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Ogden N. Rood

Professor of Physics/Color Theorist

Centurion, 1864–1902

Full Name Ogden Nicholas Rood

Born 3 February 1831 in Danbury, Connecticut

Died 12 November 1902 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried Stockbridge Cemetery, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Proposed by Wolcott Gibbs

Elected 5 March 1864 at age thirty-three

Century Memorials

When Ogden N. Rood was called in 1864 to the chair of Physics in Columbia College he became a member of The Century, and it would not be easy to say to which he had been most faithful in all these years, or to which his contributions had been more individual and characteristic. What he brought to the College and the University is told in the papers by Dean Van Amringe and Mr. La Farge, to be included with this report. To The Century he brought himself, and nowhere did the strong or the fine qualities of his mind and his richly endowed nature find a happier field of expression. Under a rugged and often reserved manner his shrewd judgment and keen wit played with singular vivacity over a wide range, while his knowledge of men was as prolific in surprises as was his knowledge of science. Withal a truly modest and helpful man.

Edward Cary
1903 Century Association Yearbook

I am very glad to comply with the request, made to me by members of The Century, to say a few words this evening in memory of our late fellow member, and my old friend, Professor Rood. For nearly forty years I had the privilege and the pleasure of close professional association with him, and of a friendship that during the whole of that time was not disturbed, in the slightest degree, by anything untoward in word or deed.

As an incident of the Civil War, the professorship of physics in Columbia College was vacated in the summer of 1863. In the fall of that year, two candidates were presented for the office—Dr. F. A. P. Barnard and Professor Rood. The thorough canvass that ensued made evident the unusual merits of each of the candidates; the College was fortunate enough to secure the services of both of them. Rood was chosen Professor of Physics, and began his duties in February, 1864. A few months later, on the resignation of the presidency by Charles King, Barnard was elected President, and assumed charge at Commencement in the same year. These elections marked an epoch in the history of Columbia. The great educational development, particularly in science, which soon thereafter began, gathered force with every successive year, and, in a third of a century, transformed the College into the University that we now have, is known of all men; to it Professor Rood was an important contributor, and for it deserves his full share of credit.

Interest in scientific research and due appreciation of the scientific method were not, in 1864, widely diffused. It was not so singular, as the light of the present day would seem to make it, that scientific opportunity at Columbia was then very limited, and that the department of physics was meagrely furnished and had little influence or distinction. There were very few appliances for illustrative experiment, and practically none at all for research. A department of physics, in the proper sense, had, therefore, to be created; and to make this practicable its value, educational and other, had to be generally shown. This task Rood cheerfully assumed, with modesty and with confidence. He was engrossed in his subject and devoted to its improvement and its exposition. He seemed to be unconscious of any particular difficulties in his way—he met and overcame them as they appeared—and was wholly forgetful of himself. His picturesque appearance and unique personality attracted the students; the clarity of his presentation of principles and the elegance of his experiments, by means of apparatus largely planned and constructed by himself, interested them. In his lectures he was very deliberate, giving the student time to turn the matter over in his mind and make it his own. Every sentence seemed to be carefully prepared in advance, was concise as well as clear in expression, and made upon an attentive listener a lasting impression. A former student, now himself of repute as an investigator and a lecturer, told me, not long since, that after twenty years of work in physics, a large part of the fundamental material existed in his mind in exactly the form in which it was presented to him by Rood twenty-five years ago.

In addition to his skill as an investigator and an expositor, Professor Rood had the power of organization and development and no little prevision. The equipment of his department, which was practically nothing when he took office, was gradually improved and increased, and is now valued at not less than twenty thousand dollars; the two or three dismal and unattractive rooms of the earlier time have given place to a fine and spacious building, a large part of which is now occupied, and the whole of which will ultimately be occupied, by the department of physics for lecture rooms and laboratories; a staff consisting of the professor himself and a laboratory assistant, has been replaced by one of fourteen members. As head of a department, he was most considerate of his subordinates and assistants, stimulating them with words of encouragement, with prompt and generous appreciation of work well done, making it appear, so far as he could, that the success of the department was due to them rather than to himself, and never losing an opportunity of advancing a capable man to higher position, either in Columbia or elsewhere. It is not surprising that his assistants were devoted to him. A day or two ago one of them told me, with tears in his eyes, that, in every way, his sympathy and tenderness of heart appeared to be a necessary accompaniment of his zeal for scientific inquiry and research.

When Professor Rood was engaged upon an investigation, time and personal comfort had no significance to him; he worked in his laboratory hours and hours at a time, often through a great part of the night, with little thought of eating or sleeping. His contributions to knowledge in the American Journal of Science and in papers read before the National Academy of Sciences, of which he early became a member, attracted marked attention; they gave him distinction for fertility of resource in making refined, delicate, and well selected experiments, for accuracy of observation, for skill and judgment in the interpretation of results, for definiteness and reserve in statement. His scientific papers, over seventy in number, while ranging generally over the domain of physics, are more particularly concerned with light, the phenomena of color and vision, and, latterly, with researches in electricity. I am not competent to evaluate them; the proper scientific authority will do that and assign their author his true place in the history of Physics.

His best known work, Modern Chromatics, published in 1879, is a classic. In it he combined an exact knowledge of the science of color with the keen perception and appreciation of the born artist, which, among other things, he was. It was translated into French and German, and has become by universal assent the authority and the standard on the subject of which it treats. Of what it and its author have been to artists, Mr. La Farge spoke appreciatively some time since in addressing students at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and will, I hope, be induced to speak again this evening.

Professor Rood’s interest in art began at an early period. When he was a student in Munich under Liebig he became acquainted with some of the leading German painters, such as Melchior, many of whose works he brought home with him. He devoted much attention at that time to serious art study. On his various student excursions, he made water-color sketches of French and German landscape. A few years later he put himself in correspondence with Ruskin, in the course of which Ruskin sent him eight of his water-colors and pastels. He never lost his interest in art or ceased the practice of it. When visiting his sister at Peace Dale, R. I., he made sketches and water-color drawings of the country about Narragansett; when at his cottage in Stockbridge, Mass., where he spent his summer vacations with his family for the past thirty years, he made sketches and studies of Berkshire scenery, many of which were, at various times, shown at exhibitions of the Water Color Society, and many more were given to friends. He loved nature and had no greater pleasure than in recording her various moods and expressions as he saw and understood them. Turner was his great model, and Turner’s work influenced him more than that of any other artist. He was not an impressionist in theory or practice, but in consequence of a remark made by Claude Monet, the great French impressionist, in writing of Modern Chromatics, that “the work had been of invaluable assistance to him,” and of similar remarks by other artists of the same school, it was averred that the modern impressionist movement received support and impetus from Rood’s theory of color as set forth in that work—a responsibility which Rood himself declined.

About fifteen years ago he became interested in antique coins and gems, and, after his manner with matters which engaged his “leisure,” as with the one which engaged his “busy,” moments, he studied them carefully and exhaustively. He became an acknowledged expert in them, and made a modest collection. His satisfaction in getting a new idea, in making a discovery, or in coming into possession of beautiful objects, was never complete until he had shared his possession, whatever it might be, with his friends. His experiments in physics and their results he must communicate, in private conversation, in public discussion, or in printed papers: so with his sketches and water-colors, they must be shown and many of them given away; so also his collection of antiques must be shared with those whom he valued—and to them he gave electrotype impressions of such as he had. In his new “recreation” he conferred often with his friend and colleague, the late Professor Merriam, who became before his death, which was all too early, one of the most distinguished archæologists of his day. Merriam often spoke of his obligations to Rood, and was so impressed with the latter’s knowledge of the subject that he induced him to deliver a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on “Ancient Gems.” In this lecture Rood showed upon a screen pictures of some of the finest of the Mycenæan gems in the Museum of Athens,—casts and electrotypes of some seventy of which he had in his collection. That he might do this in an effective way, he prepared, by a process of his own, a wax extensible without fracture and not affected by the temperature, and gave it a rich amber tint. He then pressed electrotypes of the gems that he wished to exhibit on the wax, spread thin upon glass slides, and so obtained very fine impressions.

When these were thrown upon the screen, the pictures were clearly defined in every detail and beautiful in color. Not content with this, he set up and operated in presence of the audience a simple hand-machine which he had devised, and by which, or something very like it, the gems might have been made and probably were made. The lecture was most unusual and attractive, in matter and in manner, and impressed every one who heard it with the exact knowledge, the power of precise expression, and the marvellous skill of the lecturer. Some time afterward he used the machine, which he had constructed and shown, to make for himself an “antique” cylinder, not a copy of any that was known, but a “newly discovered” one. He sent this for examination to a society of archæologists through its president, whom he informed that it was a modern Rood “antique.” The President wrote to him later that the cylinder was so well made as likely to deceive the very elect, and that should he—Rood—at any time grow weary of the science of physics, reputation and fortune awaited him as a maker of “ ancient” cylinders and gems.

Professor Rood spent the greater part of his time in his laboratory and in private reading and study. In his walks abroad, and to the casual observer, he had the abstracted air of a student and a recluse. He paid little attention to dress and personal adornment; but, without any adventitious aid, his appearance was striking and drew attention to him as a man of mark. He made few advances in the way of acquaintance or friendship, and was apt to receive them with reserve. He had warm and devoted friends, and he had acquaintances who had no personal attachment to him; but every one who knew him, or knew of him, respected and admired his independent and decided character, his scientific attainments and accomplishment, and his versatility. The indifference and cynicism sometimes imputed to him were but superficial, assumed, as many who knew him well thought, to cover a very warm and sympathetic nature. A friend never appealed to him in vain. Distress in any one, when brought to his attention, touched his heart and opened his hand. He had a contempt for shams of every kind, and, when opportunity offered, exposed them relentlessly. Any claim to superiority had to be established; he took nothing in that regard for granted or at second hand. He was absolutely truthful himself, and despised any lack of truthfulness in others; he had the courage of his convictions; he was frank—very frank sometimes—in expressing his opinion of men and things. His likes and dislikes were pronounced and, for the most part, unchanged and unchangeable. The men with whom he was thrown, particularly those with whom he was in any way associated, were either “sheep” or “goats,” and rarely did any one ever pass from the fold of one to that of the other. He always carried with him, he humorously said to me, a stultometer, or “foolometer,” as he preferred to call it; with this he measured the people who came under his observation and made his grand division of them. He was very fond of children, and they reciprocated his affection; they were strongly attracted to him and he never disappointed them, having always for them a unique story or an amusing incident or a little trick of some sort that he had contrived for their entertainment. During all his life he was a great walker and lived as much as he could out of doors. In the winter he often skated on the lake in Central Park, and did it well, as he did everything that he cared for and undertook; in the summer, at Stockbridge, for the last six or seven years of his life, he rode a bicycle and frequently rode thirty miles in an afternoon. He explored the Berkshires in every direction, making sketches, making friends of the country people, and, as was his wont, especially of the little children.

He was a successful professor of a recondite subject, a devoted and valued officer of the University with which he was long connected, a fruitful scientific investigator, a master of the theory of color and no mean artist, with genius in his head and in his hands, with a wealth of accurate and most interesting information on a great variety of topics, a delightful conversationalist, a loyal and outspoken friend—possibly “lofty and sour to them that loved him not,” but, certainly, “to those men that sought him, sweet as summer.”

J. Howard Van Amringe
1903 Century Association Yearbook

I have been asked to say something about Professor Rood because I happen to have been in a slight way somewhat of a student of what he has written with regard to color, and because I have made a point of acknowledging this influence, and of referring younger artists to his influence or a similar one. Thus I have the honor to say something in praise of a man whom I admired, and for whom I had much personal liking. It is a consolation to be able to offer this tribute as a proof of the farspread utility of such work as Professor Rood’s. Here is a case in which the emotion of the artist is supported by the student, and helped in a division of human effort and interest apparently far distant from the dry illumination of science. Their relations are worth analyzing.

We are so much bound by the use of words and names that we give to what is really a mark for keeping a place the real idea of existence. The names of classification we idealize, so that we speak of Art and Science and Industry as being things essentially different, sometimes contradictory, and we think of them as things,—I might also say, beings, in the manner that the Greeks made gods of apparent forces. In reality there are no such separate beings as artists and scientists; there are men who pursue certain avocations, or trades, or are interested in things from the needs of their nature; and so we have the artists, men of science, and the industrial exploiters. They are not really divided. They are men who tend more to one side than another at certain moments; but their interests and their pursuits lap one over the other continuously. The artist is essentially a creator—a man who tries to rebuild with the constituents he has about him, another world. To make this synthesis, he has to analyze. So does the scientific man. We forget sometimes that the man of science is in his way also a maker, a creator. When he builds, he builds his theory out of his analyses. Still more analogous he is to the artist when he actually builds and constructs in materials. Long ago under other names he started the first ship, as he now carries out wireless telegraphy, and whatever the last application of analysis may be. He makes things with his hands, and he works with his hands, and, as with the first surgeons, he discovers often by handicraft. He is an artist whenever he is original. The artist works like the man of science when he analyzes to reconstruct his imaginary world. And as they have to use the experience of the past, and part of what they do is not original, a good deal of it is mere application of rule, and in so far they apply industry. They are in so far mechanical makers, either in thought or in handwork. The same man may be and must be all these things if he does anything new—if he creates, as we call it. The artist—and in this case I mean the painter—expresses his feelings and his wishes by representations of the outside world. The image of this outside world he uses to express his sympathy with part of it. Consequently, as the artist must constantly touch nature and refresh himself by nature, he cannot but feel the importance of the man of science who is continually studying the secrets of nature. These secrets, this worship, are what give the artist new life, because when he works, when he carries out what we call his technique, by which we mean the grosser side of his methods, he is simply working in industry like any other mechanic. If the artist has taken a new step, has shown some new face of nature, has builded what we call a creation, then come the men whom we also call artists, but who are really captains of industry; they copy this, they imitate it, and so forth; they follow rules of former technique and formula. This technique, these academic rules acquired from others, at length become insufficient, or stand in the way of some expression of the individual.

Then it becomes necessary again that the side of the artist and scientist should prevail, and that a new man or men should appear to discover new things. For that, again, they have to go to the secrets of nature, they suffer opposition both as artists or scientists, because the industrial man, the copyist, and the exploiter of other’s work, is disturbed in his security. I am trying to show that they are nothing but so many men, and that they are not so divided as would appear.

What I have just said is a manner of proving how important to the artist—the painter in this case—must be the studies of light and color to which Professor Rood devoted himself;—light and color, the means as also the object of the painter’s expression. Science, as Professor Rood’s work shows, explains to us how constant has been the effort of the painters to take hold of any law they could discover. Far back, as far as we can go, we see personal discernment of some fractions of the laws. But it is only midway in the last century that a stronger desire was felt by the artist to use what help he could get from science in the use of color and light to represent color and fight. This was partly, perhaps, in opposition to a certain abandonment of the question by successful individuals and schools. Already, before the middle of the last century, such a man as Chevreul had written enough to support the students of color and fight. But much of what he had said was neglected. The whole art of stained glass, for instance, might have been rebuilt through his explanations. Slowly the question taken up by the scientists affected the artists. Nowadays, the studies published by Professor Rood have served through the world to encourage new attempts in the art of painting, to strengthen appreciation of works of earlier artists, and to place definitely the artist in a closer relation to nature,—it is his fault if he takes no advantage of all that is now open to him.

What I have said will explain how reasonable my looking up to Professor Rood was, and how much he stood for. If I could only add—but somebody else will have done that better—a tribute to his personal character, to his kindness in helping the student, to something that was chivalrous, and uncommon, and ideal in his nature, as his very exterior expressed!

John La Farge
1903 Century Association Yearbook