Amos Eaton was born at Chatham, Columbia County, New York on 17 May 1776. His father, Captain Abel Eaton was a farmer of comfortable means. He belonged to a family that traced its lineage to John Eaton, who arrived from Dover, England in 1635, settling two years later in Dedham, Massachusetts Bay Colony. Amos Eaton showed early preference for nature, by the age of sixteen constructing his own compass and chain to survey land as a chain bearer.
Eaton was sent to Williamstown with the Rev. Dr. David Potter, of Spencertown, to study at Williams College. After graduating in 1799 with high marks in natural philosophy, he married the daughter of Malachi and Mary (née McCall) Thomas in October the same year, who died in 1802, leaving him a son. He arranged to study in the legal profession, studying law with the Hon. Elisha Williams, of Spencertown, and the Hon. Josiah Ogden, of New York, receiving admittance to the bar of the Supreme Court of New York. An association that he formed in New York with Dr. David Hosack and Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, marked another determining point in his career; for, under their instruction, Eaton, became committed to the natural sciences, and in particular botany. Eaton practiced as a lawyer and as a land agent in Catskill, New York until 1810, when he was jailed on charges of forgery, spending nearly five years in prison. On his release in 1815, Eaton removed to New Haven at Yale College to take up the study of botany, chemistry and mineralogy under the tuition of Benjamin Silliman and Eli Ives. He then returned to Williams College to offer a course of lectures and volunteer classes of the students on botany, mineralogy zoology, and geology and published a botanical dictionary. In 1817, he published his Manual of Botany for the Northern States, the first comprehensive flora of the area; it ultimately went through eight editions. From Williams College the lectures were extended, in the shape of courses, with practical instructions to classes, to the larger towns of New England and New York.
He returned to New York State in 1818 to Albany on DeWitt Clinton's preparations for him to deliver a series of lectures to the New York State Legislature on the state's geology in connection with the building of the Erie Canal and agriculture. Among the legislators who heard these lectures was Stephen Van Rensselaer III, patroon of Rensselaerswyck, who, in 1820, hired him to produce A geological Survey of the County of Albany, which was followed by geological surveys of much of the area through which the canal was built. Ultimately, Eaton would complete a survey of a section fifty miles wide from Buffalo to Boston.
Eaton delivered talks at the Lenox Academy and the Medical College at Castleton, Vermont, where he was appointed professor of natural history in 1820. He gave lectures and practical instructions in Troy, laying the foundation as a result of his work, of the Lyceum of Natural History. In 1820 and 1821, Eaton initiated geological and agricultural surveys of Albany and Rensselaer counties at the expense of Van Rensselaer. Eaton's efforts led Troy as a depository of an extensive collection of geological specimens and comprehensive land surveys.
After co-founding the Rensselaer School in 1824, Van Rensselaer appointed Eaton to teach chemistry, experimental philosophy, geology, surveying, and the "laws regulating town officers and jurors." By then Eaton was a well established public speaker on natural philosophy, touring and delivering lectures in the northeast. He was also a recognized pioneer in botany and principal land surveyor in the country. Eaton immediately set about to develop a new kind of institution devoted to the application of science to life, to a modern scientific prospectus, to new methods of instruction and examination, to recognize women in higher education a possibility, and to be practical in training for adults. Eaton's original aim was to also train teachers and disciples, which he did in large numbers. Students learned by doing, in sharp contrast with the conventional method of learning by rote. Students were made into experimenters and workers, and, in place of recitations, delivered lectures to one another. Eaton also often led day excursions, taking students to observe the application of science on nearby farms and in workshops, tanneries, and bleaching factories. They then returned to the laboratory, analyzing the principles involved. This, too, was an innovation, as it represented a reversal of the usual pedagogical method, which began with the principle and proceeded to the application. Eaton's principal focus was the training of students to teach science and its applications to the New York farming community via experimental demonstrations, a goal in keeping with Britain's mechanics' institutes and lyceum movements on diffusing useful knowledge. As a result, Eaton's system of instruction posed a challenge, if not a threat, to the traditional liberal-arts colleges, causing them to expand their own curricula and set up departments or schools of engineering and science. Formal engineering education would not be added at Rensselaer until 1828. After becoming professor of natural history at Harvard University in 1842, Asa Gray required some practical work of all of his students in botany along the lines established by Amos Eaton. Under his leadership, Troy, New York rivaled London, England as a center for geological studies in the first part of the 19th century.
Eaton was interested in education for women, he had lectured them on his tour of New England, and he was persuaded that their failure in science was caused by inferior opportunity, not "perversion of female genius." Eaton, clearly hoped to educate females at the school. He believed that women were capable of learning practical science and mathematics; they simply had not been taught the subjects at traditional female academies. His commitment to the cause led Eaton to enroll a class of eight young women in a special mathematics course to show that they could advance beyond "the speculative geometry and algebra as generally practiced in female seminaries." When the students completed their course of study in 1835, Eaton requested a review of their progress by the school's less-than-enthusiastic board of examiners. The eight young ladies who participated in Eaton's experiment continued their education at the Troy Female Seminary. Eaton trained a bevy of future, notable, scientists and lectured to countless later educationists.
Today Amos Eaton Hall houses the mathematics department, and the Amos Eaton Professorship is a faculty endowment named at the institute. The Amos Eaton Chair was originally given by students to Amos Eaton in 1839, but was later returned to the institute by the Eaton family.
Following the death of his first wife, Polly Thomas, Eaton was remarried to Sally Cady in 1803, who bore him five sons. After her death he was remarried to Anna Bradley in 1816, by whom he had three sons and two daughters. She having died, Eaton married Alice Johnson in 1827, who bore him one son, and survived him about four years. Three of his children showed a preference for natural philosophy. Hezekiah Hulbert Eaton (1809-1832) became a chemist at Transylvania University but died at the age of twenty-three. Major General Amos Beebe Eaton (1806-1877) was a U.S. Army officer interested in natural philosophy. Sara Cady Eaton (1818-1881) taught natural sciences and modern languages in a young woman's seminary at Monticello, Illinois. Eaton's grandson, Daniel Cady Eaton (1834-1895), professed botany at Yale College in the 1860s.
Amos Eaton published on agriculture, botany, engineering, geology, surveying, and zoology.Art without Science (1800)
Elementary Treatise on Botany (1810)
Botanical Dictionary (1817) (2nd 1819, 4th ed. 1836)
Manual of Botany (1817)
Index to the Geology of the Northern States (1818)
Geological and Agricultural Survey of the County of Albany, New York (1820)
Chemical Notebook (1821)
Chemical Instructor (1822)
Cuvier's Grand Division (1822)
Geological Nomenclature of North America (1822)
Zoological Syllabus and Notebook (1822)
Geological and Agricultural Survey of the District adjoining the Erie Canal (1824)
Philosophical Instructor (1824)
Botanical Exercises (1825)
Botanical Grammar and Dictionary (1828)
Geological Text-Books Prepared for Popular Lectures on North American Geology (1830)
Directions for Surveying and Engineering (1838)
Geological Text-Book for the Troy Class (1841)
James Curtis Booth — chemist, melter and refiner at the U.S. Mint
Ezra S. Carr — medical doctor, natural scientist
George Hammell Cook — state geologist of New Jersey and vice-president of Rutgers College
James Dwight Dana — Geologist, zoologist
James Eights — Antarctic explorer
Ebenezer Emmons — geologist; named the Adirondack Mountains
Asa Fitch — natural historian and entomologist
Asa Gray — botanist
James Hall — First New York State Geologist
Joseph Henry — Developed electromagnetism
Eben Norton Horsford — scientist
Douglass Houghton — doctor, chemist, geologist
Mary Mason Lyon — founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps — natural scientist and educator
John Leonard Riddell — botanist, geologist and author
Abram Sager — professor of zoology, botany, obstetrics, and physiology
John Torrey — botanist
Emma Willard — founder of Troy Female Seminary