W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

Brief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. online

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but excellent books, Tom See became familar with Longfellow's
"Psalm of Life" by hearing this famous poem recited from time
to time:



" What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist."

"Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

"Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

"Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Finds us farther from to-day.

"Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

"In the world's broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

"Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;


"Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

"Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait."

It is undeniable that even in the boyhood period Tom See had
such pride that he dreamed of some day becoming a great man.
Thus the stanza:

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time."

seems to have sunk deep into his soul how deep, perhaps only
the record of his unrivaled achievements in mature manhood can
adequately tell. At any rate the fire of youthful ambition thus
enkindled by Longfellow's inspiring song never wholly died out;
for even in deepest adversity he still remembered vividly those

"Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again."

Thus it is believed that such poems, taken earnestly and sink-
ing deep into the subconscious mind, had a great influence in
moulding Professor See's career. The two conditions necessary
for this effect were a serious and earnest view of life, and a pro-
digious memory both of which Tom See had in the highest
degree. And with all he had resolute purpose to adhere to plans
once formed, and thus triumph over all difficulties, like the heroes
we read about in history.


While living at Loutre, within half a mile of the beautiful
river by this name, two astronomical events especially impressed
the boy Tom See. On the evening of January 1, 1877, the family
had retired early, after an active day about the farm, when, to the
terror and consternation of mother and children, a great meteor
suddenly appeared in the west and traversed the heavens with
a rapid flight towards the northeast. It was so bright as to cast
a brilliant light through the windows, and the shadows on the
floor moved rapidly around with the flight of the meteor, so that
the effect was very terrifying. Some thought it was so near as to
hit the barn, but a moment's observation showed it to be very far
away. Subsequent reports declared that it passed over central
Iowa. A blazing train was left behind, and a thundering noise
followed sometime after the meteor had disappeared.

At the time of this occurrence Noah See was absent from
home, on surveying work, and spending the night with Mr. Black,
near Wellsville. He saw the phenomenon and knew immediately
that it was a meteor. Needless to say, he watched its flight with-
out alarm, just as he had the brilliant star shower of Nov. 12, 1833,
in Virginia. He described the train of the meteor as equal to the
Moon in width, and ten times as long as it was broad, so that the
light was very intense. Great pieces of fire seemed to fall from
the meteor as it traversed the heavens, with dazzling splendor,
inferior only to the light of the Sun; and the earth was so lighted
up that the smallest objects could be seen on the ground, even in
a forest. The suddenness of the phenomenon and its great bril-
liancy inspired general terror and not only in human beings, but
even in animals of all kinds, which were awakened from their
slumbers as by an earthquake, and for some time could not be

The other event of special astronomical interest was the solar
eclipse of July 29, 1878, which was total in Colorado and Wyom-
ing. It so much cut down the sun's light in Missouri as to give
the afternoon the appearance of moonlight. The See boys were
at work in the fields, and on coming home found the rest of the


family and Squire McLoughlin of Williamsburg looking at the
Sun through a smoked glass. This eclipse interested the boy Tom
See almost as much as that of 1869 had the child, though the dark-
ness was only a great reduction of the Sun's light, the belt of total-
ity not having crossed over Missouri.

Loutre Creek is noted for its fine fish, and in those days the
See boys were great fishermen. At the end of the week, when
the farm work was done, they would go to the Creek for some good
sport. Noah See had built a boat, for use on the large hole of
water near the school house, and this added to the safety and
pleasure of the fishing, in which the boy Tom See was no laggard.
He liked to fish, though he cared little for hunting.

The Loutre region is hilly and heavily timbered, and the work
of the large farm included the felling of trees, rolling of logs, and
all manner of hauling, as well as plowing, planting and cultivating
the corn and other crops. Tom See participated in all such
work, and as this kept him in the healthiest of outdoor activity
it probably gave him the physique requisite for the hard mental
work he has since done in science. But for the work on the farm,
in boyhood and young manhood, it is practically certain that he
could not have achieved what he has in the way of discovery.

It is a common belief that discovery is a matter of genius, and
so it is; but genius itself is chiefly a matter of hard work and ever-
lasting perseverance. It was long ago remarked by Michael
Angelo, the celebrated Italian painter, sculptor and architect,
that genius consists in eternal patience. Another great authority
says it is the ability to do hard work. Professor See himself says
that genius is a combination of all these and more besides: " It is
the ability to do hard work, combined with eternal patience and
the faith that moves mountains." Without all these qualities
genius of the highest order does not exist; and the rarity of the
combination is the reason why we have so little genius of the first
rank. Modern society, as now organized and conducted, does
next to nothing to support the labors of genius; and therefore we
should wonder not that we have so little genius, but that we have


any at all, especially in those branches of human effort which are
without profit, such as scientific discovery. Professor See's de-
cision to be a scientist was a matter of gradual development, as
more fully set forth in the next chapter. In his boyhood he could
not forsee the opportunity, which came later, for devoting his life
to scientific research.

r~~In the month of October, 1879, the See family moved to the
large farm of 920 acres on Elkhorn Creek, three miles southeast
of Montgomery City, where the mother still lives. While feeding
the turkeys one winter morning of 1878-9, Noah See fell on the
sloping ground, about the Loutre residence, and fractured the
bones in his left foot, which confined him to the house for a time.
This led him to think of the greater safety of the level prairie for
an elderly person. Then too, it happened that the eldest son,
Filmore, was already feeding cattle on an extensive scale at Elk-
horn, where the pasture of nearly a thousand acres was at hand.
Mr. See and the eldest son were in partnership, and as the other
boys were nearing manhood, it seemed that the prairie offered the
best opportunity for the future. The family therefore quit Loutre
and settled permanently between Montgomery City and New

Before parting from Loutre in this narrative, however, we
may remark that a terrible tornado visited that region, Jan. 1,
1876, just a year before the great meteor appeared. Many of the
strongest trees were uprooted, and twisted to pieces, fences swept
away, and even crab apple bushes torn from the ground. In the
case of rail fences not even the ground rail was left in its bed.
This storm came unexpectedly about one o'clock in the afternoon
when the family had just finished dinner. Jacob Stewart, Esq.,*
of near Wellsville, an old time Virginian and a tried friend of the
terrible days of the Civil War, was stopping at the house, having
come on foot the day before to pay his taxes at Danville, and re-
mained over to recall the stories of narrow escapes which had

*A first Cousin of Margaret (Stewart) See, wife of John See, and Sister-in-
Law of Noah See.


enabled him and Mr. See to live through that desperate con-

As soon as it was realized that a storm was breaking, Tom
See and his brothers ran to the windows, only to behold the largest
oaks whirling and falling before the blast of the tornado. The
whole forest for a mile was in an uproar; but the center of the
cyclone had missed the house and passed nearer Loutre Creek.
The family immediately scattered to look after the animals on the
farm, now unrestrained by any fences, and Mr. Stewart, fearing
for the safety of his own family near Wellsville, struck out for
home. This terrible storm produced a deep impression on the
mind of Tom See, then a boy ten years old, but it is remarkable
that no fatalities resulted from the tornado, because the region
was thinly populated. The force seems to have spent itself on
the forests of Loutre hills, and but little damage resulted else-
where. Yet some of the large trees blown down had turned up
immense rocks as much as eight feet high, attached to their roots;
and for years the travelers along the public road wondered at the
scene of devastation presented to their eyes, and used to inquire
the particulars from Tom See and his brothers.

Aside from the occasional appearance of a comet in the
heavens, and floods of Loutre Creek, following terrible storms
of thunder and lightning, which are very common there, the
natural phenomena of most significant character have now been

It should be remarked, however, that little Tom See from
childhood had a great fondness for large trees, and especially for
trees of beautiful shape. Trees with snags or irregularities in
their limbs were considered by him very ugly, and he was con-
stantly devising ways and means to get rid of them. Once the
family went to church, when Tom was about three years old, and
he happened to sit near the window, where he could look out into
the neighboring forest. The snags on the trees interested him
much more than the sermon; and if he did not have a swinging
lamp to study, as young Galileo had in the Cathedral at Pisa, he


kept his mind on the improvements needed for beautifying the
symmetry and regularity of the grove of trees about the Church.
It is probable that this craving for regularity and symmetry in
the trees was an expression of the mathematical talents then
latent in the mind of the child. His mother had always been very
fond of trees, and Professor See to this day dearly loves a fine
forest, and will not allow any timber to be destroyed on his country

At the large estate of Noah See on Elkhorn,the school facili-
ties were no better than on Loutre. The boys were occupied with
the business of the farm, and as before school did not extend over
more than four months. During the winter of 1882-3, Tom See
missed school entirely. His eldest sister, Mrs. A. M. Weeks, was
much disturbed about his lack of suitable opportunity for extend-
ing his education. It happened that the Montgomery City School
was being improved, under a superior teacher, Professor A. L.
Jenness, who had been a student at Amherst, but had not gradua-
ted. Mrs. Weeks now besought her father to let Tom go to the
town school, by riding back and forth on horseback. After con-
siderable effort this plan was fixed upon, and Tom made the best
of his opportunities.

In this place it "may be noted that the teachers of Professor
See, during boyhood and youth, prior to his entrance at the Mont-
gomery City High School, Sept., 1883, were as follows:

1872- 3, Benjamin Elliott,

1873- 4, Benjamin Elliott,

1874- 5, Benjamin Elliott,

1875- 6, Lafayette Brelsford,

1876- 7, Miss Mattie Phipps,

1877- 8, Benjamin Elliott,

1878- 9, Mrs. A. M. Weeks,
1879-80, Miss Rhetta Lens,
1880-81, Miss Helen Huddleston,
1881-82, Miss Helen Huddleston.

From a photograph by Varnum, Montgomery City, Mo., 1883.

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At the Montgomery City High School, 1883-4, Professor See's
teachers were the principal, Professor A. L. Jenness, and Miss
Lillian Jones, first assistant.

The arguments used by Mrs. Weeks with her father were to
the effect that Tom was so talented that he ought to have a good
education. Others had made similar arguments before, and she
merely emphasized the current view. Senators Vest and Cockrell,
she said, could not always serve Missouri in the Senate; and Col-
onel A. H. Buckner would need a successor in Congress (this was
of course before the days of Champ Clark.) Noah See had a poor
opinion of the legal profession, as now carried on, and did not wish
any of his sons to adopt a profession in which he could not be
honest and preserve a good conscience. He had such a high
opinion of Tom's abilities and steady qualities that he was inclined
to think he would make a great man, if given an opportunity; and
as others in the community told him the same thing about the
promise of this son, he gradually came to favor more elaborate
education for him.

There were some other favorable circumstances which came
to Tom's support. About 1882 his father had purchased at low
price a large tract of land in Vernon County, by which he made
considerable money. Former United States Senator Waldo P.
Johnson of St. Louis said that Noah See made $10,000 by this
trade. It may have been more. And he added to it other tracts
of land also purchased at low price, till he had about 4,000 acres
in southwest Missouri. The increase in the value of this property
made Mr. See feel that his large family eventually would be well
provided for. When his older children were of school age he had
not been so well off, and could not so easily provide for their educa-
tion, as he now could for Tom's. There was some jealousy in the
family over this outlook, but it was felt to be right to provide for
Tom even if such full provision had not been made for others when
circumstances were less favorable.

There was one other more powerful reason than any other
why Tom had his way, namely, he was always a most industrious


and efficient worker, and his father saw that he would not waste
money or neglect opportunities. By strict attention to business
Tom came to enjoy his father's confidence more than any other
of his sons. He therefore entered the Montgomery City School
in the autumn of 1883, and kept going from home daily till May,
1884. Tom See was now seventeen, and quite tall, being almost
a six footer*. He was poorly trained in comparison with some of
the town boys, but they did not have the industry and determina-
tion which Tom had, and before spring came around he stood first
in the school.

He distinguished himself especially in geometry, physics,
and astronomy. For although there was no regular course in
astronomy, Tom had obtained at Jas. R. Hance's store a copy of
Steele's Fourteen Weeks in Astronomy, and read it with such ab-
sorbing interest that at the close of the term he delivered an origi-
nal composition on astronomy, which led Rev. Henry Kay to
remark that he saw in the effort made indications like those noticed
by the sculptor who saw a beautiful statue in a rough block of

It must not be supposed that this year at the Montgomery
City School was without its trials and hardships, and serious ones
at that. But the significiant fact was that the country boy of
energy, ambition and purpose, though entering but poorly pre-
pared, had distanced all his city competitors in the race for scholar-
ship. Tom See had made good in the general estimation of the
school and in the eyes of his teacher, and won the support of his
father to such other educational career as he might wish to enter
upon. He missed only two days of the school year, when the
creeks were beyond their banks and impassable; and on each of
these occasions he notified the teacher by U. S. Mail why he was
detained. No wonder his efforts commanded confidence, even
among doubting Thomases! Such serious and determined effort
had not been expected by anyone. At first the town boys had

* His present height is six feet four inches, and weight about 240 pounds, so
that he is a man of very commanding presence.


been inclined to laugh at the simple farmer from the country; but
before the year closed they saw their mistake, sighed that they had
lost in the race with him, and were in a more serious mood.

Before closing this account of Professor See's boyhood days,
mention should be made of the fact that he always had great taste
for art. While still occupied on the farm he would spend his even-
ings with books, or in drawing and copying pictures. He drew
a good picture of the great comet of 1882, which in 1910 was en-
graved in the second volume of Professor See's monumental work,
Researches on the Evolution of the Stellar Systems. His artistic
work included portraits, done with pencil, and resembling steel
engravings. Water color work was one of his favorite labors,
and he painted flowers and fruit after the manner of veteran artists.
This was all done without any teacher, and at such moments as
he could snatch from daily outdoor life on the farm. Some of his
drawings gained prizes at the Montgomery County Fair; and when
he entered the Missouri University in the autumn of 1884, Pro-
fessor Diehl, the Professor of Art, told him that they showed great
originality and artistic power. Since he became a scientist Pro-
fessor See has found no little use for his talent, by way of drawing
and illustrating, though naturally he has not cultivated art in a
professional way. Yet this childhood and boyhood tendency to
seek the true and beautiful gives the key to the labors of his life.




'E have already pointed out that Professor See as a youth
of seventeen had some difficulty in securing an opportun-
ity to attend the Montgomery City High School, but he
made good to such a degree that he fixed his eye on the State
University at Columbia, and none there were to oppose his going._)
Accordingly soon after the High School closed in May, 1884,
young Mr. See visited Columbia on a tour of inspection, to see
what the University looked like. He had a letter of introduction,
from a Mr. Lovelace, a former student of the University, to
Professor Paul Schweitzer, of the Department of Chemistry.

Columbia, in the first days of June, always wears a gay aspect,
in honor of the commencement week; but on arriving there young
Mr. See only looked about the town, walked over to the Univer-
sity, inspected the buildings, attended some services in the Chapel,
met and conversed with Professor Schweitzer, was introduced to
Dr. Laws, the President, who advised him to study agriculture
and return to the farm. It is a curious fact that Dr. Laws did
not encourage young Mr. See in the idea of a scientific career, nor
did the young man himself at that time think it prudent to discuss
his inmost hopes beyond a mere hint that he was interested in
science. Yet he satisfied himself that the University was an im-
portant center of learning, representing the State of Missouri,
and that it offered ample opportunities for his present needs.
Accordingly, after a stay of two days at Columbia, Mr. See return-

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Then a student at the University of Missouri. From a photograph by Douglass,
Columbia, Mo., 1886.


ed to his home at Montgomery City, to wait for the opening of
the University in the autumn.

A few words must now be added to explain Mr. See's early
interest in natural science. While attending school under Pro-
fessor Benjamin Elliott, during the winter of 1877-8, he had taken
up the study of physical geography in a very elementary way.
He used Monteith's Geography, which included an outline of the
theories of the interior of the Earth. Molten matter and volcanic
action henceforth were familiar to the boy's mind. The taste was
further developed during succeeding winters, and the name of
Humboldt was so often quoted that he longed to see his Cosmos.

During the winter of 1882-3, when Tom See was out of school,
he corresponded with a book agent, having advertisements in the
Journal of Agriculture, St. Louis (a Mr. A. E. Wardner, of Perry,
Mo.), who procured for him a copy of the Bohn translation of the
Cosmos, nicely bound in half calf, for $17.00. It was understood
to have been purchased in Chicago. Mr. See tried to read it, but
of course most of it was beyond his grasp; yet he did get a great
deal of inspiration from it, and some idea of the extent and variety
of the physical sciences. The subsequent study of physical geo-
graphy in the Montgomery City High School was more thorough,
and enabled him to better appreciate Humboldt. But little could
the young man then have dreamed that twenty-two years later
he would himself become an authority of the physics of the earth
greater than Humboldt or any other naturalist of former times.

Now when Mr. See was in his first session at the University,
in December, 1884, a teachers' conference was in progress, and
who should he meet there but Mr. A. E. Wardner of Perry, Mo.,
who had procured him the copy of Humboldt 's Cosmos? The
meeting was very agreeable, and Mr. Wardner encouraged the
young man to go on with his studies. Mr. See had found himself
well prepared for some studies at the University, and poorly trained
in others. Geometry presented no difficulty, but algebra was
more troublesome, owing to a confusion in the use of the signs,
arising from defective teaching at the High School. The mathe-


matical work of the first college year was thus carried through,
but not with entire satisfaction. And during the next summer,
while at home, Mr. See found time to review his algebra thorough-
ly, so as to master every step; and from that day on he never once
encountered a seroius difficulty in any branch of mathematics.
He believes that mathematics naturally is an easy subject, and
that most people find it difficult only because the processes are
not made clear as the student goes along.

Among the fortunate events of Mr. See's first year at the
University must be counted his instruction in Latin under Pro-
fessor J. C. Jones, who advised him to take up also the study of
the Greek language. During the second semester, therefore, he
entered the class in Greek, and came under the influence of Pro-
fessor A. F. Fleet; and it turned out later that this entry upon
the comprehensive study of the classics, as the best educational

Online LibraryW. L. (William Larkin) WebbBrief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. → online text (page 3 of 28)