Science and Politics: The Tale of George Washington's Swamp Gas

By Carl Zimmer | October 17, 2008 1:40 pm

washington.jpgtompaine.jpgMy mother, on whom I depend for all my New Jersey history, passed on a delightful tale of George Washington, Tom Paine, and their passion for chemistry experiments. In early November 1783, Tom Paine paid a visit to George Washington in Rockingham, New Jersey, where Washington was waiting for news of the end of the revolutionary war.  One night Paine and Washington got to talking with two colonels about the will-o-the-wisp, the fiery globe that people sometimes claimed to see floating over marshes.

They came up with two plausible hypotheses. The colonels thought that they were produced from some kind of matter in the marches, such as turpentine. Washington and Paine thought it was a gas.

So the next night, they got in a scow with some soliders and set out on the Millstone River to conduct an experiment. The soliders poked poles into the mud, and Washington and Paine held torches close. They saw bubbles rise, and then a flash of light broke out across the water. Washington and Paine were right. The gas would turn out to be methane, produced by the microbes in the mud.

There will be a reenactment of that presidential hands-on science in celebration of its 225th anniversary on November 5 at dusk on the Millstone River, Rocky Hill, NJ at the junction of Routes 518 and 603. You can watch from the north side of the Rt. 518 Bridge as it crosses the Millstone River.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History of Science

Comments (6)

  1. That’s fantastic. If only more people realized how rational and clear-thinking our Founding Fathers were… Although I couldn’t help but think how some might rationalize it: “See? The Founding Fathers were just like Joe Six-Pack: They liked to go out in boats, poke things with sticks, and setting fire to their gas.” Sorry, couldn’t resist. XD

  2. Allen Hazen

    Thomas Jefferson is the early president USUALLY mentioned for scientific interests: nice to know he wasn’t the only one! (There’s a possible genre here: people from history who were more scientifically minded than we knew. I think Abraham Lincoln was issued a patent for a device to float river boats over shallows… What other Presidents have scientific skeletons in their closets?)

    Paine seems to have been a man of multifarious interests. American history usually focuses on his career as Revolutionary War pampheteer, but he’s better known elsewhere as a deist who attacked orthodox Christianity. (There’s a scene in Shaw’s “Major Barbara” in which Barbara, disillusioned by what she sees as the hypocrisy of the Salvation Army, goes off stage asking a radical workingman to tell her about Tom Paine’s ideas: that, I suspect, is a more salient part of Paine’s achievement for a Vritish audience than “These are the times that try men’s souls…”) And I believe that he was also an inventor, designing an iron bridge at a time when bridges were still all stone or wood.

  3. Paine has always been one of my favorites because of his ideas — now you’ve given me another reason to honor him! Wish I could be there to see the show.

  4. Meg Muckenhoupt

    Any idea who’s doing the reenactment? The folks who run the Rockingham historic house (including my mother, on whom I depend for my New Jersey history) would very much like to know.


  5. The experiment reenactment is being carried out by a Rutgers professor of microbiology, not associated with Rockingham, but with our knowledge. He is conducting this with some students and colleagues. It is scheduled for c. 4:30 pm with a reception to follow at the D&R Canal Park office, 145 Mapleton Rd., Princeton, NJ.


  6. Oh, and just one note: by the time Paine visited Washington at Rockinham, they had already received word that the Treaty of Paris was signed and that the Revolutionary War was over.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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