1806 – 1867
Alexander Dallas Bache was born July 19, 1806 in Philadelphia to Richard Bache, Jr. and Sara Bache. He was a grandson of Richard Bache, Postmaster-General of the United States from 1776 to 1782, and a great-grandson of the famous Benjamin Franklin. His early schooling was in Philadelphia and he went on to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the age of 15, the youngest in his class. He graduated first in his class in 1825. Bache remained at West Point for one year following his graduation to teach Mechanical Engineering. He was then reassigned to Newport, Rhode Island, as a construction engineer during the building of Fort Adams. While there he developed lifelong friendships with Colonel Joseph Totten, a later head of the Corps of Engineers, and Jefferson Davis, who would later became President of the Confederacy.
In 1828 Bache married Nancy Clarke Fowler, resigned his military commission and was appointed as a Professor of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. From 1828 to 1843 Bache was actively involved in many other educational pursuits including the Franklin Institute, the American Philosophical Society and the Board of Girard College. He also organized and was president of Central High School of Philadelphia, the second oldest public high school in the United States with a strong curriculum in science and the arts. It became a model for numerous other public schools. During this period Bache also became a noted physicist and astronomer, a field of knowledge that would serve him well in one of his grandest accomplishments as second Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey.
Bache joined the U.S. Coast Survey in 1843, following the death of its first superintendent, F.R. Hassler. Although Hassler had established a sound basis for the Coast Survey it was Bache who transformed it from a small department treated with great skepticism and suspicion to one of the premier scientific organizations in the world. One of many significant technical achievements by Bache was the invention of the Bache-Wurdemann Compensating Device which was to greatly reduce the time and cost of base line measurement. But it was Bache's outstanding administrative abilities and remarkable vision for which he is best known. He believed strongly in science as a service to the commercial and defense affairs of the nation, government support of scientific research and establishment of scientific standards.
Bache was a great delegator who demanded high accountability from his subordinates and was quick to reward merit. The Bache-Wurdemann Compensating Device in Use (Photograph courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce) Bache also led or was active in a number of other government departments. At various times he was Superintendent of Weights and Measures, Lighthouse Commissioner, Regent of the Smithsonian Institution and Vice-President of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which later became the Red Cross. He was also instrumental in founding and serving as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences.
Bache was internationally recognized and published numerous works. He was elected as an Honorary Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers on 2 March 1853. At the outset of the Civil War Bache was once again called upon for his military expertise. He served on the Blockade Strategy Board and as one of three members of the Navy Permanent Commission for scientific matters. He assigned his Coast Survey topographers and hydrographers to the Union Army and Navy and increased four-fold the production of maps and charts. The Governor of Pennsylvania requested his help in designing and constructing defenses for Philadelphia preceding the Battle of Gettysburg. During these strenuous activities Bache suffered a neurological disorder from which he did not recover. This remarkable educator, scientist, military and geodetic engineer died at Newport, Rhode Island, 17 February 1867 and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery at Washington, D.C.
Resources: Transactions of ASCE, Volume 36 NOAA 200th Anniversary Collections (January 8, 2008)