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What Would George Washington Do About Fracking?

George Washington’s Little-Known History as a Microbiologist

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's famous painting depicts Washington crossing the Delaware... or might is depict George Washington's expedition to the millstone river to attempt to ignite the "inflammable air" rising from it?

This is the second installment in our three-part series about the founding fathers’ relationships with science. Last week, we looked at what Thomas Jefferson might have thought about climate change, evolution, and vaccines. Next Week: Benjamin Franklin.

What do George Washington and critics of fracking have in common?  More than you might think.

George Washington, commander of the Revolutionary Army and the first president of the United States, performed some early experiments in microbiology, when he and a team of collaborators, including Thomas Paine, paddled out into the Millstone River to set it aflame.

Washington had long admired Paine’s writing, and had selections of The American Crisis (best known for its opening line “These are the times that try men’s souls”) read aloud to his troops for inspiration during the war. In an effort to secure a pension from Congress for his service to the growing nation, Paine went to see General Washington at Rocky Hill, New Jersey in the fall of 1783. It was near the close of the Revolutionary War and the United States and Britain had recently signed the Treaty of Paris, but the British had not yet left New York and the Continental Congress was meeting in Princeton. They had heard that there was a river in the area that could be set on fire, and Washington, Paine would later write, “had a mind to try the experiment.”

General Benjamin Lincoln of Boston made preparations for a systematic study of the problem to take place on November 5, 1783, in a quiet section of the river. The experiment, as it was planned, would involve disturbing the river bottom and attempting to ignite whatever was released with a flame held just above the surface of the water.

There was a spirited debate (perhaps fueled by spirits) on the likely outcome of the experiment, with Colonels David Humphreys and David Cobb, both aides to General Washington, opining that bituminous matter —a viscous, oily residue of petroleum distillation—would float to the surface and ignite. Paine, on the other hand, believed strongly that stirring the mud would release a gas that would then rise to the surface and ignite. “Each party held to his opinion,” wrote Paine, but the experiment would show which hypothesis, if either, was correct.

The next night, Washington, Paine, Lincoln, Cobb, and several soldiers were ferried out to a scow stationed near the mill dam. Each member of the “research team” had a job to do. The soldiers stirred the river bottom with poles while Washington and Paine, positioned at opposite ends of the scow, held lighted parchments a few inches above the surface of the water to ignite whatever substance emerged from the mud.  The results, as described by Paine, were clear:

When the mud at the bottom was disturbed by the poles, the air bubbles rose fast, and I saw the fire take from General Washington’s light and descend from thence to the surface of the water, in a similar manner as when a lighted candle is held so as to touch the smoke of a candle just blown out, the smoke will take fire, and the fire will descend and light up the candle. This was demonstrative evidence that what was called setting the river on fire was setting on fire the inflammable air that arose out of the mud.

Incidentally, the “inflammable air” was most likely methane (also known as “swamp gas”), and it is produced in landfills, cow and termite guts, and the muddy bottoms of ponds and streams by a group of microorganisms that derive chemical energy from the conversion of organic matter into methane. By some estimates, upwards of a billion tons of methane are released into the atmosphere annually. A contributor to global warming, methane’s high heat capacity is comparable to carbon dioxide, a more abundant greenhouse gas. Methane is also the major component of natural gas, a substance of renewed interest in the energy debate.

Of course, Washington, Lincoln, Cobb, and Humphreys didn’t know any of this, but it’s interesting to note that nearly two centuries before the discovery of the double-helix, citizen-farmer-statesmen-scientists were studying the natural world to understand the how and why. Much is known about Washington and Paine, but less about the others.

Cobb, for example, went to Harvard College and was a physician before the revolution.  Benjamin Lincoln, who would become the first secretary of war, was raised on a farm and only later in life pursued science and literature, while Humphreys was a writer-poet-entrepreneur who imported Merino sheep from Spain for their prized wool. They may not have known about atoms, molecules, or the scientific method as practiced in the 21st century but, like any good scientists, they designed an experiment to test a hypothesis, they made observations, and analyzed their results. They may have disagreed about what could happen, but they used science as a tool to learn what did happen.

We could ask how Washington, Lincoln, Paine, Cobb, and Humphreys would respond to contemporary questions on the energy versus environment continuum. Here’s one: Is “fracking” safe? Fracking, the release of natural gas from shale deposits through the high-pressure injection of water, sand, and a mixture of sometimes unknown chemicals is a little like what the Washington-Paine experiment accomplished when they released methane from the river bed. Proponents of fracking maintain that it is safe and offers a cleaner-than-coal energy source from a vast domestic supply. Critics argue that it poses a significant environmental risk of contaminating our water supply, while doing little to accelerate the development of truly sustainable energy sources.

Washington, Paine, and their farming contemporaries would surely appreciate the critical importance of the domestic water supply to themselves, their livestock, and their livelihoods, and they would have had the wherewithal to devise and understand experiments that assess the risks of fracking. So do we. While science provides many tools for developing new drugs, quantifying with increasing accuracy the details of the natural world, and for designing and evaluating new technologies to secure our energy future, we don’t have to work in a lab to help solve the problems of our day.

Like Washington and Paine in their time, we have the capacity to understand and can contribute to the debates on energy, the environment, and the host of issues arising from advances in genomics–by asking questions. What is the nature of the chemicals used in fracking? Are they released to the environment during or after fracking?  Are they toxic? Are they present in our water supply? These are not complicated questions, and it’s a good bet that Washington, Paine, and their contemporaries would ask them too.

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