Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/713

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


WITH the year 1842 practically commences the history of astronomical science in America. In that year, Ormsby Macknight Mitchel, a young graduate of West Point, and Professor of Mathematics at Cincinnati, having met with success in lecturing before his classes, was invited to give a course in the college hall. So successful was he in this course, and so great was the interest that he awakened in the subject, that he resolved to turn it to account, and enlist his hearers in the work of building an observatory. As the wealthier cities of the Eastern States had not yet moved in the direction, his plan was regarded by many as impracticable, but, after vigorous personal application, he succeeded in obtaining sufficient subscriptions to warrant a commencement of the work. The enterprise took shape by the organization of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society. Professor Mitchel had no observatory to model from, no practical knowledge of astronomy, and no instrument-makers from whom to purchase instruments or object-glasses. All this must be taught in older countries, and he resolved to go to Europe to this end. In order to husband his resources, he proceeded first to Washington, in the hope that he might be given some mission from the State Department, the remuneration for which would pay his expenses. Mr. Webster, then Secretary of State, informed him that his request was impossible, and nearly everybody, including President Tyler, was inclined to sneer at him as an impractical enthusiast. There was one notable exception—John Quincy Adams spoke words of kindness and encouragement. His application failed, and he proceeded on his journey, crossing the ocean in a sailing-vessel. Upon arriving in England, he looked for an object-glass, but found none worthy of his attention. From England he proceeded to Paris, and called upon M. Arago at the observatory there, who received him kindly; but, not finding what he desired in France, he proceeded to Germany, where he found a fine glass in the Frauenhofer works at Munich, which he purchased. Returning to England, he entered as a student in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and for some months devoted himself to the study of practical astronomy. Upon his return to America, he applied himself vigorously to the work of getting his observatory building ready for the reception of the equatorial telescope that he had ordered in Munich. He desired to secure the services of Mr. John Quincy Adams to deliver the oration at the laying of the corner-stone, and went to Niagara, where he learned Mr. Adams was sojourning at the time, to induce him to go to Cincinnati for that purpose. Notwithstanding the opposition of Mr. Adams's family, on account of his advanced age and infirmity, and the difficulties attending so long a journey in a stage-coach, so great was the ex-President's interest in the matter, and