The Science Guy, c. 1877

In the nation’s centennial year, Alexander Graham Bell famously summoned his assistant with the phrase “Mr. Watson, come here - I want you,” or something similar - Bell and Watson always disagreed about the exact wording.  However, Watson’s prompt appearance at his boss’s side demonstrated that their experiments in “vocal telegraphy" were on the right track, and Bell immediately filed a patent.  A year later, a pair of telephones arrived in Topeka, Kansas, brought there to demonstrate the budding new age in communications technology.  The man who brought them, a man who had made the first phone call across the Mississippi, was a Kansas scientist, Joseph Taplin Lovewell.

A graduate of Yale, Professor J. T. Lovewell had recently arrived from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where he left behind an impressive record as a high school principal and superintendent, college principal, and  professor of physics, chemistry, mathematics and Latin.  He also must have tried to leave behind a broken heart.  In 1876, a year after the death of his mother at Prairie du Chien, J. T. Lovewell’s wife Maggie died during his brief tenure at a college in Pennsylvania, after giving birth to their son Paul.  Professor Lovewell joined the faculty of Washburn College at Topeka, where he would long hold the chair in chemistry and physics.  He was a specialist in meteorology for the Kansas Academy of Science, and while weather observations were kept intermittently by volunteers in Topeka as early as 1858, the routine of recording temperature and precipitation every day was established by the new professor, who took the readings himself for the first decade.

He seems to have been interested in all sciences, avidly promoting public interest in science and technology, and writing about the importance of teaching science in public schools.  His name popped up frequently in Kansas newspapers as a lecturer.  The subject could be dull if the audience were composed of fellow scientists, when he might demonstrate a new form of rain gauge, but he could be flashy if he needed to wow a crowd.  When the “cultured ladies of Kansas” met in Topeka in 1896, Professor Lovewell entertained them with a demonstration of cathode ray tubes.  It was not quite television, but it was an important step toward the creation of television.  It was also much more exciting than rain gauges, and the glowing vacuum tubes looked really cool.

Professor Lovewell’s personal life also flourished in Topeka.  Shortly after his six-year-old boy came to live with him, the professor fell in love, and at the age of fifty-two, he wed Caroline Barnes, a member of the progressive Nautilus Club, a local literary society.  Some years later she would publish a book of her own, one that seemed to combine her husband’s interests in scientific tinkering with her own homemaking skills, The Fireless Cooker: How To Make It, How To Use It, What To Cook.  Caroline Lovewell's recipe book was probably a practical extension of her husband’s paper, “Economy of Heat in Cooking."   

Professor Lovewell would make quite a stir with some of his chemical assays, in which he demonstrated real-world uses for chemistry.  Examining the stomach contents of a Topeka resident who died unexpectedly, he found arsenic, leading to the arrest of the bereaved widow and her son on suspicion of murder.  Lovewell was apparently the man prosecutors called on when they needed to bolster a case with scientific facts, although, according to the Advocate and Topeka Tribune even his appearance on the witness stand was no guarantee of an open-and-shut case.

In the last liquor case at Eureka the county attorney failed to convict the accused but he glories in the consciousness of having proven by a vote of eleven to one jurors that "Hop tonic" is beer.  The expert testimony which convinced the eleven was given by Prof. Lovewell of Washburn college.

After conducting a chemical analysis of shale deposits in western Kansas, Professor Lovewell announced that most of them contained a few dollars’ worth of gold and other precious metals per ton.  The mention of gold was all it took.  Land-buying syndicates were formed immediately, the price of some Kansas farm land shot up, and speculators hoped to cash in, though many later complained that Lovewell’s assay had been overly optimistic.

It was about this time that Joseph Taplin Lovewell's country cousin came calling.  The Topeka State Journal covered the meeting between Kansas pioneer Thomas Lovewell and the professor from Topeka in 1902, publishing a list of the country’s various wars in which Lovewell men had fought.  The subject of gold did not come up in the newspaper’s account, but the two men apparently did hammer out the details of just how they were related.  They agreed that the first recognizable figure in the family tree was Robert Lovell, the man who brought his family to America in 1634 or 1635.  After Robert came his son John Lowell a tanner in Dunstable, then John Lowell’s son John Lovewell, the first man to offer hospitality to Hannah Duston on her trek home from Indian captivity.  Next came his son, the famous Captain John Lovewell.  Here was where the branches diverged.  The captain had two boys, and the professor’s ancestor was a son named John*, while Thomas Lovewell was descended from John's brother Nehemiah, the son who had been born eight months after his father was killed at Lovewell Pond on the 9th of May in 1725.

Having settled matters of family history, Thomas Lovewell went back home to Jewell County, and Joseph Taplin Lovewell headed back to his laboratory.  A few years later, J. T. Lovewell's son Paul would become an editor and writer for the Salina Journal, the same paper where a descendant of Thomas Lovewell's would be a regional editor and frequent contributor, under the byline, "Tom Lovewell."

Thanks to their writings, some of the figures listed on this page can still speak to us in their own words.  The reporting of young Tom Lovewell and Paul Lovewell can be sampled in the archives of the Salina Journal.  Photocopies of Caroline Barnes Lovewell’s book are available for purchase, although the opening pages can be viewed with this link at no charge, for those who merely want to find out what the heck a “fireless cooker" is, and many of Professor Lovewell’s scientific writings are waiting to be read at JSTOR.  Some of the science is hardly even dated, such as the professor’s lucid and entertaining essay on the subject of dowsing or “witching" for water and other things (Spoiler alert:  It doesn’t work).  

*I amended this in a later blog to show that J. T. was also descended from Nehemiah through his daughter Vodica.

© Dale Switzer 2023