The regional development of science: Knowledge, environment, and field work in the United States Central Plains and Rocky Mountains, 1860--1920

Jeremy Vetter, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines the production of knowledge in a geographical region. The U.S. Central West—including present-day Colorado, Wyoming, eastern Utah, western Nebraska, western Kansas, and southwestern South Dakota—was opened up by the building of the Union Pacific half of the transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s. A region of high, arid plains that also includes the towering mountain ranges of the southern Rockies and the canyonlands of the northern Colorado Plateau, its American Indian inhabitants were displaced in the nineteenth century by American settlers, including field scientists who studied the region's physical, biological, and human diversity. Just as the Central West saw its mineral wealth become the object of resource extraction by the industrializing metropolitan centers of the East, so too did it become a lucrative periphery for the production of knowledge. The economy of knowledge was closely interrelated with yet distinct from the capitalist economy. Knowledge circulation was an emerging commodity flow in the transformation of the region. By looking at a single region, which is bounded and coherent yet displays some internal environmental diversity, this dissertation probes the relationship between place and knowledge. Framing these questions in environmental history and historical geography, it explores how the environment influenced the making of knowledge in the field. It also examines the role of work organization in the production of knowledge, analyzing how field scientists turned natural resources into knowledge through various modes of field production, including networks, surveys, stations, and quarries. By making field work more systematic, these modes responded to the epistemological challenge offered by the rise of laboratories. While researchers and institutions from outside the region dominated early knowledge production efforts, regional actors became more important, especially after the 1890s. Gradually the region developed secondary outposts of knowledge processing, most notably the Colorado Piedmont region around Denver, which also formed the emerging economic center of the region. By 1920, the Central West had become a significant knowledge production region not only for the older metropolitan centers of the East but also its own younger core cities.

Subject Area

Science history|American history|Geography

Recommended Citation

Vetter, Jeremy, "The regional development of science: Knowledge, environment, and field work in the United States Central Plains and Rocky Mountains, 1860--1920" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3179825.