Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/July 1895/Sketch of William Cranch Bond



IN seconding the obituary resolutions of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the first director of the Harvard College Observatory, ex-President Quincy used these words: "It is not too much to say that the extent of his knowledge, the winning urbanity of his manners, and his exemplary exactness in life and as an observer, in a great degree effected the attainment of those large means and increased powers which ultimately raised to its present prosperous state the observatory over which through subsequent life he watched, and which he left at death honored and improved by his labors and genius." Let us briefly trace the career which could deserve such a testimonial.

William Cranch Bond was born in Portland, Me., September 9, 1789, being the youngest son in a family of several children. His parents, Hannah (Cranch) and William Bond, were natives of England and were married there. The Bond family can be traced to the time of William the Conqueror, by whom Brandon Manor is said to have been granted to the contemporary ancestor of that line. William Bond was born in Plymouth, and became a clockmaker and silversmith. Having been induced to emigrate to America, he located at Portland, then called Falmouth, and engaged in cutting ship timber which he sent to England. In a short time he brought over his family, but the timber business not proving successful, he removed to Boston in 1793 and took up again his former occupation. His shop stood on one of the corners of Milk and Marlboro (now Washington) Streets, the other being occupied by the Old South Church. William C. Bond was then a Boston boy from the age of four years. He had little opportunity to attend school, for the circumstances of the family, as he afterward told Josiah Quincy, "obliged me to become an apprentice to my father before I had learned the multiplication table." But, judging from his later achievements, young William must have been the kind of boy that picks up knowledge, so his lack of set schooling was not so great a misfortune as it might seem.

His eldest sister described him as having been, at the age of fourteen, "a slender boy with soft gray eyes and silky brown hair, quick to observe, yet shrinking from notice, and sensitive to excess." She adds, in reference to his early developed tastes: "The first that I remember was his intense anxiety about the expected total eclipse of the sun of June 16, 1806. He had then no instrument of his own, but watched the event from a house top on Summer Street through a telescope belonging to Mr. Francis Gray, to which somehow he got access. In so doing he injured his eyes, and for a long time was troubled in his vision."

An elder brother writes of him at this early period, "He was the mildest and best tempered boy I ever knew, and his remarkable mechanical genius showed itself very early." He adds that in devising and making bits of apparatus that boys use in their sports, William was chief among his comrades. Before he was fifteen years old he had constructed at odd times a reliable shop chronometer. He had no model to go by, but made it after a description of an instrument used by La Pérouse, the navigator, which he had found in an old French book. Not having a suitable spring to put into it, he contrived to run it by weights. About a year later he made a good working quadrant out of ebony and boxwood, the best materials he had. His son, George Phillips Bond, has thus described this instrument: "It is no rude affair, but every part, especially the graduation, the most difficult of all, shows the neatness, patience, and accuracy of a practiced artist. A better witness to the progress he had already made in astronomy could not be desired. It is all that the materials would admit of, and proves that he must have been, even then, irrevocably devoted to astronomy."

About the time he became of age his father took him into partnership, and the clock-making business was expanded to include the rating, repairing, and making of chronometers. The first seagoing chronometer made in America was made by him in 1812. It at once went into service, and satisfactorily stood the test of a voyage to and from the East Indies. In 1810 the Bonds removed their business to Congress Street, and the family took up its abode in Dorchester.

Mr. Bond regarded his watching of the eclipse when he was seventeen years of age as the event that determined his pursuit of astronomy. Certain it is that he never after then abandoned it. Five years later he first came under the notice of older astronomers, and in this way: Prof. John Farrar, of Harvard College, having caught sight of a comet on September 4, 1811, watched its subsequent progress and published a paper on it in the memoirs of the American Academy. Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch, of Salem, to whom he communicated this discovery, did the same, and the comet was watched also by others. Before presenting his paper to the academy, Prof. Farrar learned that young Bond had seen the comet in the preceding April. He mentioned this fact in the account of his own observations and added the following notes, with which, he says, Mr. Bond had "obligingly favored" him:[1]

"I remarked on the 21st of April a faint, whitish light near the constellation Canis Major projecting a tail about one degree in length, and set down its place as follows: right ascension, 106º; declination, 7º or 8º south. Its motion and the situation of its tail convinced me that it was a comet. I noticed it several times in May, and supposed that its motion was toward the western part of the constellation Leo."

These observations on the comet brought the young chronometer-maker the acquaintance of scientific men and facilities for his favorite pursuit. Up to this time his observations had been made with the rudest appliances. The elder brother already quoted says of these early days: "I suppose it would cause the astronomer royal to laugh could he see the first transit instrument used by us at Dorchester—a strip of brass nailed to the east end of the house, with a hole in it to see a fixed star and note its transit; this in 1813. When we moved into the Hawes house, he procured a good granite block; we dug a deep hole and placed it at the west end of the house, and got Mr. Alger to cast a stand for the transit instrument, a small one, which I think belonged to Harvard College. From this time he began to live among the stars."

Bond's sister also gives an account of the setting up of the first telescope used by him at Dorchester, and says that through it could be seen the satellites of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. She adds that in the pursuit of astronomy "he had had no assistance whatever, except from the genial kindness of Hon. Josiah Quincy, who had early recognized the future astronomer in the unpretending boy in the watchmaker's shop on Congress Street, and whose kindness and encouragement never failed throughout the subsequent years."

The obstacles in the path of the young astronomer were now rapidly removed. The leading men of science in Boston and vicinity gave him their aid and counsel. "He has mentioned," writes his son, "the names of Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch, Prof. Farrar, and Tutor Clapp as those from whom he received most encouragement to continue the cultivation of astronomy. Upon his friendly intercourse with the eminent mathematician and astronomer first named he often dwelt with peculiar pleasure and warmth of feeling."

Although instruction in astronomy had been given and astronomical observations had been made bj r the professor of natural philosophy at Harvard for a century or more, the college had not as yet been able to erect an observatory. In 1805 John Lowell, uncle of the founder of the Lowell Institute, had obtained from Delambre in Paris advice as to a building and its equipment. But nothing further was done at that time. Ten years later the college authorities took up the subject anew and appointed a committee to form a plan for an observatory. Mr. Bond was then about to make a trip to England, and his friends Farrar and Bowditch procured for him a commission as agent of the college to obtain information as to the construction and instrumental equipment of the observatory at Greenwich, and to make such drawings as would be needed in constructing an observatory for the college. He was requested also to obtain from the makers the prices of instruments like the principal ones used at Greenwich. "He performed the service," says the writer of the sketch above referred to, "and reported in detail in the following year. That nothing practical came of it for a quarter of a century was not owing to the will but, comparatively speaking, to the poverty of the college.

"This result followed, however, that, upon his return, Mr. Bond constructed the model of an astronomical dome, the operative plan of which was the same as that of the great dome built in 1844, and which has been in satisfactory use at Cambridge to the present time. The chief peculiarity of its mechanism is in the method of rotation by means of smoothly turned spheres of iron. The dome rests on these at equidistant points, and, being set in motion by suitable gearing, the iron balls sustaining its weight roll along a level, circular track of iron, the circumference of which is equal to that of the dome. The method was unlike that previously in use. It appears to have been original with Mr. Bond, as is perhaps evinced by a remark in his report for 1848 referring to the matter: 'If carefully examined, it will be found that this arrangement is as perfect in theory as it is appropriate and convenient in practice.' Experience has shown that spheres of hard bronze are more serviceable than those of iron, and bronze is now used."

While Mr. Bond was abroad, he married, July 18, 1819, his cousin, Selina Cranch, of Kingsbridge, in Devonshire. Returning home, he went to live in Dorchester near his father's residence in a house which he bought. On these premises he erected, about 1823, a small wooden building which he carefully equipped for astronomical observations. This building is meant in the official reference to the "observatory at Dorchester" found in various publications. Its position, as given by Mr. Bond in 1833, was 0º 3' 15″ east of Harvard Hall in Cambridge.

Mr. Bond now advanced rapidly in his favorite pursuit. "As soon as his circumstances permitted," writes his son, "he imported more perfect apparatus from Europe, and continued to add to his collection until it was the best in the country." In his little observatory "no eclipse or occultation escaped him, though occupied in business during the day in Boston." After gathering for several years materials for investigating the comparative rates of chronometers at sea and on shore, he presented a paper to the American Academy in which he effectually disposed of the scientific question involved, so far as it related to the interests of navigation. Mr. G. P. Bond, who records this, states that his father investigated also the influence of changes of temperature in the presence of large surfaces of iron upon the performance of chronometers, and, "although the conclusions arrived at were at variance with the opinions of men high in authority in such matters, they are now known to be correct."

About this time the Navy Department sent out the Wilkes Exploring Expedition, the purpose of which in part was to establish the latitudes and longitudes of uncharted places in distant parts, of the world where American commerce was extending, and in part to investigate natural phenomena, including the facts of terrestrial magnetism. In connection with this expedition, Mr. Bond was engaged to make at his private observatory investigations to fix a zero of longitude, whence final reference to Greenwich might be had, and to make a continuous record of magnetic observations at Dorchester for comparison with like records obtained at distant points by the expedition itself. As preliminary to the latter work Mr. Bond tested the magnetic instruments with which the expedition was to be equipped.

Josiah Quincy, who had given Mr. Bond early encouragement, was now President of Harvard College. It occurred to him, to use his own words, "that if Mr. Bond could be induced to transfer his apparatus and residence to Cambridge and pursue his observations there, under the auspices of the university, it would have an important influence in clearing the way for the establishment of an efficient observatory in connection with that seminary."

There was little inducement for Mr. Bond to make the change. His business was prosperous and his home life among friends and neighbors whom he had known for years was very pleasant. The college could offer him no salary—only the use of a house. In his excessive modesty he feared that the arrangement proposed would arouse great expectations that he with the facilities at his command would be unable to satisfy. He made other objections, but all were overcome, and on November 30, 1839, he entered into a contract with the college corporation, agreeing to make the transfer as proposed. A subscription was at once raised for fitting up a dwelling owned by the college to be occupied by Mr. Bond. This building, known as the Dana House, was the first observatory of Harvard College. It still stands upon its original site at the southeast corner of what are distinctively called the college grounds, and is remembered by many Harvard graduates as the residence for a term of years of the Rev. Dr. A. P. Peabody. Its cupola was placed upon it to accommodate one of Mr. Bond's telescopes, and at that time was suitably domed.

Mr. Bond's chief work at Cambridge for the first two or three years was a continuation and extension of his observations for the Navy Department in regard to the earth's magnetism. He was assisted by his son, W. C. Bond, Jr., whose death in 1842 was regarded as a loss to science. Renewed exertions were now made to secure an adequate observatory and set of instruments. The site was purchased in 1841. A brilliant comet that appeared in 1843 furnished a favorable occasion for raising a subscription. The best telescope that could be produced in Europe, a refractor of fifteen inches aperture, equatorially mounted, was ordered from Merz & Mahler, of Munich, and ground was broken for a pier for it in the summer of the same year. In September, 1844,

The Dana House. First observatory of Harvard College.

the instruments were removed from the Dana House to the new observatory, and Mr. Bond entered upon a series of observations for determining the latitude and longitude of the new station.

Mr. Bond's first recorded observation in Cambridge was of date December 31, 1839, and his appointment as director of the observatory dates from February 12, 1840. During the first eight years of his connection with Harvard College he is to be regarded as a benefactor rather than an employee of the institution. The official report for 1846 states that up to that time the labors of Mr. Bond had been "entirely unrequited, except by the gratification of his love of science and of home," and suggest that this devotion to the institution at Cambridge was the more marked in that during the preceding spring he had declined "the almost unlimited offers made to him by the administration at Washington to induce him to take charge of the observatory there." It is known also that frequent expenditures of his own money were made during this period for current expenses and for things convenient in conducting the observatory—sums small severally, no doubt, but considerable in the total. In 1846 a sum equal to the proposed salaries for the next two years was subscribed by citizens of Boston, and in 1849 the official board was able to report that "through a bequest of one hundred thousand dollars made by Edward Bromfield Phillips they should thereafter be relieved from anxiety as to the payment of salaries and current expenses."

The fifteen-inch equatorial was set up in June, 1847, and has done splendid service for now nearly half a century. At last the skill of Prof. Bond was furnished with a fitting implement. In reply to an inquiry from Edward Everett, who had become president of the college the year before, Prof. Bond wrote specifying several interesting things that could be seen with it, and ended by saying: "But I must recollect that you require of me only a brief account of our telescope. The objects revealed to us by this excellent instrument are so numerous and interesting that it is difficult to know where to stop" In a subsequent letter he wrote to the president, "You will rejoice with me that the great nebula in Orion has yielded to the powers of our incomparable telescope." Besides this and other nebulæ the planet Saturn was an early subject of investigation. On September 19, 1848, Prof. Bond discovered the eighth satellite of this planet, which long remained the only addition to the solar system made on the continent of America.

When Bond was determining the position of the Harvard Observatory, Commodore Owen, of the British navy, was making an official survey in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The latter, desiring to use the observatory as his zero point, co-operated with Bond in making a transfer of twelve chronometers to and from Greenwich, England. Afterward other chronometer expeditions were conducted by Bond in co-operation with the United States Coast Survey, the final one being in 1855. In the summing up of results, seven hundred and twenty-three independent chronometer records were used. The magnitude of this undertaking, as a whole, surpassed anything ever attempted in any other country.

As early as 1848 Prof. Bond mentions, in his report as director of the observatory, some experiments with the daguerreotype and talbotype processes for obtaining pictures of the sun, which, though encouraging, could hardly be called successful. But in his report for 1850 he is able to say: "With the assistance of Mr. J. A. Whipple, daguerreotypist, we have obtained several impressions of the star Vega. We have reason to believe this to be the first successful experiment ever made either in this country or abroad." Some daguerreotypes of the moon and certain stars were exhibited in the World's Fair of the following year at London, and received a council medal.

The inventive skill which won success for Bond as an artisan appears in certain astronomical appliances and methods devised by him. The great telescope is poised thirteen feet above the floor of the observatory's dome. It has a vertical sweep of more than ninety degrees, and can, of course, make a complete revolution about its axis of support. An observer would evidently have to be something of an acrobat to use it successfully, unless a suitable chair could be obtained. There was none in the world that filled all the requirements, so Prof. Bond invented and made one. It is in use unchanged to this day, and by means of its ingeniously combined wheels, cogs, and pulleys the observer can quickly and easily place himself anywhere along the vertical quarter-circle and horizontal full-circle traversed by the eyepiece of the telescope.

Certain experiments for determining differences of longitude by the aid of the telegraph were undertaken by the Coast Survey in 1848, Prof. Bond being one of the special assistants whose services were secured for this work. While engaged in these experiments the idea occurred to him, as it had to one or more others, of using an automatic circuit interrupter in place of human nerves and muscles as the connecting link between the astronomical clock and the electric wire. Fear of injuring the clock had prevented the use of such a device, but Prof. Bond obtained authority to have a clock made especially for this work, at the expense of the survey. This was done, and the device was found to operate perfectly and without injury to the clock. "But another and far more serious difficulty presented itself," says Prof. Bond, referring to this matter in one of his reports, "in the accurate registry of the beats of the clock after being transmitted by the galvanic circuit; and it was at this point that further progress in the application of this method to astronomical observing was arrested." Attempts to overcome this difficulty were made by various inventors in the course of the next two years, but nothing satisfactory came of it before April 12, 1850, when Bond submitted to the Coast Survey an apparatus invented by him and his sons George P. and Richard F. Bond. It was named at first, from one of its peculiar parts, the "spring governor," but the more comprehensive title of "chronograph" was applied to it later. The apparatus was at once adopted for use by the survey. It was taken by Mr. G. P. Bond on his tour to Europe of the next year and exhibited before the Royal Astronomical Society of England and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Through the urgency of Sir David Brewster and others it was set up in the great exhibition of that year in London, where a medal was awarded for it. It was adopted at the Greenwich Observatory soon after, and speedily throughout Europe. The use of the "circuit interrupter" and the "chronograph" together constitute what became known in Europe as "the American method" of recording observations. Through it the errors for which the "personal equation" is a partial remedy are largely eliminated, and a superior definiteness of record is attained.

Soon after the electrical experiments of 1848, the "circuit interrupter" was put to use at Cambridge in transmitting to Boston and other points in New England the true local time. This was the beginning of the Harvard Observatory time-service, which was systematically organized in 1872. This idea was also early adopted at Greenwich.

In 1852 the officers of the Harvard Observatory co-operated with Captain Charles Wilkes in experiments for ascertaining the velocity of the sound from the discharge of cannon under different atmospheric conditions. The object of this investigation was to secure accurate values for some of the data obtained by the exploring expedition, the measurement of distances in some cases having been made by firing cannon.

One of the important events in the latter part of Prof. Bond's directorship of the Observatory was the beginning of the publication of The Annals of Harvard College Observatory. This was made possible by an endowment of ten thousand dollars given in 1855 by Josiah Quincy, ex-president of the college. The first of these noble quarto volumes was issued in the following year, and embodied a review of the work of the preceding years, so that the whole series makes a continuous record from the establishment of the observatory.

Prof. Bond died January 29, 1859, and was succeeded in the management of the Observatory by his son, George Phillips Bond, who had been one of his assistants for many years. The elder Bond had entered vigorously into the scientific life of his time, and his labors were duly appreciated by his associates and contemporaries. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society of England. From Harvard College he received the honorary degree of A. M. in 1842.

  1. Much of the material here employed is derived from a historical sketch of the Harvard College Observatory, prepared by Mr. Daniel W. Baker, which first appeared as a series of newspaper articles, and was afterward reprinted in pamphlet form as one of the official publications of the observatory.