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No. 419:
Eliphalet Nott

Today, we build a university. 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.

I'll bet you've never heard of Eliphalet Nott. Nott was a child prodigy, born just before the American Revolution. He was educated for all of two months at a small college that later became Brown University. But Nott could talk. By the age of 25 he was minister of a fancy church in Albany, New York.

Nott was eloquent. When one parishioner killed another in a duel, he wrote a sermon that helped end dueling in America. By the way, those duelers were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

At 31 he was made president of Union College. Religion and classics were all they taught at Union, but Nott had other ideas, "Go with Newton," he cried in his inaugural address. "Span the heavens and number and measure the orbs."

He added scientists to the four-man faculty. He married a wealthy widow and began gambling her fortune on the school. It grew, but Nott wanted more. He set up a money-raising lottery. By 1830, Union was our third largest college. Only Harvard and Yale were bigger. Nott started a basic academic reform. He was first to divide the curriculum. You could now major in either science or classics. Students flocked to the science program.

Nott wanted more. So he turned to invention to expand the college. He styled himself as a philosopher of caloric -- of heat -- and he developed a new stove to burn anthracite coal. He didn't really know any thermodynamics, but he was a relentless promoter. By 1832 he was selling his stove, and he'd killed all its competitors in the courts. But it was still not enough.

He tried to raise more money by forming a company to make steamboats. When it went belly-up, trustees reviewed his tangled finances. Historian George Wise tells us what they found. He'd used college funds "interchangeably with his own," and his high rolling was "dangerous to the morals of the young ... " They struck a deal with Nott. They'd hush the business up, but he'd give a big chunk his shady fortunes to the college when he died. He fooled them on that one. He lived to the ripe age of 92.

By then, Princeton had gone where Nott had tried to take Union. They'd copied Union's double curriculum and become our largest university. Union went on to quiet respectability.

How would you weigh the life of Eliphalet Nott? I wouldn't want him for my university president. But we were just coming out of the forests to invent America. With a hint of restraint, Nott might've made Union into one of the great colleges. In the end, he'd helped create the modern university. More than that: he'd put on quite a show along the way.

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

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Wise, G., Reckless Pioneer. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring/Summer 1990, pp. 26-31.