nitre” (Washington, 1850).

Hare, however, was never simply a chemist. Besides contributions to scientific periodicals, he was the author of moral essays in the “Portfolio,” writing frequently under the pen-name of Eldred Grayson. He wrote poetry and fiction (“Standish the Puritan”,1850, and “Overling; or, The Heir of Wycherly”, 1852), and was a die hard, politically conservative controversialist, describing himself as a “Washington Federalist” well into the 1850s. He wrote “Brief View of the Policy and Resources of the United States ” (Philadelphia, 1810).

Beginning with his “Defence of the American Character, or, An Essay on Wealth as an Object of Cupidity or the Means of Distinction in the United States” (Philadelphia: s.n., 1819), a work that first appeared in the Federalist “Portfolio”, Hare wrote frequently on banking, finance, currency, tariff, and social order, almost always assailing those principles he identified as “Jeffersonian” or as leading to social-leveling.

Hare was not loath to participate in discussions of the major social issues of his day, including the abolition of slavery and the clash between capital and labor. A firm believer in social hierarchy, he considered himself an antislavery man, though advocating that freed slaves be relegated to a circumscribed subordinate status in American society and compensating slave owners for any losses they incurred.

Importing freedmen to the north, he reasoned, would be beneficial to the former slaves – enabling them to be in closer contact with greater numbers of whites – but also financially beneficial to the northern community as a steady supply of cheap labor, and his fear of servile insurrection – creating the grounds for another Haiti – led him to adopt an authoritarian stance toward his social inferiors.

Never backing away from scientific controversy, Hare waded in to meteorology with an argument that tornadoes were the product of electrical currents in the atmosphere. Most famously, however, in 1854, he took on the task of testing Michael Faraday’s theory that Spiritualist table-tilting was the product of involuntary muscular actions. Ever an ingenious mechanic, Hare developed an apparatus he called the Spiritoscope, designed to detect mediumistic fraud, and in the process of testing his machine, he became a Spiritualist convert. His undeniable scientific credentials made him a particularly fortunate believer for the movement, and with the publication of his books “Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations” (N.Y.: Partridge and Brittan, 1855) and “Spiritualism Scientifically Demonstrated ” (New York, 1855), Hare became one of the best known Spiritualists in the nation.

Concomitantly, he drew the full wrath of the movement’s adversaries. After a public lecture defending Spiritualist investigation before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he drew calls for his expulsion from the organization, which appears only to have caused Hare to become more retrenchant in his views. Among Spiritualists, he was no less controversial. Never an orthodox religionist, his apparent agnosticism or atheism proved as unpalatable as it did to non-Spiritualists. Nevertheless, he went to his grave a firm belief in spirit intercourse. He died on May 15, 1858, leaving behind his wife, Harriett Clark, and six children.


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