Pdf of the Oration by Story Hebard, Class of 1828

Here is a fun manuscript I ran across recently in our Historical Manuscripts Collection. It is an oration given by student Story Hebard (Class of 1828) on August 27th, 1828 on the topic of “The Temperature of the Interior of the Earth”. Professor Edward Hitchcock (later president of the College from 1845-1854), a noted geologist, had given a copy, in French, of the 1827 Essay on the Temperature of the Interior of the Earth by L. Cordier to the Junior class at Amherst (a mere 40 students), who were so taken with it that they promptly translated it into English and at the urging of Professor Hitchcock had it published in 1828. Hebard’s oration summarizes the extensive research and conclusions drawn by Cordier and adds the numerous additional theories of the student translators that are shared in published essay in the “Note to the Translation.” I find this a fascinating view into cutting edge science in the early 19th century, with its mixture of hard data, enduring discoveries and utter crack-pottery. Of particular interest are the efforts to support biblical veracity using science, a priority for Hitchcock and many other scientists of his day (see Hitchcock’s Religion of Geology).

This oration would most likely have been given by Hebard at one of the public exhibitions of the student literary societies, probably on the occasion of the publication of the translation of the original essay. In the early years of the college, students’ participation in classes was limited almost exclusively to reciting memorized passages and facts; the literary societies functioned as the primary venue for students’ creative intellectual life. Students would prepare and present essays and orations, engage in spirited debates, and keep abreast of major scientific, social and political events of the day.

After graduating from Amherst in 1828, Story Hebard returned to be a tutor from 1830-1831, then attended Andover Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1835. He spent the rest of his life as a missionary in Beirut, until his death in 1841 at the age of 39. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections also holds 18 letters written by Hebard from 1824-1831 and two notebooks that he kept as a student.

Story Hebard

Here is a transcription of Hebard’s oration (original spelling maintained):


The Temperature of the Interiour of the Earth.

Story Hebard. Lebanon N.H.

Amherst College. August 27th 1828.

The Internal Structure of the Earth.

Numerous theories of the earth have been formed, many of which have sucessively followed their respective authors to the shades of oblivion. Two, however, should be mentioned, from their importance and the authorities by which they have been supported. These are the Neptunian and the Vulcanian. The former suposes, that the earth was originally in a fluid state from its solution in water, and that the whole mass was consolidated in successive strata, from the centre to the circumference. The latter maintains the existence of a central heat, and supposes the exteriour covering of the earth, to be the result of the combined action of water & caloric. Another new and curious theory supposes, that the earth, in passing from a fluid state, assumed the form of a mighty shell, at the northern extremity, there is an aperture (made undoubtedly by taking off the blow-pipe in the act of cooling) through which the author proposes to pass, and make discoveries of vast importance to the Literati of the interior and the exteriour worlds. All these theories have been exploded, and the hypothesis of a central heat is now supported by many interesting facts & the authorities. Prof. Cordier, of the French National Institute, in his “Essay on the Temperature of the Interiour of the Earth,” has developed so many curious facts, that this hypothesis is now extremely probable, if not certain. His theory derives a principal support from the remarkable fact – that the heat rapidly increases from the circumference of the earth, to its centre. More than 300 experiments have been performed by this distinguished phylosoper, in the principal mines & excavations on the continent of Europe & also in those of Mexico & Peru. These experiments, made with the greatest accuracy, upon the temperature of the air and water found in these mines, and also upon the solid rock itself to the depth of 1600 feet, irresistibly prove to every candid mind, that as we discend from that level where commences a fixed temperature, the heat increases 1° for every 50 feet in depth. It is conclusively shown, that this increase of temperature can not be the result of heat disingaged from the miners, their lamps, or any extraneous cause. Hence the inference, that the whole globe, with the exception of an exteriour covering of 60 miles in thickness, is a fluid mass of melted & ignited matter – a mighty abyss of liquid fire!! If we admit this inference, the most difficult phenomina in geology and physical science are easily explained. It has been satisfactorially prooved from the radiation of heat, that the earth is a planet in the act of cooling, hence, the process of consolidation commenced on the exterior, and the primitive rocks were formed first – the very reverse of what geologists, even to this day, have maintained. In extreem northern latitudes, are found numerous organic remains of the Mammoth, the Rhinoceros, the Elephant and other animals, which are now extinct, or live only in the torrid Zone. A very interesting enquiry arises, how animals, fitted to live between the tropics only, could have existed in the cold regions of the North. Entirely unsatisfactory has been every hypothesis hithertoo suggested, to explain this curious anomaly. But, if we admit the hypothesis of a central heat, and the gradual cooling of the earth, and we can have to doubt, that the (countries) climate of those countries where these animals lived & died, might have been as warm as that of the torrid zone at this day. For, since from the cooling of the earth, its crust has been thickening for thousands of years, it follows, that in early days, it must have been very thin, even at the poles; of consequence, the inhabitants of those regions being nearer the great reservoir of liquid fire, the warmer would be their climate. Hence we can readily perceive, how the Olive might have grown on Mount Ararat at the time of the deluge, although so cold now is the climate, that not a vestige of this tree is now to be found on that mountain, or in its latitude – a circumstance once used as an argument to invalidate the Mosaic History.

It is well known, that countries, situated in the same latitude, have different climates. Only admit the existence of an intense central heat, and that the crust of the earth varies in thickness, and we have at once an explanation of this fact, over which phylosophy so long has stumbled. As the ignited matter within cools, gass, in great abundance, is generated. This, struggling to get vent with more than Vulcanian power, heaving & rocking the globe from continent to continent produces all the terrific phenomina of Earthquakes.

Upon the principle of internal heat & fluidity, volcanic phenomina are no longer veiled in mystery. They appear to be the simple & natural result of the cooling of the earth. Its exteriour covering contracts, & forces up the ignited matter, in streams of melted lava through the craters, which are nothing but vent-holes to the firey abyss below – the safety valves of our glove. A contraction in the crust of the globe, of 1/12000 part of an inch, would be sufficient to produce four eruptions in a single year; and the pressure on the fluid mass within, adequate to raise it to the top of the highest volcano, would require the weights of at least 80,000 atmospheres. We ask not a surer indication of what the earth contains, than the boiling lava ejected by a volcanic eruption. Suppose the interiour of the earth were water, whence come red hot stones and streames of liquid fire? or suppose it were solid to the centre, whence those terrible convulsions of the earth for thousands of miles in extent, and explosions louder than all the artillery of Heaven combined?

Should a person observe 200 streams of liquid fire, rushing out through as many tubes, from every side of a globular vessel, would he pronounce the contents of the vessel, to be a mass of ice? And could any one, at a single glance, observe the 200 volcanos, which are scattered over every part of the glove, all ejecting red hot lava and exactly similar in kind, and then affirm, that the interiour of the earth is nothing but water or solid-rock?

Every observing man must acknowledge, that the present continents were once at the bottom of the ocean, and what more probable cause of their subsequent elevation, than subterranian fire? Existing facts corroborate this probability. Whence came Iceland, the Azores, all the Sandwich, many of the South Sea Islands but from the bottom of the ocean? And Volcan de [Furulls] of Mexico, was it not thrown up, by volcanic fire, more than 1700 feet above the level of the surrounding plain? Undoubtedly, that range of mountains, which intercepts our vision towards the South, the vast chain of the Andes, and the lofty Hemelah, were thrown up by this mighty power, even yet exhibiting itself in some of their loftyiests summits.

It is not visionary to suppose, that when this earth shall cease to be a habitation for man, when that glorious luminary of the skies, with all his bright attendants, shall retire & set behind eternity, at the approach and overpowering splendor of the Star of Bethlehem; then Shall He, who once opened the windows of Heaven, and the flood-gates of the ocean, break into pieces the doors of this subterranian prison, and unchain these native elements to melt down this fair world into a shoreless ocean of liquid fire. And that above this mighty ocean, that same Almighty Being might suspend a new heavens and suffer a new earth to form on its bosom more beautiful than primeval Eden, to be henceforth the abode of perfect holiness & perfect happiness.

One thought on “A Mighty Abyss of Liquid Fire!

  1. Thank you for this oration.

    Where was Story Hebard between his graduation in 1828 and his return in 1830? An account is given in this publication:

    History of the “Old High School” on School Street, Springfield …
    By Charles Wells Chapin (January, 1890)

    I quote page 10:
    August 2, 1827, School street was opened from State to Union street. The first instructor of the school was Story Hebard, a native of New Hampshire, and a graduate of Amherst College in 1828. He took charge of the school soon after his graduation, and successfully conducted it until his resignation in 1830. His salary was seven hundred and fifty dollars a year. Mr. Hebard was a gentleman of much worth, and greatly esteemed in the community. …

Leave a Reply