Clarence King, an American geologist, was born Jan. 6, 1842. In 1867, King was granted permission and funding to lead an expedition along the Fortieth Parallel from California to the Rockies, to survey the probable path of the transcontinental railroad. The survey lasted for six years, and was notable for being the first to be entirely under civilian control (all of the great western surveys before the Civil War were military ventures, led by officers in the Corps of Topographical Engineers). The photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was part of the King Survey, as was the ornithologist Robert Ridgway, and the landscape artist Gilbert Munger.

King oversaw the publication of a seven-volume Report on the Survey (1870-78), which we have in the History of Science collection. King’s own volume, Systematic Geology (1878), was a grand synthesis of the geology of the West, and is considered the capstone of the entire series. The King survey volumes are illustrated by chromolithographs based on Munger’s paintings, and also by photolithographs taken by O’Sullivan, so that the grandiose nature of the Rocky Mountain School of Art can be directly contrasted with the stark realism of the photographic plate. Compare, for example, the chromolithograph of Shoshone Falls (fourth image) with an O’Sullivan photograph of the same scene (fifth image)

In 1879, King briefly became the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, before turning over the reins to the one-armed explorer of the Colorado River, John Wesley Powell. This photograph we show above (first image) was taken in the mid-1860s, before the 40th-parallel survey began; King is on the far right. The other illustrations, both based on O’Sullivan photographs, show Pyramid Lake in Nevada (second image) and the badlands of Wyoming (third image).

We displayed several of the King volumes in our 2004 exhibition, Science Goes West, which is not available online. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City has many original photographic prints taken by O’Sullivan on the King Survey, quite a number of which were displayed in their 2012 exhibition: Timothy H. O’Sullivan : the King Survey Photographs, available as a printed catalog.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to