The incredible double life of Clarence King

Clarence King (1842-1901) was the first director of the US Geological Survey and played an instrumental role during the major controversy at the end of the nineteenth century over the age of the Earth. Biologists who were convinced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution knew that for the unguided process of natural selection to work required long times and the absolute minimum age that they needed was 100 million years, though even that was stretching things. But physicists, led by Lord Kelvin, were pushing for a younger age based on their models of the Earth as a once-hot cooling body. (The discovery by Pierre Curie that the decay of radium produced prodigious amounts of heat and thus invalidated all the cooling models did not occur until 1903.) Geologists were in the middle since their models based on geological processes had parameters that were hugely variable and thus could not be the arbiter. But King pushed them over to the physicists’ side.

In the manuscript of my forthcoming book THE GREAT PARADOX OF SCIENCE: Why its theories work so well without being true which is under review right now (it’s been awhile since I gave a shameless plug for it), I discussed this three-way struggle and King’s role in it. Here is the passage.

By around 1880, an uneasy truce seemed to have been drawn amongst the physics, geology, and biology research communities around a value of a 100 million year old Earth. But that tentative consensus did not last long. Other scientists came along who followed up on Kelvin’s methods using more refined calculations and newer estimates for the parameters involved, and they arrived at even shorter ages of 40 million and then 20 million years for the age of the Earth. Most important amongst these was an 1893 calculation by Clarence King, the first director of the US Geological Survey who, again basically using Kelvin’s thermal methods, arrived at a figure of 24 million years. Kelvin himself, in a paper in 1897 towards the end of his long and illustrious career, stated his conclusion that the Earth was between 20 and 40 million years old, with King’s value of 24 million being the most likely to be correct. What made Kelvin’s conclusions about his new lower values carry great weight was that he had also done calculations for the age of the Sun and found that the gravitational collapse of the Sun would only be able to provide enough energy to warm the Earth for about 20 million years. Since the sedimentation process used by geologists as one of their dating methods for the Earth depended on the warmth of the Sun, this set a more stringent limit on the age of the Earth than even Kelvin’s terrestrial calculations.

So I was intrigued to discover a couple of days ago an extraordinary detail about King’s personal life.

King spent his last thirteen years leading a double life. In 1887 or 1888, he met and fell in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American nursemaid (and former slave) from Georgia, who had moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. As miscegenation was strongly discouraged in the nineteenth century (and illegal in many places), King hid his identity from Copeland. Despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, King convinced Copeland that he was an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd. The two entered into a common law marriage in 1888. Throughout the marriage, King never revealed his true identity to Ada, pretending to be Todd, a black railroad worker, when at home, and continuing to work as King, a white geologist, when in the field. Their union produced five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Their two daughters married white men; their two sons served classified as blacks during World War I. King finally revealed his true identity to Copeland in a letter he wrote to her while on his deathbed in Arizona. King’s friends John Hay and Henry Adams supplied funds for the support of Ada and her family after his death.

There are many instances of black people passing as white. I don’t know of any white people passing as black because, after all, being black carried huge economic and social costs in those days and still does to a lesser extent so there is no obvious reason to do so. But King managed to be white by day and black by night, so to speak, for over a decade and that was a real tour de force, though I think his wife must have at least suspected the truth.


  1. Owlmirror says

    (The discovery by Pierre Curie that the decay of radium produced prodigious amounts of heat and thus invalidated all the cooling models did not occur until 1903.)

    It was Ernest Rutherford who specifically argued that radioactive heat would alter the calculations of the age of the Earth, but it is important to note that Rutherford was actually wrong.

    We now know that the crust does not contain enough radioactive heat to explain the surface heat flux; nevertheless, it is still frequently stated that, because the discovery of radioactive heat undermined an assumption behind Kelvin’s calculation, it also undermined his conclusion. This statement is logically incorrect; Kelvin’s conclusion would be undermined by that discovery only if incorporation of the Earth’s radioactive heat into his calculation produced a substantially different age for the Earth.
    even if Kelvin had included radioactive heat in his calculation—his estimate of the age of the Earth would have been unaffected (Richter, 1986). Thus, the discovery of radioactivity did not invalidate Kelvin’s calculation for the age of the Earth. In a rigid Earth, with or without radioactivity, heat is delivered to the surface by conduction through a shallow layer, which can maintain a rate of heat loss comparable to today’s for only a small fraction of what we now know to be the Earth’s age.

    (These paragraphs actually come earlier in the paper than the above)

    Instead of focusing on Kelvin’s calculations, Perry suggested, one should examine his assumptions. In Kelvin’s model, the present supply of heat to the Earth’s surface is derived from the cooling of a shallow outer layer of thickness, \sqrt{\pi \kappa t} (Equation 3). If, however, the thermal conductivity inside the Earth were much higher than at the surface, then the deep interior would also cool, providing a large store of energy to maintain the surface heat flux. In that case, Kelvin’s estimate of the age of the Earth would be too low, potentially by a large multiple.
      Perry had two reasons for postulating a higher conductivity in the interior. First, experimental evidence showed an increase, if modest, in conductivity of rocks with temperature; in addition, the Earth’s increase in density with depth implies a greater proportion of iron and other materials that conduct heat better than do silicates. More radically, he argued (Perry, 1895a) that convection in the fluid, or partly fluid, interior of the Earth would transfer heat much more effectively than would conduction: “… much internal fluidity would practically mean infinite conductivity for our purpose.”

  2. says

    There are many instances of black people passing as white. I don’t know of any white people passing as black because, after all, being black carried huge economic and social costs in those days and still does to a lesser extent so there is no obvious reason to do so.

    Well…I’d suggest that he was truly in love. And that was his reason. I would also speculate he thought Ada wouldn’t accept a white man as a spouse (thus, there was a personal social cost to not being black). It would seem he didn’t actually suffer economic costs since he apparently wasn’t trying to pass as black 24/7.

  3. blf says

    In 1959, reporter John Griffin, “underwent a regimen of large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug methoxsalen, and spending up to fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp” until he could pass as an African-American (he successfully fooled some of his close associates). He then spent six weeks or so in the southern states, experiencing the daily Jim Crow racism of that time and place. He then wrote a book, Black Like Me (which I have read) about his experiences†; this was apparently later turned into a movie (which I have not seen).

      † The referenced Ye Pfffft! of All Knowledge article on the book notes that:

    Journalist Ray Sprigle had undertaken a similar project more than a decade earlier. In 1948, Sprigle disguised himself as a black man and travelled in the Deep South with John Wesley Dobbs, a guide from the NAACP. Sprigle wrote a series of articles under the title, “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,” which was published in many newspapers. The articles formed the basis of Sprigle’s 1949 book In the Land of Jim Crow.

    Of course, these efforts by Griffin & Sprigle were for short times (weeks, not years) and were travels, not a life at home.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Kilian @#3,

    Thanks for the reminder. I can’t imagine how I could have forgotten Dolezal!


    Trying to pass a black as an experiment to experience racism has of course been done as you point out. I was talking about people who did it for personal reasons.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Owlmirror @#1,

    Could you please provide a citation or a link to the paper you quote extensively? I would like to follow it up. Thanks!

  6. Mano Singham says

    Leo @#2,

    There is no doubt that he must have been much in love to carry out such a daring scheme. That fact that his double life was not discovered meant that he may not have suffered actual social and economic costs (as you point out) but the risk of both was extremely strong if he had been discovered and must have always been on his mind. I cannot imagine the stress that he must have experienced on a daily basis.

  7. Owlmirror says

    Mano @#6: I’m sorry, I know I had it in mind to paste the citation.
    England, P.; Molnar, P.; Righter, F. (January 2007). “John Perry’s neglected critique of Kelvin’s age for the Earth: A missed opportunity in geodynamics”. GSA Today. 17 (1): 4–9. doi:10.1130/GSAT01701A.1. (PDF)

  8. Owlmirror says

    Also, a less technical paper on the same topic with more graphics:
    Philip C. England , Peter Molnar and Frank M. Richter. American Scientist. Vol. 95, No. 4 (JULY-AUGUST 2007), pp. 342-349

  9. Owlmirror says

    …and I left off the title of the paper in comment #9: “Kelvin, Perry and the Age of the Earth”.

  10. Mano Singham says

    Owlmirror @#10,

    Thanks! That was a very interesting paper and the author’s warning at the end that “It is hard to dissuade aging scientists, as they slip into their anecdotage, from repeating stories that they find amusing, but their younger colleagues must not mistake such stories for the history of science” applies to me!

  11. tigerlily55 says

    Isn’t anyone troubled by his deception with regard to his wife? His need to possess her was more important than her right to make a decision about a fundamental basis of their relationship? ridiculous!

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