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Birth of Eliphalet Nott, an American Original

With Yankee ingenuity, he tried his hand at a myriad things.

UNDER TODAY’S LAWS, Eliphalet Nott would probably go to jail. Having accepted the presidency of the failing Union College in Schenectady, New York, he undertook to make it financially sound. Through lotteries, appeals for donations, investment of his wife’s money, the invention of a stove that burned anthracite (a kind of “super coal”), and other ventures, he raised the needed funds. However, one investment, placed in steamboats, collapsed. Auditors sifting through his knotty financial records after the fact found that he had used college funds interchangeably with his own. They hushed the matter up on condition he leave a large endowment to the school. 

Born in Connecticut on this day 25 June 1773, Nott became a true Yankee entrepreneur. He needed all the ingenious spirit he could get, because a fire, a mugging, and malaria had ruined his devout parents and undermined his father’s health. Nott’s mother worked ceaselessly to feed the family while giving Nott and his siblings their first education. Nott learned to read at three and read the Bible through soon after, memorizing large chunks as a child. In his teens, he turned his hand to any work at hand: peddling, blacksmithing, shoemaking, farming, and building. He even became a doctor’s apprentice but, after fainting at his first sight of a breast operation, decided he was unfit for the profession. 

His life’s work presented itself when he filled a temporary vacancy at a school for young women. He had to study the lessons the night before to stay one step ahead of the class, but soon found he had the gift of holding students’ interest. Afterward, he studied with one of his older brothers and taught on the side. He learned so well that he was able to take his master’s degree through special exams. When he was twenty, the trustees of Plainfield Academy, one of the most important schools in New England, invited him to become its principal. Abolishing whippings, Nott motivated his students by reminding them of their heavenly reward. Other educators followed his method. He next pastored a church, acquiring a reputation as one of the best speakers of the day. As a result, the prestigious First Presbyterian Church of Albany, New York engaged him.

One of his sermons even helped outlaw dueling. After his parishioner Aaron Burr killed another of his parishioners, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, Nott preached: “Do you ask then, how you shall conduct yourself towards your enemy who hath lightly done you wrong? If he be hungry, feed him. If he be thirsty, give him drink. Such, had you proffered your question to Jesus Christ is the answer he had given you.” 

It was at this point that Nott accepted the headship of Union College. For several years, he served simultaneously as president of an engineering school. After resigning the second position, he broke new ground by appointing science teachers to the faculty of Union and dividing the curriculum so that students could major in either science or classics. Colleges like Princeton successfully imitated this plan. Nott allowed social fraternities at Union. Critics deplored these “secret societies,” but Nott saw them as useful for strengthening discipline. He also encouraged a revival of religion at Union under the preaching of Asahel Nettleton. 

Nott claimed to be a student of “caloric” science and patented his anthracite stove along with many other inventions, successfully defending his patents in court. These made him rich. When he died in 1866 at ninety-two years of age, having presided over Union for sixty-two years, he bequeathed $500,000 to the school. In today’s money that would be over eleven million dollars

Dan Graves

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For more on innovative Christians, read Christian History #134 How the church fostered science and technology

For more on Christians in education, read Christian History #139 Hallowed Halls

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