Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/November 1887/Sketch of Chester S. Lyman

PSM V32 D008 Chester Smith Lyman.jpg


extemporized for himself a rude telescope by means of his mother's spectacles, a small burning-lens, and a yard-stick. In later life he said, "I can never forget the delight with which I turned this upon the Pleiades, and for the first time saw this cluster expand into a large number of brighter stars." From Gibson and Bowditch he learned, without a teacher, the rudiments of geometry and trigonometry, and in due time obtained a good knowledge of surveying and navigation.

When he was thirteen a copy of Ferguson's "Astronomy" fell into his hands, and was devoured by him as eagerly as most boys read "Robinson Crusoe." He also had access to the articles "Astronomy," "Optics," and some others, in the "Edinburgh Encyclopædia." From thirteen until he was sixteen, except the twelve weeks of Latin mentioned farther on, he spent most of his spare time either studying, entirely without assistance, or in a little tool-shop of bis father's, constructing astronomical and other instruments which he had never seen except in the diagrams of his few much-prized books. Among these instruments, which were mainly of wood, were a quadrant, sextant, terrestrial and celestial globes, orrery, eclipsareon, solar microscope, and many others. lie also constructed a reflecting Herschelian telescope four feet long, which enabled him to show Jupiter's satellites and belts, Saturn's rings, the moon, and other celestial objects, to the country-folk who came from miles around to look through it. He computed all the eclipses for fifteen years to come, and made almanacs for 1830 and 1831. In order to give the places of the planets in these almanacs (never having seen a nautical almanac or astronomical tables of the planets), he made rough tables for himself, computing them from the elements of the planet's orbits as given in his book on natural philosophy. When about fourteen he with five other boys was made the subject of an experiment in teaching Latin, which impressed him with a life-long conviction that, in the ordinary methods of teaching the classics, one half the time at least is unnecessarily wasted.

The Rev. V. R. Osborn had recently started in Manchester a school in which he aimed to apply what was then widely known as the Hamiltonian system of instruction to the classics—a system, in the main, advocated by Milton and Locke, as well as by other high authorities in education, from Cardinal Wolsey and Erasmus down to Hamilton, who used it in the early part of this century. In order to settle a controversy in the Hartford papers as to the merits of the system, it was suggested that it should be applied in teaching a class of boys who knew absolutely no Latin. Accordingly, young Lyman (not then a member of the school) and a few others were invited to form the class. At the first meeting the first six lines of the "Æneid" were slowly read and translated by Mr. Hart, the teacher, with explanations, the boys one at a time repeating the translation after him, sentence by sentence, until all had gone over the lesson. It was afterward made familiar by using an interlinear translation prepared for them by Mr, Hart. These lessons being gradually increased in length, the first three books were soon read. With their review a Latin grammar for the first time was used, which, now that the text was understood, proved a fascinating exercise instead of the usual bugbear. With this start the remaining nine books were read by means of the clavis of the Delphin edition of Virgil, as Mr. Hart's translation then only included three books.[1] The whole "Æneid" was thus completed in twelve weeks, at the end of which an examination of the class by a professor at Trinity (then Washington) College, Hartford, was pronounced highly creditable, and excited much interest at the time.

Two or three years later several of the leading men in Manchester, together with Major Bissell, an army officer, having become interested in Lyman's mechanical and scientific pursuits, and wishing him to have the advantages of a thorough education, sent an application to the Secretary of War for a cadetship at West Point. There was every prospect that the appointment would be given him, but, before the requisite time had elapsed, he, having become interested in religious matters, determined, instead of entering the military profession, to go to college with a view of becoming a minister. He had now reached the age of eighteen, had taught school two winters in his native town, and been active in a society which he had started for debate and literary practice, giving occasional lectures on scientific and other subjects. He had, withal, fallen into the habit of occasionally writing verses, which now and then got into the newspapers. This habit, begun at the age of ten or twelve, followed him to college and on occasions through life. Entering, in June, 1832, the Ellington School, then one of the most prominent preparatory schools in New England, he fitted for college in twelve months' time, entering Yale in 1833, without conditions.

During his college course he took several literary prizes; and in his junior year he was one of the originators and editors of the "Yale Literary Magazine," being associated with W. T. Bacon, W. M. Evarts, and others. In addition to his regular studies, in which he took high rank, he continued through his course his scientific pursuits, being assistant to the Professor of Natural Philosophy and having access to the observatory, from which he saw, among other objects, the famous Halley's comet at its return in 1835.

On graduating in 1837 he declined several eligible positions, among them a professorship in a Western university, a place in the Wilkes Exploring Expedition, an examinership in the Patent-Office, etc., and became for two years Superintendent of the Ellington School, among his immediate predecessors having been Hon. Alphonso Taft, of Cincinnati, and Professor John L. Taylor, of Andover. After studying theology in Union and Yale Seminaries, and holding a short pastorate over the First Church in New Britain, Connecticut, he was obliged to travel for his health.

After a seven and a half months' voyage in a sailing-vessel he reached the Sandwich Islands via Cape Horn in May, 1846, where he remained a little more than a year. While there, he visited and mapped the volcanic crater of Kilauea, which he afterward described fully in the "American Journal of Science."

While staying at Hilo, in the family of Mr. Coan, the missionary, the unusually large rainfall on that side of Hawaii (over ten feet annually) led Mr. Lyman to construct an ingenious self-registering raingauge, which, by means of clock-work, drew a line on a ruled diagram, showing the time of day and all the circumstances of the rainfall.[2]

During his stay at Honolulu, Mr. Lyman was called upon to teach the Royal School for a few months, having among his pupils four young chiefs, who later successively occupied the Hawaiian throne, and also the chiefess who was afterward Queen Emma.

Just before leaving the islands for California, Mr. Lyman bought an outfit of surveying instruments from his friend Chief-Justice Lee. With these instruments he arrived, in July, 1847, at San Francisco, just then newly laid out among scrub-oaks and sand-hills, and adopting that name instead of its previous one of Yerba Buena. He found it a small settlement, and the only one of its streets on which there were enough buildings of any sort to show which way it ran was Montgomery Street, which then was at the water-front, and in one place was covered with water at high tide, but now is many blocks inland.

Having been commissioned as surveyor by Colonel Mason, the military governor, Mr. Lyman soon found himself fully occupied in the survey of ranches and towns in various parts of California, especially in the country between San Francisco and San José. Among these was a resurvey of the city and adjacent lands of San José (which had been fraudulently laid out by his predecessor, so that many of the lots existed only on his chart), and also the original survey of the famous New Almaden mine, probably the richest quicksilver-mine in the world.

In May, 1847, while he was engaged in surveying the town of San José, there came reports, at first uncredited, that gold had been discovered at Sutter's Mill, on the American River, a hundred and fifty miles or so up in the mountains. At length, a man who had come from the diggings showed some gold specimens in a store at San Jose, and, the report being at last believed, men began soon to flock to the mines. When Mr. Lyman's assistants, who were earning twenty-five dollars a month, heard that their friends at the mines were making as much each day, they also were for starting immediately. Mr. Lyman induced them to finish the work in hand by the promise of going with them if they waited, which was indeed his only alternative, as no more assistants were to be had.

Accordingly, in June, he with a small party started for the mountains, in reaching which they had many difficulties to encounter. Having learned that in order to cross the Strait of Carquinez, which lay in the regular route thither, they must wait three weeks at the ferry, to take their turn with the crowds of gold-seekers already before them, they decided to take a bee-line across the flooded San Joaquin Valley. This they accomplished by improvising a unique boat out of a wagon-body, set into an envelope of rawhides, which they had obtained from wild cattle shot on the way and sewed together for the purpose.

After many other rough experiences of this kind, they reached Sutter's Mill in about a fortnight.

Though they found the district already overrun with diggers, they succeeded in extracting for themselves amounts of gold varying from fifteen to a hundred dollars each daily. The extraordinary price of provisions and all useful articles naturally used up much of their profits—potatoes, sugar, coffee, etc., costing a dollar a pound (and later three dollars!); butter, a dollar and a half a pound; shovels, ten dollars a piece; milk-pans, five to ten dollars; shirts, as high as twenty-five dollars each, etc.

From the mines Mr. Lyman sent to the East some of the first authentic accounts of the gold discovery, which produced much excitement, and found their way into many newspapers. One account was published in "The American Journal of Science."

But life in the gold-region being exceedingly rough, Mr. Lyman after about two months left them, and resumed his work of surveying, which he continued until, with entirely restored health, he returned to New Haven via Panama, in 1850.

Being married in that city, in June of the same year, to Miss Delia W. Wood, a daughter of the Hon. Joseph Wood and granddaughter of Chief-Justice Oliver Ellsworth, he settled permanently in New Haven, engaging in scientific and literary pursuits, among which was the preparation of the definitions of scientific words for new editions of Webster's Dictionary. In 1859 he became Professor of Industrial Mechanics and Physics in Yale College, taking an active part in organizing the Sheffield Scientific School, in which he also taught astronomy, and in the early years of the school rhetoric and moral science. In 1871, with the growth of the school, he was relieved of mechanics, and his professorship was changed to that of Astronomy and Physics. On account of impaired health, he resigned the chair of Physics in 1884, but still retains the Sheffield professorship of Astronomy, of which science he has been the instructor from the organization of the school in 1860.

He spent the summer of 1869 in Europe, for the purpose of collecting mechanical and physical apparatus for the school, and of visiting scientific institutions. He has been a contributor to "The American Journal of Science," "The New-Englander," and other periodicals, and is the originator of various useful inventions, among which are the wave apparatus known by his name, patented and manufactured by Messrs. Ritchie & Sons, of Boston, and a pendulum apparatus for describing Lissajou's acoustic curves, constructed several years in advance of a similar apparatus made in London by Tisley & Spiller.

Professor Lyman is the original inventor of the combined transit instrument and zenith telescope for determining latitude by Talcott's method. This instrument was designed and mainly constructed in 1852-'53, and numerous observations together with a description of the instrument were published in "The American Journal of Science" and elsewhere, some ten years before the construction and published account of a like instrument by Davidson.[3] His aptitude in practical mechanics was of much service to him in devising and constructing apparatus for the lecture-room.

Professor Lyman has been actively interested from the first in the establishment of the Yale Observatory, and is one of its board of managers. His attention has been much given also to practical horology, and some improvements of his in escapements and compensation pendulums have proved practically valuable. He was the first to observe Venus as a delicate ring of light when very near the sun in inferior conjunction, as in December, 1866, and also before and after the transit of Venus in 1874.

He is a member of various scientific and literary bodies, among them the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and was for twenty years President of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Lyman's life-work has been mainly teaching. He has the quality so necessary in a successful instructor—that of explaining difficulties with great clearness and patience. His uniform practice of treating his students as gentlemen rather than school-boys, and trusting to their sense of honor, has gained for him their universal respect and affection.

  1. This translation was subsequently completed and published in Baltimore, with the names of V. R. Osbom and Levi Hart on the title-page, and serves to this day as a pony for students in Virgil.
  2. One peculiarity of this rain-gauge was the device by which, in extra heavy rainfalls, which would more than have filled the reservoir, a valve, by which it was emptied, automatically opened and closed, bringing the recording pencil back to zero.
  3. This instrument has been in use for many years, and known by Lyman's name, in the governmental survey of India.