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Clarence King

Geologist/Surveyor/Author

Centurion, 1874–1901

Full Name Clarence Rivers King

Born 6 January 1842 in Newport, Rhode Island

Died 24 December 1901 in Phoenix, Arizona

Buried Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island

Proposed by John Q. A. Ward and John Hay

Elected 5 December 1874 at age thirty-two

Supporter of:

Century Memorial

Clarence King was born in Newport, R. I., January 6th, 1842, his father being James King, of the old China firm of King, Olyphant, & Co. He was prepared for the classical course at Yale, but chose the Scientific School and was graduated in 1862. Almost from the portals of college, he and his college mate, James T. Gardiner,—par nobile,—set out, in the spring of 1863, to cross the Plains with an emigrant train for the purpose of seeing the whole interior of the continent, King making, during the four months’ journey on horseback, careful geological observations and notes. The experience probably shaped the course of his scientific career. During the next three years he was engaged on the geological survey of California under Prof. J. D. Whitney, with Prof. William H. Brewer in charge of the field work. He was an assistant to Prof. Brewer in the exploration of the Northern Sierras and the region about Mount Shasta; in an exploration of the southern part of the Sierra Nevada, in which King discovered and named Mount Whitney and Mount Tyndall; and with Gardiner made a geological and topographical survey of the Yosemite Valley. With the same companion he undertook and partially completed a survey of Arizona, but the party was obliged to give up the work on account of the attacks of the Apaches. The next summer, 1866, King and Gardiner made a survey of the Sierra Nevada east and southeast of the Yosemite Valley.

It was during this trip that they discussed the idea of creating, under the United States Government, a geological and topographical survey, crossing the continent from California to the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, and making a geological and topographical cross-section of the whole system of the Cordillera of Western America. The winter of 1866–67 King spent at Washington, and succeeded in interesting General Humphreys, Chief of Engineers, and the Government officers and members of Congress in his plans to such an extent that the Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel was authorized and he was placed in charge, reporting to General Humphreys. The work was begun in 1867 and completed in 1872, and several years were spent in the study of the facts and in the preparation of the report, which remains the record of the most important scientific work of its kind up to that time undertaken and the foundation of much that has followed. In 1878 the United States Geological Survey was organized, and King was made its first Chief, serving until the close of 1881. In the eighteen years since he had entered on his work on the Pacific slope, years of untiring activity and study, he had made brilliant and substantial contributions to science.

He had also found time for some notable work as a geological and mining expert in the famous Mariposa mines, in the Comstock mines, and in the exposure, made with singular acuteness and swiftness, of the “salted” diamond fields of Wyoming. The rest of his life was devoted to the exercise of his profession, in which he attained eminence. But he cherished the hope of completing an authoritative study of the physics of the early globe, on which he spent much time and labor and money. He undertook a series of difficult and elaborate experiments to determine the action of the primal constituents of the early globe under the conditions of heat and pressure assumed to exist, when the material of the earth was separated from the sun. These were interrupted by business reverses and ill health some eight years since; but he had gone far enough in his investigations to make a reasoned estimate of the age of the earth, which was accepted by physicists in England and Europe, Lord Kelvin among them, as more nearly definitive than any other.

What King might have been had he turned to literature is shown in his scientific studies and reports, models of clear statement of clear thinking on difficult subjects; in his youthful sketches of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, and in a few fugitive articles such as The Helmet of Mambrino, of which Mr. Stedman conclusively says that “any writer might be glad to be judged by it.”

Had he lived a few days longer, King would have been threescore; but we think of him,—so vigorous when last he was with us was his bearing, so bright his winning glance, so swift and kindling his unique intelligence,—as Milton thought of his friend King:

“Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,

Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.”

It is more than a quarter of a century ago that he joined the Club; a little while since he described it to an enquiring foreign visitor as “the rag, tag, and bobtail of all there is best in our country.” The phrase is instinct with his gay veracity of paradox. He was himself a blend of varied qualities and gifts, that were not always ready to keep the peace one with another, but the collective manifestation of which was to his fellows a constant joy. The talk he made or evoked may be equalled by those who are to come after; it can never be matched. Its range was literally incalculable. It was impossible to foresee at what point his tangential fancy would change its course. From the true rhythm of Creole gumbo to the verse of Theocritus, from the origin of the latest mot to the age of the globe, from the soar or slump of the day’s market to the method of Lippo Lippi, from the lightest play on words to the subtlest philosophy, he passed with buoyant step and head erect, sometimes with audacity that invited disaster, often with profound penetration and with the informing flash of genius. It is but a suggestion of his rare equipment to say that in his talk, as in his work, his imagination was his dominant, at moments his dominating, quality. Intense, restless, wide-reaching, nourished by much reading, trained in the exercise of an exact and exacting profession, stimulated by commerce with many lands and races, it played incessantly on the topic of the moment and on the remotest and most complex problems of the earth and the dwellers thereon. And within a nature brilliant and efficient beyond all common limits glowed the modest and steady light of a kindness the most unfailing and delicate. The good one hand did he let not the other know; both were always busy, laying in many lives the foundations of tender and lasting remembrance.

Edward Cary
1902 Century Association Yearbook