William Barton Rogers

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William Barton Rogers

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Patrick Kerr Rogers and Hannah Rogers
Husband of Emma Jane Rogers
Brother of James Blythe Rogers; Henry Darwin Rogers and Robert Empie Rogers

Managed by: Private User
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About William Barton Rogers


William Barton Rogers (December 7, 1804 – May 30, 1882) was a geologist, physicist and educator. He is best known for setting down the founding principles for, advocating for, and finally obtaining the incorporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1861. The university opened in 1865 after the American Civil War. Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia, is named after him.

Early life

Rogers was born on December 7, 1804, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the second son of Patrick Kerr Rogers and Hannah Blythe and was of Irish, Scottish, and English extraction. Patrick Rogers was born in Ireland and had immigrated at the end of the 18th century to America, where he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and practiced medicine. When William Barton was born, Patrick Rogers was tutor at Penn. In 1819 Patrick Rogers became professor of natural philosophy and mathematics at the College of William and Mary, where he remained until his death in 1828.

William Barton Rogers had three brothers: James Blythe Rogers (1802–1852), Henry Darwin Rogers (1808–1866), and Robert Empie Rogers (1813–1884). The Rogers brothers would each grow up to be distinguished scientists.

Education and scientific career

Rogers was educated by his father, attended the public schools of Baltimore, Maryland, and also graduated from the College of William and Mary. He delivered a series of lectures on science before the Maryland Institute in 1827, and succeeded his father as professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at William and Mary in 1828, where he remained until 1835. During this time, he carried on investigations on dew and on the voltaic battery, and prepared a series of papers on the greensand and calcareous marl minerals of eastern Virginia and their value as fertilizers.

In 1833, his brother Henry had returned from England filled with enthusiasm for geology, and this had prompted Rogers to begin studies in the field. The practical value of his article on greensand caught the eye of the Virginia legislature. Rogers took this opportunity to lobby for a geological survey of Virginia, and he was called upon to organize it in 1835.

By 1835, his brother Henry was state geologist of Pennsylvania, and together the brothers unfolded the historical geology of the Appalachian chain. Among their joint special investigations were the study of the solvent action of water on various minerals and rocks, and the demonstration that "coal beds stand in close genetic relation to the amount of disturbance to which the inclosing strata have been submitted, the coal becoming harder and containing less volatile matter as the evidence of the disturbance increases". Together, they published a paper on “The Laws of Structure of the more Disturbed Zones of the Earth's Crust”, in which the wave theory of mountain chains was first announced. This was followed later by William B. Rogers's statement of the law of distribution of geological faults. These pioneering works contributed to a better understanding of the vast coal beds underlying some parts of the Appalachian region.

In 1842 the work of the survey closed. State revenues had shrunk beginning in 1837, and the funding for the survey had been cut back. Meanwhile Rogers had published six “Reports of the Geological Survey of the State of Virginia” (Richmond, 1836–40), though there were few copies, and recognition of their significance was slow to develop. They were later compiled by Jed Hotchkiss and issued in one volume with a map as Papers on the Geology of Virginia (New York, 1884).

In 1835 Rogers also began serving as professor of "natural philosophy" at the University of Virginia (UVA). There he added mineralogy and geology to the curriculum, and did original research in geology, chemistry and physics. While he was chair of the department of philosophy at UVA, he vigorously defended to the Virginia State Legislature the University's refusal to award honoris causa degrees, a policy which continues today. (Later, MIT would adopt a similar policy).

Longing for a more stimulating intellectual atmosphere and for other reasons, Rogers tendered his resignation from UVA in 1848, but was persuaded to remain at that time. In 1849, he married Emma Savage of Boston. Eventually, he resigned permanently in 1853, over disagreements about educational policy, and dismayed by the continuing dependence of the Virginia economy on slavery.

Rogers then moved to Boston, where he became active in scientific movements under the auspices of the Boston Society of Natural History and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in whose proceedings and the American Journal of Science his papers of this period were published. About 1859 he began to interest the people of Boston in his innovative scheme for technical education, in which he desired to have associated, on one side research and investigation on the largest scale, and on the other agencies for the popular diffusion of useful knowledge. This project continued to occupy his attention until it culminated in the chartering of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1861), of which he became first president.

To raise funds and public awareness of his new Institute, Rogers delivered a course of lectures before the Lowell Institute on “The Application of Science to the Arts” in 1862. In 1861, he was appointed inspector of gas and gas meters for the state of Massachusetts. He accepted reluctantly. During his service, he improved the standards of measurement.

MIT Presidency

An act of the Massachusetts State Legislature incorporated MIT in 1861, and Rogers became its first president in 1862. He served as president of MIT until 1870, when he stood down because of declining health. By necessity, he returned to office in 1878 and continued to 1881, when he was made professor emeritus of physics and geology, which position he had held while he was president.

He died after collapsing during a speech at MIT's 1882 commencement exercises. His last words were "bituminous coal".

Other affiliations

Rogers was chairman of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists (AAGN; organized 1840) in 1845 and again in 1847, and contributed important memoirs to its Transactions, including observations on the temperature of coal mines in eastern Virginia. In 1847 he also called to order the first meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an enlargement of the AAGN. He was president of the AAAS in 1875, and elected its first honorary fellow in 1881, as a special mark of distinction. He was active in founding the American Social Science Association and its first president; also he was one of the corporate members of the National Academy of Sciences, and its president from 1878 until his death. In 1866, Harvard gave him the degree of LL.D.


Besides numerous papers on geology, chemistry, and physics, contributed to the proceedings of societies and technical journals, he was the author of:

Strength of Materials (Charlottesville, 1838)

Elements of Mechanical Philosophy (Boston, 1852)

Papers on the Geology of Virginia (New York, 1884)

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William Barton Rogers's Timeline

Age 78