Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/October 1907/Early Movements in the United States for a National Observatory
|EARLY MOVEMENTS IN THE UNITED STATES FOR A NATIONAL OBSERVATORY|
WASHINGTON, D. C.
DURING the first half of the nineteenth century, the federal government was exceedingly penurious in its encouragement of knowledge and learning. Many members of congress believed that appropriations for this purpose were unconstitutional. Those members who were imbued with the theory of states-rights saw in the establishment of scientific bureaus an undue extension of the powers of the central government. Moreover, the interests of parties, classes and individuals were involved in these questions; and as a result the cause of knowledge suffered. Culture and education were less widely diffused than at the present time, and the people therefore were generally indifferent to the national encouragement of science. Even work of great practical value, such as the survey of the coast, the preparation of a nautical almanac and the study of winds and weather was regarded by many as unnecessary. The inland states were disinclined to vote money for these purposes, since it would chiefly benefit the seaboard. A few progressive men, the choice spirits of their time, however, early advocated the establishment of a national astronomical observatory.
For many years various projects for a national institution devoted to the study of astronomy were formed. Thomas Jefferson, as an amateur, made astronomical observations; and at one time had a plan for a national observatory. Some of the leading professors of Bowdoin College and citizens of Brunswick, Maine, early memorialized congress to establish an observatory in their town. Writing in 1824, H. C. Knight favored the establishment of a "National Observatory, whose top, with a sublimer intent than that of ancient Babel, should look into the sky; with complete astronomical apparatus, and resident professors, and salaries so liberal as to induce the most elevated intellects to devote their entire energies, during life, in tracing the marches and countermarches of the planets, and deciphering the golden hieroglyphics of heaven. Now Rittenhouse is above the stars, let Doctor Bowditch sit up in the top-tower, and be the first Herschel of America." When, in the thirties of the last century, the founding of a naval academy was being discussed, it was proposed to connect with it an astronomical observatory, whose professors should constitute a "board of longitude." Many other isolated suggestions and proposals for an observatory might be mentioned.
There were four general movements for a national observatory. Each of these extended over a considerable period of time, and each was originated and chiefly promoted by a single man—by F. R. Hassler, William Lambert, John Quincy Adams and James M. Gilliss. The Hassler movement is connected with the founding of the Coast Survey, and the Lambert movement with the establishment in the United States of a first meridian. The movement of Adams formed a part of his plan for the promotion by the federal government of science, learning and public improvements. The undertakings of Gilliss on behalf of an observatory grew out of his actual experience as an astronomical observer in a little building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Each of these movements will be briefly considered.
In 1807 President Jefferson obtained a law providing for the survey of the coasts of the United States. This was the initial legislation in the establishment of the United States Coast Survey. F. R. Hassler was selected by Jefferson and his secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, to undertake the preliminary work. Hassler was a Swiss refugee, and at one time was connected with a trigonometrical survey of his native land. In 1807 he was appointed a professor of mathematics at the Military Academy at West Point. He was one of the most distinguished of the early mathematicians and surveyors of the United States. Between 1807 and 1816, Hassler gave much attention to the preliminaries for the survey of the coast. He drew up a plan of operations. This provided for two astronomical observatories. They were to form the fixed points to which the survey was to be referred. They were to be used in determining time and longitude. Hassler, however, had in mind not merely the needs of the Coast Survey, but the advancement of scientific knowledge as well. The two observatories, he said, "will be permanent scientific establishments." He wished to locate one of them in Maine, and the other in lower Louisiana—that is, as far apart as possible. "Still, various considerations might occasion and favor the desire of placing one of these observatories in the city of Washington, as observatories are placed in the principal capitals of Europe, as a national object, a scientific ornament and a means of nourishing an interest for science in general." Here should be deposited the standards of weights and measures, and the chronometers and library of the Coast Survey. Hassler drew up a plan for the construction of an observatory at Washington, and he chose a location for it, "a part of the hill north of the Capitol."
From August, 1811, until October, 1815, Hassler was in England and on the continent, where he was sent to procure the necessary apparatus for the survey of the coast. The war of 1812 retarded and interrupted his work. He succeeded, however, in obtaining a most superior collection of instruments and books. Among the instruments for the observatories were two five-foot transits of improved construction, made by Edward Troughton, of well-known contemporary fame; and two astronomical clocks, manufactured by William Hardy from Scotland, residing in London, and who is eminent for various valuable inventions in the line of clock work and chronometer making, and for the very superior execution of all his works." Hardy had constructed similar clocks for the observatories of Greenwich and Glasgow. Hassler also purchased some books for his observatories. In 1816 his astronomical plans received the endorsement of President Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Dallas.
Under the direction of Hassler the field-work of the survey of the coast was begun in the summer of 1816, but it was suddenly brought to a close by the repeal in the spring of 1818 of a part of the act of 1807 authorizing the survey. The astronomical observatories had not yet been established. Hassler was still of the opinion that at least one of them was indispensable. When congress in 1832 revived the act of 1807, it concluded that an astronomical observatory was not necessary for the survey of the coast. The act of 1832 contained a provision that nothing in this act nor in that of 1807 "shall be construed to authorize the construction or maintenance of a permanent astronomical observatory." The establishment of an observatory had now become a favorite project of John Quincy Adams, and the democrats during his administration had especially opposed and ridiculed it. They were determined not to leave a loop-hole in the legislation for the Coast Survey, by means of which Adams might be able to gratify his long-cherished desire. The law of 1832 gave a quietus to Hassler's plan of attaching an observatory to the Coast Survey.
The second general movement for an astronomical institution under federal control was that of William Lambert, at one time a resident of Virginia and later of the District of Columbia. Lambert's movement began with his attempts to obtain legislation providing for the establishment of a prime meridian of the United States for the reckoning of longitudes. He believed that Washington in laying out the seat of government had designed that the center of the Capitol should mark the first meridian of this country. Lambert brought the subject to the attention of congress by a memorial to the house, dated City of Washington, December 15, 1809. He declared that the establishment of a first meridian was worthy of the consideration and patronage of the national legislature, since a further dependence upon Great Britain and other foreign nations would thereby be entirely removed; and he submitted a series of astronomical and mathematical papers dealing with the subject. One of these was an abstract of calculations made by himself with a view to ascertaining the longitude of the Capitol. His figures were based upon an occupation of the star Alcyone, one of the Pleiades, by the moon, which was observed near the President's house on October 20, 1804. Lambert succeeded in deriving the Capitol's approximate longitude. On March 28, 1810, a committee of the house to which Lambert's memorial had been referred recommended the passage of a law authorizing the president to cause the longitude of Washington west of Greenwich to be ascertained with the greatest possible degree of accuracy, and empowering him to procure for this purpose the necessary astronomical instruments. The movement to establish a first meridian impressed the members of congress favorably, since it seemed to involve a declaration of astronomical independence from Great Britain. A native republican meridian was to be substituted for an alien monarchical one.
On January 21, 1811, the house referred Lambert's documents to a second committee, which a month later asked to be discharged. Apparently, it felt itself unequal to the solution of the astronomical problems involved in the learned formulæ of the memorialist. For an expert opinion the house now rather oddly turned to James Monroe, Madison's secretary of state. After keeping the papers more than a year, Monroe on July 3, 1812, made a report in which he confessed his ignorance of the scientific aspects of the subject. He had no hesitation, however, in declaring that a first meridian should be established at Washington. This, he said, should be done with the greatest mathematical precision by means of a long series of observations with astronomical instruments. An "observatory would be of essential utility. It is only in such an institution, to be founded by the public, that all the necessary implements are likely to be collected together, that systematic observations can be made for any great length of time, and that the public can be made secure of the result of the labors of scientific men. In favor of such an institution it is sufficient to remark, that every nation which has established a first meridian within its own limits has established also an observatory. We know that there is one at London, at Paris, at Cadiz, and elsewhere."
Monroe's letter together with Lambert's documents wore referred to a committee of the house, to which Dr. Samuel Mitchill, of New York, was chairman and John C. Calhoun a member. On January 20, 1813, this committee made a report, which was accompanied by a bill "authorizing the establishment of an Astronomical Observatory." The bill provided for the erection of an astronomical observatory on public ground within the city of Washington, and for the procuring of proper telescopes, instruments and furniture for the same. The president was to direct the construction of the building, and was to prescribe rules for the government of the new institution. He was to appoint, subject to the confirmation of the senate, a "person of competent learning and skill, to be called the National Astronomer," who was to have charge of the observatory. The bill was never voted upon. The war with England at this time occupied the attention of congress to the exclusion of less pressing matters. Moreover, Lambert, who was diligent in promoting his project, was not in Washington for the larger part of the years 1813 and 1814.
From 1815 to 1824, Lambert pursued his hobby with the assiduity of an enthusiast. Finally his perseverance was rewarded by the passage of a joint resolution of congress on March 3, 1821, directing the president to cause the work of ascertaining the longitude of the Capitol to be undertaken. On April 10, President Monroe ordered Lambert to make the necessary "observations by lunar occultations of fixed stars, solar eclipses, or any other approved method adapted to ascertaining the longitude of the Capitol." In order to have his whole time for his new task, Lambert resigned a clerkship in the War Department. He had, however, no positive assurance that he would be paid for his astronomical work.
Lambert now established a temporary observatory. From the War Department he obtained the loan of some of the instruments which Hassler had procured in Europe for the Coast Survey. Among those that he obtained were a transit instrument, a circle of reflection, an astronomical clock and a chronometer. Rooms for their use and safe-keeping were assigned in the south wing of the Capitol. To be near his work, Lambert moved to the vicinity of the Capitol. He employed William Elliot, then well known in Washington as a teacher of mathematics, as an observer. In order to make accurate transit observations, he established near the Capitol a north-and-south line, by means of concentric circles. Its direction from the transit instrument in the south wing was ascertained with great exactness. The time-pieces were carefully tested and rated.
Lambert made frequent observations during the summer of 1821. From these he deduced new values for the latitude and longitude of the Capitol. On November 8, he made an elaborate report of his work to the president. He also made two supplemental reports, one in March, 1822, and the other in December, 1823. In his report of 1821 he called the attention of the government to the need of a permanent astronomical observatory, in order to ascertain with accuracy the right ascension, declination, latitude and longitude of the moon, planets and stars, and to compute a nautical almanac. The movement of Lambert for a national observatory seems to have come to an end in 1824. The transit instrument may have been occasionally used on Capitol Hill subsequent to this time. John Quincy Adams has the following entry in his diary for November 19, 1825: "Roberdeau, Colonel, came at eleven, I walked with him to W. Elliott's on Capitol Hill, where, with a small transit instrument, they observed the passage of the sun over the meridian. Conversation about the erection of an observatory."
The beginning of the movement of John Quincy Adams for a national observatory may be dated with the foregoing entry in his diary. The study of astronomy was for many years a favorite avocation of this illustrious statesman. He often observed and recorded the phenomena of the heavens. He read the works of Newton, Schubert, Lalande, Biot and Lacroix. A report of Adams respecting the establishment of a national observatory has been pronounced by a competent judge "well worthy the perusal of every lover of the exalted science of astronomy, both for the richness of its information and the beauty of its eloquence." In 1823 he offered to give a thousand dollars towards the establishment of an observatory at Harvard University. Writing in 1838, he said that the "observation of the sun, moon and stars has been for a great portion of my life a pleasure of gratified curiosity, of ever-returning wonder, and of reverence for the Creator and mover of these unnumbered worlds." In 1843, notwithstanding his advanced age and the poor accommodations for traveling, he accepted the invitation of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society to lay the corner-stone of their new observatory. His oration on this occasion has been called an "outline of the history of astronomy." Such was his interest in this science, and in its advancement through public means, that the founding of a national observatory became one of the cherished projects of his later life.
In his first annual message to congress, dated December 6, 1825, President Adams recommended the establishment of an astronomical observatory, either as a part of a national university or as a separate institution; and also the providing for the "support of an astronomer, to be in constant attendance of observation upon the phenomena of the heavens, and for the periodical publication of his observations." Respecting the failure of the United States to do its part in the advancing of astronomical science, Adams wrote with his accustomed candor and vigor: "It is with no feeling of pride as an American, that the remark may be made, that, on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe, there are existing upward of one hundred and thirty of these light-houses of the skies, while throughout the American hemisphere there is not one. If we reflect for a moment upon the discoveries, which in the last four centuries have been made in the physical constitution of the universe by means of these buildings and of observers stationed in them, shall we doubt of their usefulness to every nation? And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second-hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light, while we have neither observatory nor observer upon one half of the globe, and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?"
As a result of this recommendation a bill was introduced into the house, establishing an observatory in the District of Columbia and authorizing the appointment of an astronomer, two assistant astronomers and two assistants. A committee of the house made a long and favorable report on the subject. The bill was not voted upon.
Adams's recommendation for an observatory formed a part of his policy of nationalism, paternalism and internal improvements. In his first annual message he had also recommended the founding of a national university and of a naval academy, the establishment of a uniform system of weights and measures, and liberal expenditures for roads and canals. This progressive and enlightened policy did not command the support of congress, and its bold announcement early in his administration strengthened the hands of his opponents. His plan for a national observatory they represented as impracticable, and even chimerical. His rhetorical phrase, "light-houses of the skies," was circulated as an illustration of the fancies of his mind, and was used to cast reproach upon his astronomical project. Recognizing the futility of urging the construction of an observatory, Adams did not after the first year of his presidency bring it again to the attention of congress during his term in the White House. For several years he discovered no opportunity for furthering his pet measure.
In December, 1835, President Jackson announced the bequest of a considerable sum of money by James Smithson, of London, for the purpose of founding in Washington an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." In the house the message of the president and accompanying papers on this subject were referred to a committee of which Adams was chairman. He thus became intimately connected with the work of obtaining possession of the Smithson funds and later of deciding on their disposition and application. For more than ten years he was chairman of committees of the house on the Smithson bequest. Not until 1838, when all the requirements of the law had been complied with, did the United States obtain possession of the money. Our success in this particular was first made known in Washington in June, 1838. Adams lost no time in calling upon President Van Buren, and in explaining his views respecting the application of the income to be derived from the fund. On this subject he had probably made up his mind soon after the bequest was announced in 1835. He says that he suggested to Van Buren the "establishment of an astronomical observatory, with a salary for an astronomer and assistant, for nightly observations and periodical publications; annual courses of lectures upon the natural, moral and political sciences. Above all no jobbing, no sinecure, no monkish stalls for lazy idlers."
Adams improved every opportunity for furthering his plan. In October, 1838, he wrote a long letter to the secretary of state ardently advocating the erection of an observatory from the Smithson fund. He estimated that for the founding of the institution two hundred and ten thousand dollars would be necessary. This he shortly raised to three hundred thousand dollars. In January, 1839, he presented his views on the subject in a resolution which he reported to the house. In 1839 he obtained from Rev. George B. Airy, the astronomer royal of Great Britain, a detailed statement respecting the expenditures of the Greenwich observatory. In each of the years 1839, 1840, 1842 and 1844, as the chairman of the committee of the house on the Smithson fund, he introduced a bill providing for an astronomical observatory. In the report which accompanied the bill of 1840, Adams, with a display of much learning, and some rhetoric, briefly recounted the history of astronomy, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis and ending with the founding of the observatory of Pulkowa near St. Petersburg in 1839.
The more ardently Adams advocated his favorite measure the less likelihood it had of meeting the approval of congress. Respecting the proper application of the income arising from the fund, the senate differed from the house. It wished to found one or more schools of learning and to encourage education, and it would not listen to Adams's proposal for a national observatory. On this latter point Adams's democratic opponents in congress were determined not to yield. The law of August 10, 1846, which provided for the application of the income of the Smithson fund, therefore, while it followed the general lines laid down by Adams, contained no provision for an astronomical observatory.
The fourth general movement for a national observatory is that with which the name of Lieutenant James M. Gilliss is connected. The scientific achievements of Gilliss are more remarkable than those of any other officer of our navy. He was wont to attribute his first impulses along scientific lines to a rather insignificant incident in his career. When he first came to Washington on duty as a midshipman, he heard the officers of the navy stigmatized as incompetent to conduct a scientific enterprise. He at once resolved to disprove the charge in his own person. In 1833 he obtained leave to prosecute a course of studies at the University of Virginia. Excessive application soon so impaired his health that he was compelled to give up his work before he had been a year in residence. In 1835 he resumed his studies at Paris and pursued them for six months.
In 1830 the Navy Department established in Washington the Depot of Charts and Instruments. It was given charge of the unused charts and instruments of the navy. It distributed these necessary articles to the naval ships. It repaired and rated the chronometers. For the latter purpose simple meridian observations were necessary. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who was made superintendent of the depot in 1833, removed it to Capitol Hill. Here he erected a small observatory, 14 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 10 feet high. He installed in it one of the five-foot transit instruments, which Hassler had procured for the Coast Survey.
In 1836 Gilliss was detailed to duty at the Depot of Charts and Instruments. He shortly began to make astronomical observations in addition to those necessary for the rating of the chronometers. In the winter of 1837-8 he observed certain culminations of the moon and stars. In August, 1838, the Wilkes exploring expedition sailed from the United States on its famous voyage to the Pacific and Antarctic seas. Wilkes suggested to the secretary of the navy that in determining the longitude of the various stations of his expedition, observations made in the United States would be of the greatest value. Accordingly, Secretary of the Navy Paulding issued instructions to Gilliss to observe, during the absence of the exploring expedition, culminations of the moon and stars, eclipses of the moon, sun and Jupiter's satellites, falling stars, and any striking astronomical phenomena. He was to make also meteorological and magnetic observations.
Gilliss immediately made thorough preparations for his new work. He procured a 42-inch achromatic telescope mounted parallactically, a variation transit, an 8-inch dip circle, and a sidereal chronometer. He imported several new meteorological and magnetic instruments, to accommodate which he erected a small frame building fifty feet south of the observatory on Capitol Hill. Three or four additional passed midshipmen were attached to the depot to assist in its new work. This began in September, 1838, and did not end until June, 1842. All the astronomical observations, with the exception of those for two days in May, 1841, when Gilliss was sick, and a part of those for two other days, were made personally by Gilliss. The average time of his daily employment throughout the period was twelve hours, and he was often on his feet twenty hours out of twenty-four. The number of transits recorded exceeded ten thousand, and embraced those of the moon, planets, and about eleven hundred stars. The average number of lunar culminations observed was one hundred and ten, and of lunar occultations about twenty. The meteorological and magnetic observations were made bi-hourly day and night. All these observations were reduced by Gilliss, and were published by the government in 1845 and 1846 in two octavo volumes containing more than thirteen hundred pages. These volumes were highly commended by the astronomers of Europe as well as those in America. They stand as a lasting monument to the great energy, indefatigable industry, scientific ardor, and consummate skill as an observer, of this young naval lieutenant.
The difficulties under which Gilliss performed his scientific work were exceedingly great. His many routine duties as superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments had to be attended to daily. His transit instrument was defective. The little building used as an observatory was most inadequate. The observing slits originally extended to within three feet of the ridge-pole on each side, thus precluding all observations between 26° and 53° north declination, a region which actually includes a part of the moon's path. This defect was partly remedied by extending the aperture some five and a half degrees on the southern side, the utmost that the strength of the building permitted. One seventh of the standard stars of the Nautical Almanac still remained hidden from view. At the age of twenty-seven, Gilliss began his work without the aid or counsel of fellow scientists. Indeed, there were but few practical astronomers in the United States whom he might have consulted had he been acquainted with them. Not until 1840 did he obtain advice and assistance. He then received valuable counsel from the astronomers Richard Sheepshanks and Sears C. Walker. Gilliss says that he commenced his observations "with but little experience in the manipulation of fixed instruments; without a book relating to the subject in any manner, except Pearson's Introduction and Vince's Astronomy." He had never seen a volume of the annals of any of the European observatories.
Dr. B. A. Gould, a most competent judge, says that it was Lieutenant James M. Gilliss, who first in all the land conducted a working observatory, he who first gave his whole time to practical astronomical work, he who first published a volume of observations, first prepared a catalogue of stars, and planned and carried into effect the construction of a working observatory as contrasted with one intended chiefly for purposes of instruction." The last clause has reference to Gilliss's work of planning and constructing the Naval Observatory. In 1841 he obtained authority to import a meridian circle for his little establishment on Capitol Hill, in Washington. Since his narrow quarters here afforded no room for the new instrument, he availed himself of the opportunity to urge the construction of a permanent observatory. Gilliss says that as the observations which he began in 1838 progressed, the "unsuitableness of the building, the defects of the transit instrument, the want of space to erect a permanent circle, and the absolute necessity of rebuilding the observatory in use, became each day more urgent." At his earnest request the commissioners of the navy on November 30, 1841, recommended to the secretary of the navy the erection of a permanent depot for the charts and instruments belonging to the navy. They estimated the cost of site and buildings at $50,000. In his annual report to the president, dated December 4, 1841, the secretary of the navy approved the recommendation of the commissioners. From President Tyler the proposal for a new depot or observatory passed to congress, and especially to the house committee on naval affairs.
One of the principal members of this committee was Francis Mallory, a Whig representative from Virginia. On March 15, 1842, Mallory reported to the house a bill which provided for the construction of a depot of charts and instruments at a cost of $25,000. A report which accompanied the bill set forth the inadequacy of the accommodations on Capitol Hill, and the need of extending the work and usefulness of the old depot. According to Mallory the existing observatory was so frail that twice during the winter of 1841-1842 its doors had been blown off and the instruments had been left exposed to the weather. He proposed that the new depot should have increased accommodations for the study of hydrography, astronomy, magnetism and meteorology. In respect to astronomy, he said that "not only has the navy failed to contribute to the common stock from which all our navigators borrow, but our country has never yet published an observation of a celestial body, which bore the impress by authority'"; and that until Gilliss began his work in 1838, no continuous astronomical observations had been made under the direction of the government.
An account of the movement in congress has been left us by Gilliss:
At a meeting of the National Institute, at which the Hon. William C. Preston was present, I gave notice of having found Encke's comet with the 3½ feet achromatic, the comet being then near its perihelion. A few days subsequently I made what was intended to be a last visit to the chairman of the Senate committee, and found Mr. Preston with him. As soon as I began the conversation about the little observatory, Mr. Preston inquired whether I had not given the notice of the comet at the institute, and immediately volunteered, 'I will do all I can to help you.' Within a week a bill was passed by the Senate.It is hardly necessary to trace its progress in the House. A majority was known to be favorable, but its number on the calendar, and the opposition of one or two members, were likely to prevent action upon it; and that it did receive the sanction of the House of Representatives at the last hour of the session of 1841-42, the navy is indebted to the untiring exertions of Dr. Mallory.
Unquestionably, Gilliss is right in giving in giving Mallory much credit for the passage of the bill. No one, however, played a more prominent part than Gilliss himself, whether in initiating the movement for the new depot or in lining up its supporters in congress. Moreover, his signal success at the little observatory on Capitol Hill must have disposed many members to favor the measure. Other influences were working in the same direction, John Quincy Adams's agitation bore fruit for Gilliss. For several years public sentiment in behalf of a national observatory had been increasing. Observatories were being established at several of the leading schools in the United States: in 1838, at Western Reserve College, by Elias Loomis; in 1839, at Harvard College, by W. C. Bond; in 1840, at the Philadelphia High School, by Sears C. Walker and E. O. Kendall; and in 1841, at the Military Academy, by W. H. C. Bartlett.
The act of August 31, 1842, provided for the construction of a depot of charts and instruments, or the United States Naval Observatory, as the new institution came to be called. The new buildings were appropriately constructed under the direction of Gilliss. When they were completed in October, 1844, he turned them over to Lieutenant Matthew F. Maury, who was the first superintendent of the Naval Observatory. The success of Gilliss's efforts shortly brought to an end all other attempts to found a national observatory. John Quincy Adams finally accepted the Naval Observatory as a substitute for his more ambitious establishment. In April, 1846, he said that he was "delighted that an astronomical observatory—not perhaps so great as it should have been—had been smuggled into the number of the institutions of the country, under the mask of a small depot for charts."