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The Reminiscences of an Astronomer
by Simon Newcomb
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My letter had two most unexpected and gratifying results. One was a presentation of a copy of Lee's "Tables and Formulae," which came to me a few days later through the mail with the compliments of Colonel Abert. Not long afterward came a letter from Professor J. Lawrence Smith, afterward a member of the National Academy of Sciences, transmitting a copy of a pamphlet by him on the theory that meteorites were masses thrown up from the volcanoes of the moon, and asking my opinion on the subject.

I had not yet gotten into the world of light. But I felt as one who, standing outside, could knock against the wall and hear an answering knock from within.

The beginning of 1856 found me teaching in the family of a planter named Bryan, residing in Prince George County, Md., some fifteen or twenty miles from Washington. This opened up new opportunities. I could ride into Washington whenever I wished, leave my horse at a livery stable, and see whatever sights the city offered. The Smithsonian Library was one of the greatest attractions. Sometime in May, 1856, I got permission from the attendant in charge to climb into the gallery and see the mathematical books. Here I was delighted to find the greatest treasure that my imagination had ever pictured,—a work that I had thought of almost as belonging to fairyland. And here it was right before my eyes—four enormous volumes,—"Mecanique Celeste, by the Marquis de Laplace, Peer of France; translated by Nathaniel Bowditch, LL. D., Member of the Royal Societies of London, Edinburg, and Dublin." I inquired as to the possibility of my borrowing the first volume, and was told that this could be done only by special authority of Professor Henry. I soon got the necessary authority through Mr. Rhees, the chief clerk, whose kindness in the matter deeply impressed me, signed a promise to return it within one month, and carried it in triumph to my little schoolhouse. I dipped into it here and there, but at every step was met by formulae and methods quite beyond the power of one who knew so little of mathematics. In due time I brought the book back as promised.

Up to this time I think I had never looked upon a real live professor; certainly not upon one of eminence in the scientific world. I wondered whether there was any possibility of my making the acquaintance of so great a man as Professor Henry. Some time previous a little incident had occurred which caused me some uneasiness on the subject. I had started out very early on a visit to Washington, or possibly I had stayed there all night. At any rate, I reached the Smithsonian Building quite early, opened the main door, stepped cautiously into the vestibule, and looked around. Here I was met by a short, stout, and exceedingly gruff sort of a man, who looked upon my entrance with evident displeasure. He said scarcely a word, but motioned me out of the door, and showed me a paper or something in the entrance which intimated that the Institution would be open at nine o'clock. It was some three minutes before that hour so I was an intruder. The man looked so respectable and so commanding in his appearance that I wondered if he could be Professor Henry, yet sincerely hoped he was not. I afterward found that he was only "Old Peake," the janitor. [4] When I found the real Professor Henry he received me with characteristic urbanity, told me something of his own studies, and suggested that I might find something to do in the Coast Survey, but took no further steps at that time.

The question whether I was fitted for any such employment now became of great interest. The principal question was whether one must know celestial mechanics in order to secure such a position, so, after leaving Professor Henry, I made my way to the Coast Survey office, and was shown to the chief clerk, as the authority for the information. I modestly asked him whether a knowledge of physical astronomy was necessary to a position in that office. Instead of frankly telling me that he did not know what physical astronomy was, he answered in the affirmative. So I left with the impression that I must master the "Mecanique Celeste" or some similar treatise before finding any opening there.

I could not, of course, be satisfied with a single visit to such a man, and so called several times during the year. One thing I wondered about was whether he would remember me when he again saw me. On one occasion I presented him with a plan for improving the Cavendish method of determining the density of the earth, which he took very kindly. I subsequently learned that he was much interested in this problem. On another occasion he gave me a letter to Mr. J. E. Hilgard, assistant in charge of the Coast Survey office. My reception by the latter was as delightful as that by Professor Henry. I found from my first interview with him that the denizens of the world of light were up to the most sanguine conceptions I ever could have formed.

At this time, or probably some time before, I bought a copy of the "American Ephemeris" for 1858, and amused myself by computing on a slate the occultations visible at San Francisco during the first few months of the year. At this time I had learned nothing definite from Mr. Hilgard as to employment in his office. But about December, 1856, I received a note from him stating that he had been talking about me to Professor Winlock, superintendent of the "Nautical Almanac," and that I might possibly get employment on that work. When I saw him again I told him that I had not yet acquired such a knowledge of physical astronomy as would be necessary for the calculations in question; but he assured me that this was no drawback, as formulae for all the computations would be supplied me. I was far from satisfied at the prospect of doing nothing more than making routine calculations with formulae prepared by others; indeed, it was almost a disappointment to find that I was considered qualified for such a place. I could only console myself by the reflection that the ease of the work would not hinder me from working my way up. Shortly afterward I understood that it was at least worth while to present myself at Cambridge, and so started out on a journey thither about the last day of the year 1856.

At that time even a railroad journey was quite different from what it is now. The cars were drawn through Baltimore by horses. At Havre de Grace the train had to stop and the passengers were taken across the river in a ferryboat to another train. At Philadelphia the city had to be traversed by transfer coaches. Looking around for this conveyance, I met a man who said he had it. He shoved me into it and drove off. I remarked with suspicion that no other coaches were accompanying us. After a pretty long drive the speed of the horses gradually began to slacken. At length it came to a complete stop in front of a large building, and I got out. But it was only a freight station, locked up and dark throughout. The driver mumbled something about his fare, then rolled back on his seat, seemingly dead drunk. The nearest sign of life was at a tavern a block or two away. There I found that I was only a short distance from the station of departure, and reached my train barely in time.

Landing in New York at the first glimmer of dawn, near the end of the line of passengers I was momentarily alarmed to see a man pick up what seemed to be a leather purse from right between my feet. It was brown and, so far as I could see, just like my own. I immediately felt the breast pocket of my coat and found that my own was quite safe. The man who picked up the purse inquired in the politest tone possible if it was mine, to which I replied in the negative. He retreated a short distance and then a bystander came up and chided me in a whisper for my folly in not claiming the purse. The only reply he got was, "Oh, I'm up to all your tricks." On a repetition of this assurance the pair sneaked away.

Arriving at Cambridge, I sought out Professor Winlock and was informed that no immediate employment was open at his office. It would be necessary for him to get authority from Washington. After this was obtained some hope might be held out, so I appeared in the office from time to time as a visitor, my first visit being that described in the opening chapter.

[1] I may remark, for the benefit of any medical reader, that it involved the use of two pails, one full of water, the other empty. When he got through the ablution, one pail was empty, and the other full. My authority for the actuality of this remarkable proceeding was some inmate of the house at the time, and I give credence to the story because it was not one likely to be invented.

[2] Rev. Alexander H. Monroe, who, I have understood, afterward lived in Montreal. I have often wished to find a trace of him, but do not know whether he is still living.

[3] Our druggist was Mr. S. L. Tilley, afterward Sir Leonard Tilley, the well-known Canadian Minister of Finance.

[4] Peake, notwithstanding his official title, would seem to have been more than an ordinary janitor, as he was the author of a Guide to the Smithsonian Institution.



III

THE WORLD OF SWEETNESS AND LIGHT

The term "Nautical Almanac" is an unfortunate misnomer for what is, properly speaking, the "Astronomical Ephemeris." It is quite a large volume, from which the world draws all its knowledge of times and seasons, the motions of the heavenly bodies, the past and future positions of the stars and planets, eclipses, and celestial phenomena generally which admit of prediction. It is the basis on which the family almanac is to rest. It also contains the special data needed to enable the astronomer and navigator to determine their position on land or sea. The first British publication of the sort, prepared by Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, a century ago, was intended especially for the use of navigators; hence the familiar appellation, which I call unfortunate because it leads to the impression that the work is simply an enlargement and improvement of the household almanac.

The leading nations publish ephemerides of this sort. The introductions and explanations are, of course, in the languages of the respective countries; but the contents of the volume are now so much alike that the duplication of work involved in preparing them seems quite unnecessary. Yet national pride and emulation will probably continue it for some time to come.

The first appropriation for an American ephemeris and nautical almanac was made by Congress in 1849. Lieutenant Charles Henry Davis, as a leader and moving spirit in securing the appropriation, was naturally made the first superintendent of the work. At that time astronomical science in our country was so far from being reduced to a system that it seemed necessary to have the work prepared at some seat of learning. So, instead of founding the office in Washington, it was established at Cambridge, the seat of Harvard University, where it could have the benefit of the technical knowledge of experts, and especially of Professor Benjamin Peirce, who was recognized as the leading mathematician of America. Here it remained until 1866, when conditions had so far changed that the office was removed to Washington, where it has since remained.

To this work I was especially attracted because its preparation seemed to me to embody the highest intellectual power to which man had ever attained. The matter used to present itself to my mind somewhat in this way: Supply any man with the fundamental data of astronomy, the times at which stars and planets cross the meridian of a place, and other matters of this kind. He is informed that each of these bodies whose observations he is to use is attracted by all the others with a force which varies as the inverse square of their distance apart. From these data he is to weigh the bodies, predict their motion in all future time, compute their orbits, determine what changes of form and position these orbits will undergo through thousands of ages, and make maps showing exactly over what cities and towns on the surface of the earth an eclipse of the sun will pass fifty years hence, or over what regions it did pass thousands of years ago. A more hopeless problem than this could not be presented to the ordinary human intellect. There are tens of thousands of men who could be successful in all the ordinary walks of life, hundreds who could wield empires, thousands who could gain wealth, for one who could take up this astronomical problem with any hope of success. The men who have done it are therefore in intellect the select few of the human race,—an aristocracy ranking above all others in the scale of being. The astronomical ephemeris is the last practical outcome of their productive genius.

On the question whether the world generally reasoned in this way, I do not remember having any distinct idea. This was certainly not because I was indifferent to the question, but because it never strongly presented itself to my mind. From my point of view it would not have been an important one, because I had already formed the conviction that one should choose that sphere in life to which he was most strongly attracted, or for which his faculties best fitted him.

A few months previous to my advent Commander Davis had been detached from the superintendency and ordered to command the sloop St. Mary's. He was succeeded by Professor Joseph Winlock, who afterward succeeded George P. Bond as director of the Harvard Observatory. Most companionable in the society of his friends, Winlock was as silent as General Grant with the ordinary run of men. Withal, he had a way of putting his words into exact official form. The following anecdote of him used to be current. While he was attached to the Naval Academy, he was introduced one evening at a reception to a visiting lady. He looked at the lady for a decorous length of time, and she looked at him; then they parted without saying a word. His introducer watched the scene, and asked him, "Why did you not talk to that lady?"

"I had no statement to make to her," was the reply.

Dr. Gould told me this story was founded on fact, but when, after Winlock's death, it was put off on me with some alterations, I felt less sure.

The following I believe to be authentic. It occurred several years later. Hilgard, in charge of the Coast Survey office, was struck by the official terseness of the communications he occasionally received from Winlock, and resolved to be his rival. They were expecting additions to their families about the same time, and had doubtless spoken of the subject. When Hilgard's arrived, he addressed a communication to Winlock in these terms:—

"Mine's a boy. What's yours?"

In due course of time the following letter was received in reply:—

Dear Hilgard:— Boy. Yours, etc., J. Winlock.

When some time afterward I spoke to Winlock on the subject, and told him what Hilgard's motive was, he replied, "It was not fair in Hilgard to try and take me unawares in that way. Had I known what he was driving at, I might have made my letter still shorter." I did not ask him how he would have done it. It is of interest that the "boy" afterward became one of the assistant secretaries of the Smithsonian Institution.

One of the most remarkable features of the history of the "Nautical Almanac" is the number of its early assistants who have gained prominence or distinction in the various walks of life. It would be difficult to find so modest a public work to exceed it in this respect.

John D. Runkle, who lived till 1902, was, as I have said, the senior and leading assistant in the office. He afterward became a professor in the Institute of Technology, and succeeded Rogers as its president. In 1876 he started the school of manual training, which has since been one of the great features of the Institute. He afterward resigned the presidency, but remained its principal professor of mathematics. He was the editor and founder of the "Mathematical Monthly," of which I shall presently have more to say.

The most wonderful genius in the office, and the one who would have been the most interesting subject of study to a psychologist, was Truman Henry Safford. In early childhood he had excited attention by his precocity as what is now sometimes called a "lightning calculator." A committee of the American Academy of Arts and Science was appointed to examine him. It very justly and wisely reported that his arithmetical powers were not in themselves equal to those of some others on record, especially Zerah Colburn, but that they seemed to be the outcome of a remarkable development of the reasoning power. When nine years old, he computed almanacs, and some of his work at this age is still preserved in the Harvard University Library. He graduated at Harvard in 1854, and was soon afterward taken into the Nautical Almanac Office, while he also worked from time to time at the Cambridge observatory. It was found, however, that the power of continuous work was no greater in him than in others, nor did he succeed in doing more than others in the course of a year.

The mental process by which certain gifted arithmetical computers reach almost in an instant the results of the most complicated calculations is a psychological problem of great interest, which has never been investigated. No more promising subject for the investigation could ever have been found than Safford, and I greatly regret having lost all opportunities to solve the problem. What was of interest in Safford's case was the connection of this faculty with other remarkable mental powers of an analogous but yet different kind. He had a remarkable faculty for acquiring, using, and reading languages, and would have been an accomplished linguist had he turned his attention in that direction. He was a walking bibliography of astronomy, which one had only to consult in order to learn in a moment what great astronomers of recent times had written on almost any subject, where their work was published, and on what shelf of the Harvard Library the book could be found. But the faculty most closely connected with calculation was a quickness and apprehension of vision, of which the following is an example:—

About 1876 he visited the Naval Observatory in Washington for the first time in his life. We wanted a certain catalogue of stars and went together into the library. The required catalogue was on one of a tier of shelves containing altogether a hundred, or perhaps several hundred volumes. "I do not know whether we have the book," said I, "but if we have, it is on one of these shelves." I began to go through the slow process of glancing at the books one by one until my eyes should strike the right title. He stood back six or eight feet and took in all the shelves seemingly at one glance, then stepped forward and said, "Here it is." I might have supposed this an accident, but that he subsequently did practically the same thing in my office, selecting in a moment a book we wanted to see, after throwing a rapid glance over shelves containing perhaps a hundred volumes.

An example of his apprehension and memory for numbers was narrated by Mr. Alvan Clark. When the latter had completed one of his great telescopes for the University of Chicago, Safford had been named as director, and accompanied the three members of the firm to the city when they carried the object glass thither. On leaving the train all four took their seats in a hotel omnibus, Safford near the door. Then they found that they had forgotten to give their baggage checks to the expressman; so the other three men passed their checks to Safford, who added his own and handed all four to the conductor of the omnibus. When it was time for the baggage to come to the hotel, there was such a crowd of new arrivals that the attendants could not find it. The hotel clerk remarked on inquiry, "If I only knew the numbers of your checks, I would have no difficulty in tracing your trunks." Safford at once told off the four numbers, which he had read as he was passing the checks to the conductor.

The great fire practically put an end to the activity of the Chicago Observatory and forced its director to pursue his work in other fields. That he failed to attain that commanding position due to his genius is to be ascribed to a cause prevalent among us during all the middle part of the century; perhaps that from which most brilliant intellects fail to reach eminence: lack of the power of continuous work necessary to bring important researches to a completion.

Another great intellect of the office was Chauncey Wright. If Wright had systematically applied his powers, he might have preceded or supplanted Herbert Spencer as the great exponent of the theory of evolution. He had graduated at Harvard in 1853, and was a profound student of philosophy from that time forward, though I am not aware that he was a writer. When in 1858 Sir William Hamilton's "Lectures on Metaphysics" appeared, he took to them with avidity. In 1859 appeared Darwin's "Origin of Species," and a series of meetings was held by the American Academy, the special order of which was the discussion of this book. Wright and myself, not yet members, were invited to be present. To judge of the interest it is only necessary to remark that Agassiz and Gray were the two leading disputants, the first taking ground against Darwin, the other in his favor. Wright was a Darwinist from the very beginning, explaining the theory in private conversation from a master's point of view, and soon writing upon it in the "North American Review" and in other publications. Of one of his articles Darwin has been quoted as saying that it was the best exposition of his theory that had then appeared. After his untimely death in 1875, Wright's papers were collected and published under the title of "Philosophical Discussions." [1] Their style is clear-cut and faultless in logical form, yet requiring such close attention to every word as to be less attractive to the general reader of to-day than that of Spencer. In a more leisurely age, when men wanted to think profoundly as they went along in a book, and had little to disturb the current of their thoughts, it would have commanded wide attention among thinking men.

A singular peculiarity which I have sometimes noticed among men of intelligence is that those who are best informed on the subject may be most reckless as regards the laws of health. Wright did all of his office work in two or three months of the year. During those months he worked at his computations far into the hours of the morning, stimulating his strength with cigars, and dropping his work only to take it up when he had had the necessary sleep. A strong constitution might stand this for a few years, as his did. But the ultimate result hardly needs to be told.

Besides the volume I have mentioned, Wright's letters were collected and printed after his death by the subscription of his friends. In these his philosophic views are from time to time brought out in a light, easy way, much more charming than the style of his elaborate discussions. It was in one of his letters that I first found the apothegm, "Men are born either Platonists or Aristotelians," a happy drawing of the line which separates the hard-headed scientific thinker of to-day from the thinkers of all other classes.

William Ferrell, a much older man than myself, entered the office about the same time as I did. He published papers on the motions of fluids on the earth's surface in the "Mathematical Monthly," and became one of the great authorities on dynamic meteorology, including the mathematical theory of winds and tides. He was, I believe, the first to publish a correct theory of the retardation produced in the rotation of the earth by the action of the tides, and the consequent slow lengthening of the day.

James Edward Oliver might have been one of the great mathematicians of his time had he not been absolutely wanting in the power of continuous work. It was scarcely possible to get even his year's office work out of him. Yet when I once wrote him a question on certain mathematical forms which arise in the theory of "least squares," he replied in a letter which, with some developments and change of form, would have made a worthy memoir in any mathematical journal. As a matter of fact, the same thoughts did appear some years after, in an elaborate paper by Professor J. W. L. Glaisher, of England, published by the Royal Astronomical Society.

Oliver, who afterward became professor of higher mathematics at Cornell University, was noted for what I think should be considered the valuable quality of absent-mindedness. It was said of him that he was once walking on the seashore with a small but valuable gold watch loose in his pocket. While deep in thought he started a kind of distraction by picking up flat stones and skipping them on the water. Taking his watch from his pocket he skipped it as a stone. When I became well acquainted with him I took the liberty of asking him as to the correctness of this story. He could not positively say whether it was true or not. The facts were simply that he had the watch, that he had walked on the seashore, had skipped stones, missed the watch at some subsequent time, and never saw it again.

More definite was an observation made on his movements one afternoon by a looker-out from a window of the Nautical Almanac Office. Across the way the road was bounded by no fence, simply passing along the side of an open field. As Oliver got near the office, his chin on his breast, deep in thought, he was seen gradually to deviate from the sidewalk, and direct his steps along the field. He continued on this erratic course until he ran almost against the fence at the other end. This awoke him from his reverie, and he started up, looked around, and made his way back to the road.

I have spoken only of the men who were employed at the office at the time I entered. Previous to my time were several who left to accept professorships in various parts of the country. Among them were Professors Van Vleck, of Middletown, and Hedrick and Kerr, of North Carolina. Not desiring to leave upon the mind of the reader the impression that all of whom I have not spoken remained in obscurity, I will remark that Mr. Isaac Bradford rose to the position of mayor of the city of Cambridge, and that fugitive pieces in prose and poetry by Mr. E. J. Loomis were collected in a volume. [2]

The discipline of the public service was less rigid in the office at that time than at any government institution I ever heard of. In theory there was an understanding that each assistant was "expected" to be in the office five hours a day. The hours might be selected by himself, and they generally extended from nine until two, the latter being at that time the college and family dinner hour. As a matter of fact, however, the work was done pretty much where and when the assistant chose, all that was really necessary being to have it done on time.

It will be seen that the excellent opportunities offered by this system were well improved by those who enjoyed them—improved in a way that I fear would not be possible in any other surroundings. I took advantage of them by enrolling myself as a student of mathematics in the Lawrence Scientific School. On this occasion I well remember my pleasant reception by Charles W. Eliot, tutor in mathematics, and E. N. Horsford, professor of chemistry, and, I believe, dean of the school. As a newcomer into the world of light, it was pleasant to feel the spirit with which they welcomed me. The departments of chemistry and engineering were about the only ones which, at that time, had any distinct organization. As a student of mathematics it could hardly be said that anything was required of me either in the way of attendance on lectures or examinations until I came up for the degree of Bachelor of Science. I was supposed, however, to pursue my studies under the direction of Professor Peirce.

So slight a connection with the university does not warrant me in assuming an authoritative position as an observer of its men or its workings. Yet there are many features associated with it which I have not seen in print, which have probably disappeared with the progress of the age, and to which, therefore, allusion may be made. One, as it presents itself to my memory, is the great variety and picturesqueness of character which the university then presented. I would like to know whether the changes in men which one fancies he sees during his passage from youth to age are real, or only relative to his point of view. If my impressions are correct, our educational planing mill cuts down all the knots of genius, and reduces the best of the men who go through it to much the same standard. Does not the Harvard professor of to-day always dine in a dress coat? Is he not free from every eccentricity? Do the students ever call him "Benny" or "Tobie"? Is any "Old Soph" [3] now ambulant on the college green? Is not the administration of the library a combination of liberality and correctness? Is such a librarian as John Langdon Sibley possible?

Mr. Sibley, under a rough exterior, was one of the best-hearted and most admirable of men, with whom I ultimately formed an intimate friendship. But our first acquaintance was of a very unfavorable kind. It came about in this way: not many days after being taken into the Nautical Almanac Office I wanted a book from the university library, and asked a not over-bright old gentleman in the office what formalities were necessary in order to borrow it.

"Just go over and tell them you want it for the Nautical Almanac."

"But they don't know me at the library, and surely will not give a book to any stray caller because he says he wants it for the Nautical Almanac."

"You have only to say 'Nautical Almanac' and you will get the book."

I argued the matter as stoutly as courtesy admitted, but at length, concluding that I was new to the rules and regulations of the place, accepted the supposedly superior knowledge of my informer and went over to the library with a due measure of assurance. The first attendant whom I addressed referred me to the assistant librarian, and he again to the librarian. After these formalities, conducted with impressive gravity, my assurance wilted when I was ushered into the august presence of the chief librarian.

As the mental picture of the ensuing scene has shaped itself through more than forty years it shows a personage of imposing presence, gigantic features, and forbidding countenance, standing on a dais behind a desk, expounding the law governing the borrowing of books from the library of Harvard College to an abashed youth standing before him. I left without the book, but with a valuable addition to my knowledge of library management. We both remembered this interview, and exchanged impressions about it long years after.

"I thought you the most crusty and disobliging old man I had ever seen."

"And I thought you the most presumptuous youth that had ever appeared in the library."

One of Mr. Sibley's professional doctrines was that at least one copy of everything printed was worth preserving. I strove to refute him, but long failed. Half in derision, I offered the library the stub of my wash-book. Instead of throwing it into the wastebasket he kept it, with the remark that the wash-book of a nineteenth century student would at some future time be of interest to the antiquarian. In due time I received a finely engraved acknowledgment of the gift. But I forced him from his position at last. He had to admit that copies of the theatre posters need not all be preserved. It would suffice to keep a few specimens.

Professor Peirce was much more than a mathematician. Like many men of the time, he was a warm lover and a cordial hater. It could not always be guessed which side of a disputed question he would take; but one might be fairly sure that he would be at one extreme or the other. As a speaker and lecturer he was very pleasing, neither impressive nor eloquent, and yet interesting from his earnestness and vivacity. For this reason it is said that he was once chosen to enforce the views of the university professors at a town meeting, where some subject of interest to them was coming up for discussion. Several of the professors attended the meeting, and Peirce made his speech. Then a townsman rose and took the opposite side, expressing the hope that the meeting would not allow itself to be dictated to by these nabobs of Harvard College. When he sat down, Peirce remained in placid silence, making no reply. When the meeting broke up, some one asked Peirce why he had not replied to the man.

"Why! did you not hear what he called us? He said we were nabobs! I so enjoyed sitting up there and seeing all that crowd look up to me as a nabob that I could not say one word against the fellow."

The first of the leading astronomers whose acquaintance I made was Dr. Benjamin Apthorp Gould. Knowing his eminence, I was quite surprised by his youthful vivacity. His history, had I time to recount it, might be made to serve well the purpose of a grave lesson upon the conditions required, even by the educated public, of a scientific investigator, capable of doing the highest and best work in his branch. The soul of generosity and the pink of honor, ever ready to lend a hand to a struggling youth whom he found deserving of help, enthusiastically devoted to his favorite science, pursuing it in the most exalted spirit, animated by not a single mean motive, it might have been supposed that all the facilities the world could offer would have been open to him in his career. If such was not the case to the extent one might have wished, I do not mean to intimate that his life can be regarded as a failure. In whatever respect the results may have fallen off from his high ideal, it is more to be regretted on the score of science than on his own.

Scorning pretense and charlatanry of all kinds, believing that only the best were to be encouraged, he was far from being a man of the people. Only a select few enjoyed his favor, but these few well deserved it. That no others would have deserved it I should be far from intimating. The undisguised way in which he expressed his sentiments for any one, no matter how influential, who did not come up to the high standard he set, was not adapted to secure the favor even of the most educated community. Of worldly wisdom in this matter he seemed, at least in his early days, to know nothing.

He graduated at Harvard in 1845, in one of the very distinguished classes. Being fond of astronomy, he was struck with the backward condition of that science in our country. He resolved to devote his life to building up the science in America. He went to Germany, then the only country in which astronomy was pursued in its most advanced form, studied under Gauss and Argelander, and took his degree at Goettingen in 1848. Soon after his return he founded the "Astronomical Journal," and also took a position as Chief of the Longitude Department in the Coast Survey.

The great misfortune of his life, and temporarily at least, a severe blow to American astronomy, were associated with his directorship of the Dudley Observatory at Albany. This institution was founded by the munificence of a wealthy widow of Albany. The men to whom she intrusted the administration of her gift were among the most prominent and highly respected citizens of the place. The trustees went wisely to work. They began by forming an advisory scientific council, consisting of Bache, Henry, and Peirce. Under the direction of this council the observatory was built and equipped with instruments. When ready for active work in 1857, Gould moved thither and took personal charge. Very soon rumors of dissension were heard. The affair gradually grew into a contest between the director and the trustees, exceeding in bitterness any I have ever known in the world of learning or even of politics. It doubtless had its origin in very small beginnings. The policy of the director recognized no end but scientific efficiency. The trustees, as the responsible administrators of the trust, felt that they had certain rights in the matter, especially that of introducing visitors to inspect the institution and look through the telescope. How fatal the granting of such courtesies is to continuous work with an instrument only astronomers know; and one of the most embarrassing difficulties the director of such an institution meets with is to effect a prudent compromise between the scientific efficiency of his institution and the wishes of the public. But Gould knew no such word as compromise. It was humiliating to one in the position of a trustee to send some visitor with a permit to see the observatory, and have the visitor return with the report that he had not been received with the most distinguished courtesy, and, perhaps, had not seen the director at all, but had only been informed by an assistant of the rules of the place and the impossibility of securing admission.

This spark was enough to kindle a fire. When the fire gathered strength, the director, instead of yielding, called on the scientific council for aid. It is quite likely that, had these wise and prudent men been consulted at each step, and their advice been followed, he would have emphasized his protest by resigning. But before they were called in, the affair had gone so far that, believing the director to be technically right in the ground he had taken and the work he had done, the council felt bound to defend him. The result was a war in which the shots were pamphlets containing charges, defenses, and rejoinders. The animosity excited may be shown by the fact that the attacks were not confined to Gould and his administration, but extended to every institution with which he and the president of the council were supposed to be connected. Bache's administration of the Coast Survey was held up to scorn and ridicule. It was supposed that Gould, as a Cambridge astronomer, was, as a matter of course, connected with the Nautical Almanac Office, and paid a high salary. This being assumed, the office was included in the scope of attack, and with such success that the item for its support for the year 1859, on motion of Mr. Dawes, was stricken out of the naval bill. How far the fire spread may be judged by the fact that a whole edition of the "Astronomical Journal," supposed to have some mention of the affair in the same cover, was duly sent off from the observatory, but never reached its destination through the mails. Gould knew nothing of this fact until, some weeks later, I expressed my surprise to him at not receiving No. 121. How or by whom it was intercepted, I do not know that he ever seriously attempted to inquire. The outcome of the matter was that the trustees asserted their right by taking forcible possession of the observatory.

During my first year at Cambridge I made the acquaintance of a senior in the college whose untimely death seven years later I have never ceased to deplore. This was William P. G. Bartlett, son of a highly esteemed Boston physician, Dr. George Bartlett. The latter was a brother of Sidney Bartlett, long the leader of the Boston bar. Bartlett was my junior in years, but his nature and the surrounding circumstances were such that he exercised a powerful influence upon me. His virile and aggressive honesty could not be exceeded. His mathematical abilities were of a high order, and he had no ambition except to become a mathematician. Had he entered public life at Washington, and any one had told me that he was guilty of a dishonest act, I should have replied, "You might as well tell me that he picked up the Capitol last night and carried it off on his back." The fact that one could say so much of any man, I have always looked upon as illustrating one of the greatest advantages of having a youth go through college. The really important results I should look for are not culture or training alone, but include the acquaintance of a body of men, many of whom are to take leading positions in the world, of a completeness and intimacy that can never be acquired under other circumstances. The student sees his fellow students through and through as he can never see through a man in future years.

It was, and I suppose still is, the custom for the members of a graduating class at Harvard to add to their class biographies a motto expressing their aspirations or views of life. Bartlett's was, "I love mathematics and hate humbug." What the latter clause would have led to in his case, had he gone out into the world, one can hardly guess.

"I have had a long talk with my Uncle Sidney," he said to me one day. "He wants me to study law, maintaining that the wealth one can thereby acquire, and the prominence he may assume, will give him a higher position in society and public esteem than mere learning ever can. But I told him that if I could stand high in the esteem of twenty such men as Cayley, Sylvester, and Peirce, I cared nothing to be prominent in the eyes of the rest of the world." Such an expression from an eminent member of the Boston bar, himself a Harvard graduate, was the first striking evidence I met with that my views of the exalted nature of astronomical investigation were not shared by society at large. One of the greatest advantages I enjoyed through Bartlett was an intimate acquaintance with a cultured and refined Boston family.

In 1858 Mr. Runkle founded the "Mathematical Monthly," having secured, in advance, the cooperation of the leading professors of the subject in the country. The journal was continued, under many difficulties, for three years. As a vehicle for publishing researches in advanced mathematics, it could not be of a high order, owing to the necessity of a subscription list. Its design was therefore to interest students and professors in the subject, and thus prepare the way for the future growth of mathematical study among us. Its principal feature was the offer of prize problems to students as well as prizes for essays on mathematical subjects. The first to win a prize for an essay was George W. Hill, a graduate of Rutgers just out of college, who presented a memoir in which the hand of the future master was evident throughout.

In the general conduct of the journal Bartlett and myself, though not ostensibly associate editors, were at least assistants. Simple though the affair was, some of our experiences were of an interesting and, perhaps, instructive nature.

Soon after the first number appeared, a contribution was offered by a professor in a distant State. An important part of the article was found to be copied bodily from Walton's "Problems in Mechanics," an English book which, it might be supposed, was not much known in this country. Runkle did not want to run the risk of injuring his subscription list by offending one occupying an influential position if he could help it with honor to the journal. Of course it was not a question of publishing the paper, but only of letting the author know why he did not do so,—"letting him down easy."

Bartlett's advice was characteristic. "Just write to the fellow that we don't publish stolen articles. That's all you need say."

I suggested that we might inflict on him all necessary humiliation by letting him know in the gentlest manner possible that we saw the fraud. Of course Runkle preferred this course, and wrote him, calling his attention to a similarity between his treatment of the subject and that of Walton, which materially detracted from the novelty of the former. I think it was suggested that he get the book, if possible, and assure himself on the subject.

A vigorous answer came by return of mail. He was a possessor of Walton's book, knew all about the similar treatment of the subject by Walton, and did not see that that should be any bar to the publication of the article. I think it was he who wound up his letter with the statement that, while he admitted the right of the editor to publish what he pleased, he, the writer, was too busy to spend his time in writing rejected articles.

An eminent would-be contributor was a prominent Pennsylvania politician, who had read a long and elaborate article, before some teachers' association, on an arithmetical problem about oxen eating grass, the power to solve which was taken as the highest mark of mathematical ability, among school teachers during the first half of the century. The association referred the paper to the editor of the "Mathematical Monthly," by whom it was, I believe, consigned to the wastebasket. The result was a good deal of correspondence, such a proceeding being rather humiliating to a man of eminence who had addressed so distinguished an assembly. The outcome of the matter was that the paper, which was much more in the nature of a legal document than of a mathematical investigation, was greatly reduced in length by its author, and then still further shorn by the editor, until it would fill only two or three pages of the journal; thus reduced, it was published.

The time was not yet ripe for the growth of mathematical science among us, and any development that might have taken place in that direction was rudely stopped by the civil war. Perhaps this may account for the curious fact that, so far as I have ever remarked, none of the student contributors to the journal, Hill excepted, has made himself known as a mathematical investigator. Not only the state of mathematical learning, but the conditions of success at that time in a mathematical text-book, are strikingly illustrated by one of our experiences.

One of the leading publishing houses of educational text-books in the country issued a very complete and advanced series, from the pen of a former teacher of the subject. They were being extensively introduced, and were sent to the "Mathematical Monthly" for review. They were distinguished by quite apt illustrations, well fitted, perhaps, to start the poorly equipped student in the lower branches of the work, but the advanced works, at least, were simply ridiculous. A notice appeared in which the character of the books was pointed out. The evidence of the worthlessness of the entire series was so strong that the publishers had it entirely rewritten by more competent authors. Now came the oddest part of the whole affair. The new series was issued under the name of the same author as the old one, just as if the acknowledgment of his total failure did not detract from the value of his name as an author.

In 1860 a total eclipse of the sun was visible in British America. The shadow of the moon, starting from near Vancouver's Island, crossed the continent in a northeast direction, passed through the central part of the Hudson Bay region, crossed Hudson Bay itself and Greenland, then inclining southward, swept over the Atlantic to Spain. As this was the first eclipse of the kind which had recently been visible, much interest was taken in its observation. On the part of the Nautical Almanac Office I computed the path of the shadow and the times of crossing certain points in it. The results were laid down on a map which was published by the office. One party, fitted out in connection with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was sent to Greenland. Admiral Davis desired to send another, on behalf of his own office, into the central regions of the continent. As members of this party Mr. Ferrel and myself were chosen. At the request of Professor Agassiz one of the assistants in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Mr. Samuel H. Scudder, accompanied us. More than twenty years later Mr. Scudder published a little book describing some of our adventures, which was illustrated with sketches showing the experiences of a party in the wild West at that time.

Our course lay from St. Paul across Minnesota to the Red River of the North, thence north to Fort Garry near the southern end of Lake Winnipeg, then over the lake and some distance up the Saskatchewan River. At St. Paul we paid our respects to Governor Ramsey, afterward Senator from Minnesota and Secretary of War. We were much surprised at the extraordinary deference paid by the community to a Mr. Burbank, a leading citizen of the town, and owner of the stages which we had to engage for our journey across the country. He seemed to be a man whom every one was afraid to offend. Even the local newspapers were careful what they printed about matters in which he was interested.

The two or three days which we passed in getting things ready to start were rather dull. The morning after our arrival I saw, during a morning walk, on a hill just outside the town, a large new building, on which the word "Athenaeum" was conspicuously shown. The Boston Athenaeum had a very fine library; is it not possible that this may have a beginning of something of the same sort? Animated by this hope, I went up the hill and entered the building, which seemed to be entirely vacant. The first words that met my eyes were "Bar Room" painted over a door. It was simply a theatre, and I left it much disappointed.

Here we were joined by a young Methodist clergyman,—Edward Eggleston,—and the four of us, with our instruments and appliances, set out on our journey of five days over the plains. On the first day we followed partly the line of a projected railway, of which the embankments had been completed, but on which work had, for some reason, been stopped to await a more prosperous season. Here was our first experience of towns on paper. From the tone in which the drivers talked of the places where we were to stop over night one might have supposed that villages, if not cities, were plentiful along our track. One example of a town at that time will be enough. The principal place on our route, judging from the talk, was Breckenridge. We would reach it at the end of the fourth day, where we anticipated a pleasant change after camping out in our tent for three nights. It was after dark before we arrived, and we looked eagerly for signs of the town we were approaching.

The team at length stopped in front of an object which, on careful examination in the darkness, appeared to be the most primitive structure imaginable. It had no foundations, and if it had a wall at all, it was not more than two or three feet in height. Imagine the roof taken off a house forty feet long and twenty feet wide and laid down on the ground, and you have the hotel and only building, unless perhaps a stable, in Breckenridge at that time. The entrance was at one end. Going in, a chimney was seen in the middle of the building. The floor was little more than the bare ground. On each side of the door, by the flickering light of a fire, we saw what looked like two immense boxes. A second glance showed that these boxes seemed to be filled with human heads and legs. They were, in fact, the beds of the inhabitants of Breckenridge. Beds for the arriving travelers, if they existed at all, which I do not distinctly remember, were in the back of the house. I think the other members of the party occupied that portion. I simply spread my blanket out on the hearth in front of the fire, wrapped up, and slept as soundly as if the bed was the softest of a regal palace.

At Fort Garry we were received by Governor McTavish, with whom Captain Davis had had some correspondence on the subject of our expedition, and who gave us letters to the "factors" of the Hudson Bay Company scattered along our route. We found that the rest of our journey would have to be made in a birch bark canoe. One of the finest craft of this class was loaned us by the governor. It had been, at some former time, the special yacht of himself or some visiting notable. It was manned by eight half-breeds, men whose physical endurance I have never seen equaled.

It took three or four days to get everything ready, and this interval was, of course, utilized by Scudder in making his collections. He let the fishermen of the region know that he wanted specimens of every kind of fish that could be found in the lake. A very small reward stirred them into activity, and, in due time, the fish were brought to the naturalist,—but lo! all nicely dressed and fit for cooking. They were much surprised when told that all their pains in dressing their catch had spoiled it for the purposes of the visiting naturalist, who wanted everything just as it was taken from the water.

Slow indeed was progress through the lake. A canoe can be paddled only in almost smooth water, and we were frequently stormbound on some desolate island or point of land for two or three days at a time. When, after many adventures, some of which looked like hairbreadth escapes, we reached the Saskatchewan River, the eclipse was only three or four days ahead, and it became doubtful whether we should reach our station in time for the observation. It was to come off on the morning of July 18, and, by dint of paddling for twenty-four hours at a stretch, our men brought us to the place on the evening before.

Now a new difficulty occurred. In the wet season the Saskatchewan inundates the low flat region through which it flows, much like the Nile. The country was practically under water. We found the most elevated spot we could, took out our instruments, mounted them on boxes or anything else in the shallow puddles of water, and slept in the canoe. Next morning the weather was hopelessly cloudy. We saw the darkness of the eclipse and nothing more.

Astronomers are greatly disappointed when, having traveled halfway around the world to see an eclipse, clouds prevent a sight of it; and yet a sense of relief accompanies the disappointment. You are not responsible for the mishap; perhaps something would have broken down when you were making your observations, so that they would have failed in the best of weather; but now you are relieved from all responsibility. It was much easier to go back and tell of the clouds than it would have been to say that the telescope got disarranged at the critical moment so that the observations failed.

On our return across Minnesota we had an experience which I have always remembered as illustrative of the fallacy of all human testimony about ghosts, rappings, and other phenomena of that character. We spent two nights and a day at Fort Snelling. Some of the officers were greatly surprised by a celestial phenomenon of a very extraordinary character which had been observed for several nights past. A star had been seen, night after night, rising in the east as usual, and starting on its course toward the south. But instead of continuing that course across the meridian, as stars invariably had done from the remotest antiquity, it took a turn toward the north, sunk toward the horizon, and finally set near the north point of the horizon. Of course an explanation was wanted. My assurance that there must be some mistake in the observation could not be accepted, because this erratic course of the heavenly body had been seen by all of them so plainly that no doubt could exist on the subject. The men who saw it were not of the ordinary untrained kind, but graduates of West Point, who, if any one, ought to be free from optical deceptions. I was confidently invited to look out that night and see for myself. We all watched with the greatest interest.

In due time the planet Mars was seen in the east making its way toward the south. "There it is!" was the exclamation.

"Yes, there it is," said I. "Now that planet is going to keep right on its course toward the south."

"No, it is not," said they; "you will see it turn around and go down towards the north."

Hour after hour passed, and as the planet went on its regular course, the other watchers began to get a little nervous. It showed no signs of deviating from its course. We went out from time to time to look at the sky.

"There it is," said one of the observers at length, pointing to Capella, which was now just rising a little to the east of north; "there is the star setting."

"No, it is n't," said I; "there is the star we have been looking at, now quite inconspicuous near the meridian, and that star which you think is setting is really rising and will soon be higher up."

A very little additional watching showed that no deviation of the general laws of Nature had occurred, but that the observers of previous nights had jumped at the conclusion that two objects, widely apart in the heavens, were the same.

I passed more than four years in such life, surroundings, and activities as I have described. In 1858 I received the degree of D. S. from the Lawrence Scientific School, and thereafter remained on the rolls of the university as a resident graduate. Life in the new atmosphere was in such pleasant and striking contrast to that of my former world that I intensely enjoyed it. I had no very well marked object in view beyond continuing studies and researches in mathematical astronomy. Not long after my arrival in Cambridge some one, in speaking of Professor Peirce, remarked to me that he had a European reputation as a mathematician. It seemed to me that this was one of the most exalted positions that a man could attain, and I intensely longed for it. Yet there was no hurry. Reputation would come to him who deserved it by his works; works of the first class were the result of careful thought and study, and not of hurry. A suggestion had been made to me looking toward a professorship in some Western college, but after due consideration, I declined to consider the matter. Yet the necessity of being on the alert for some opening must have seemed quite strong, because in 1860 I became a serious candidate for the professorship of physics in the newly founded Washington University at St. Louis. I was invited to visit the university, and did so on my way to observe the eclipse of 1860. My competitor was Lieutenant J. M. Schofield of the United States Army, then an instructor at West Point. It will not surprise the reader to know that the man who was afterward to command the army of the United States received the preference, so I patiently waited more than another year.

[1] Henry Holt & Co.: New York, 1877.

[2] Wayside Sketches, by E. J. Loomis. Roberts: Boston

[3] Evangelinus Apostolides Sophocles, a native Greek and a learned professor of the literature of his country.



IV

LIFE AND WORK AT AN OBSERVATORY

In August, 1861, while I was passing my vacation on Cape Ann, I received a letter from Dr. Gould, then in Washington, informing me that a vacancy was to be filled in the corps of professors of mathematics attached to the Naval Observatory, and suggesting that I might like the place. I was at first indisposed to consider the proposition. Cambridge was to me the focus of the science and learning of our country. I feared that, so far as the world of learning was concerned, I should be burying myself by moving to Washington. The drudgery of night work at the observatory would also interfere with carrying on any regular investigation. But, on second thought, having nothing in view at the time, and the position being one from which I could escape should it prove uncongenial, I decided to try, and indited the following letter:—

Nautical Almanac Office, Cambridge, Mass., August 22, 1861.

Sir,—I have the honor to apply to you for my appointment to the office of Professor of Mathematics in the United States Navy. I would respectfully refer you to Commander Charles Henry Davis, U. S. N., Professor Benjamin Peirce, of Harvard University, Dr. Benjamin A. Gould, of Cambridge, and Professor Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, for any information respecting me which will enable you to judge of the propriety of my appointment.

With high respect, Your obedient servant, Simon Newcomb, Assistant, Nautical Almanac.

Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.

I also wrote to Captain Davis, who was then on duty in the Navy Department, telling him what I had done, but made no further effort. Great was my surprise when, a month later, I found in the post-office, without the slightest premonition, a very large official envelope, containing my commission duly signed by Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States. The confidence in the valor, abilities, etc., of the appointee, expressed in the commission, was very assuring. Accompanying it was a letter from the Secretary of the Navy directing me to report to the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, in Washington, for such duty as it might assign me. I arrived on October 6, and immediately called on Professor J. S. Hubbard, who was the leading astronomer of the observatory. On the day following I reported as directed, and was sent to Captain Gilliss, the recently appointed Superintendent of the Naval Observatory, before whom I stood with much trepidation. In reply to his questions I had to confess my entire inexperience in observatory work or the making of astronomical observations. A coast survey observer had once let me look through his transit instrument and try to observe the passage of a star. On the eclipse expedition mentioned in the last chapter I had used a sextant. This was about all the experience in practical astronomy which I could claim. In fact I had never been inside of an observatory, except on two or three occasions at Cambridge as a visitor. The captain reassured me by saying that no great experience was expected of a newcomer, and told me that I should go to work on the transit instrument under Professor Yarnall, to whose care I was then confided.

As the existence of a corps of professors of mathematics is peculiar to our navy, as well as an apparent, perhaps a real, anomaly, some account of it may be of interest. Early in the century—one hardly knows when the practice began—the Secretary of the Navy, in virtue of his general powers, used to appoint men as professors of mathematics in the navy, to go to sea and teach the midshipmen the art of navigation. In 1844, when work at the observatory was about to begin, no provision for astronomers was made by Congress. The most convenient way of supplying this want was to have the Secretary appoint professors of mathematics, and send them to the observatory on duty.

A few years later the Naval Academy was founded at Annapolis, and a similar course was pursued to provide it with a corps of instructors. Up to this time the professors had no form of appointment except a warrant from the Secretary of the Navy. Early in the history of the academy the midshipmen burned a professor in effigy. They were brought before a court-martial on the charge of disrespect to a superior officer, but pleaded that the professor, not holding a commission, was not their superior officer, and on this plea were acquitted. Congress thereupon took the matter up, provided that the number of professors should not exceed twelve, and that they should be commissioned by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. This raised their rank to that of a commissioned corps in the navy. They were to perform such duty as the Secretary of the Navy might direct, and were, for the most part, divided between the Naval Academy and the Observatory.

During the civil war some complaint was made that the midshipmen coming from the academy were not well trained in the duties of a seagoing officer; and it was supposed that this was due to too much of their time being given to scientific studies. This was attributed to the professors, with the result that nearly all those attached to the academy were detached during the four years following the close of the civil war and ordered elsewhere, mostly to the observatory. Their places were taken by line officers who, in the intervals between their turns of sea duty, were made heads of departments and teachers of the midshipmen in nearly every branch.

This state of things led to the enactment of a law (in 1869, I think), "that hereafter no vacancy in the grade of professors of mathematics in the navy shall be filled."

In 1873 this provision was annulled by a law, again providing for a corps of twelve professors, three of whom should have the relative rank of captain, four of commander, and the remainder of lieutenant-commander or lieutenant.

Up to 1878 the Secretary of the Navy was placed under no restrictions as to his choice of a professor. He could appoint any citizen whom he supposed to possess the necessary qualifications. Then it was enacted that, before appointment, a candidate should pass a medical and a professional examination.

I have said that the main cause of hesitation in making my application arose from my aversion to very late night work. It soon became evident that there was less ground than I had supposed for apprehension on this point. There was a free and easy way of carrying on work which was surprising to one who had supposed it all arranged on strict plans, and done according to rule and discipline. Professor Yarnall, whose assistant I was, was an extremely pleasant gentleman to be associated with. Although one of the most industrious workers at the observatory, there was nothing of the martinet about him. He showed me how to handle the instrument and record my observations. There was a Nautical Almanac and a Catalogue of Stars. Out of these each of us could select what he thought best to observe.

The custom was that one of us should come on every clear evening, make observations as long as he chose, and then go home. The transit instrument was at one end of the building and the mural circle, in charge of Professor Hubbard, at the other. He was weak in health, and unable to do much continuous work of any kind, especially the hard work of observing. He and I arranged to observe on the same nights; but I soon found that there was no concerted plan between the two sets of observers. The instruments were old-fashioned ones, of which mine could determine only the right ascension of a star and his only its declination; hence to completely determine the position of a celestial body, observations must be made on the same object with both instruments. But I soon found that there was no concert of action of this kind. Hubbard, on the mural circle, had his plan of work; Yarnall and myself, on the transit, had ours. When either Hubbard or myself got tired, we could "vote it cloudy" and go out for a plate of oysters at a neighboring restaurant.

In justice to Captain Gilliss it must be said that he was not in any way responsible for this lack of system. It grew out of the origin and history of the establishment and the inaction of Congress. The desirableness of our having a national observatory of the same rank as those of other countries was pointed out from time to time by eminent statesmen from the first quarter of the century. John Quincy Adams had, both while he filled the presidential office and afterward, made active efforts in this direction; but there were grave doubts whether Congress had any constitutional authority to erect such an institution, and the project got mixed up with parties and politics. So strong was the feeling on the subject that, when the Coast Survey was organized, it was expressly provided that it should not establish an astronomical observatory.

The outcome of the matter was that, in 1842, when Congress at length decided that we should have our national observatory, it was not called such, but was designated as a "house" to serve as a depot for charts and instruments for the navy. But every one knew that an observatory was meant. Gilliss was charged with its erection, and paid a visit to Europe to consult with astronomers there on its design, and to order the necessary instruments. When he got through with this work and reported it as completed he was relieved, and Lieutenant Matthew F. Maury was appointed superintendent of the new institution.

Maury, although (as he wrote a few years later) quite without experience in the use of astronomical instruments, went at his work with great energy and efficiency, so that, for two or three years, the institution bade fair to take a high place in science. Then he branched off into what was, from a practical standpoint, the vastly more important work of studying the winds and currents of the ocean. The epoch-making character of his investigations in this line, and their importance to navigation when ships depended on sails for their motive power, were soon acknowledged by all maritime nations, and the fame which he acquired in pursuing them added greatly to the standing of the institution at which the work was done, though in reality an astronomical outfit was in no way necessary to it. The new work was so absorbing that he seemed to have lost interest in the astronomical side of the establishment, which he left to his assistants. The results were that on this side things fell into the condition I have described, and stayed there until Maury resigned his commission and cast his fortunes with the Confederacy. Then Gilliss took charge and had to see what could be done under the circumstances.

It soon became evident to him that no system of work of the first order of importance could be initiated until the instrumental equipment was greatly improved. The clocks, perfection in which is almost at the bottom of good work, were quite unfit for use. The astronomical clock with which Yarnall and I made our observations kept worse time than a high-class pocket watch does to-day. The instruments were antiquated and defective in several particulars. Before real work could be commenced new ones must be procured. But the civil war was in progress, and the times were not favorable to immediately securing them. That the work of the observatory was kept up was due to a feeling of pride on the part of our authorities in continuing it without interruption through the conflict. The personnel was as insufficient as the instruments. On it devolved not only the making of the astronomical observations, but the issue of charts and chronometers to the temporarily immense navy. In fact the observatory was still a depot of charts for the naval service, and continued to be such until the Hydrographic Office was established in 1866.

In 1863 Gilliss obtained authority to have the most pressing wants supplied by the construction of a great transit circle by Pistor and Martins in Berlin. He had a comprehensive plan of work with this instrument when it should arrive, but deferred putting any such plan in operation until its actual reception.

Somehow the work of editing, explaining, and preparing for the press the new series of observations made by Yarnall and myself with our old transit instrument devolved on me. To do this in the most satisfactory way, it was necessary to make a careful study of the methods and system at the leading observatories of other countries in the line we were pursuing, especially Greenwich. Here I was struck by the superiority of their system to ours. Everything was there done on an exact and uniform plan, and one which seemed to me better adapted to get the best results than ours was. For the non-astronomical reader it may be remarked that after an astronomer has made and recorded his observations, a large amount of calculation is necessary to obtain the result to which they lead. Making such calculations is called "reducing" the observations. Now in the previous history of the observatory, the astronomers fell into the habit of every one not only making his observations in his own way, but reducing them for himself. Thus it happened that Yarnall had been making and reducing his observations in his own way, and I, on alternate nights, had been making and reducing mine in my way, which was modeled after the Greenwich fashion, and therefore quite different from his. Now I suddenly found myself face to face with the problem of putting these two heterogeneous things together so as to make them look like a homogeneous whole. I was extremely mortified to see how poor a showing would be made in the eyes of foreign astronomers. But I could do nothing more than to describe the work and methods in such a way as to keep in the background the want of system that characterized them.

Notwithstanding all these drawbacks of the present, the prospect of future success seemed brilliant. Gilliss had the unlimited confidence of the Secretary of the Navy, had a family very popular in Washington society, was enthusiastically devoted to building up the work of the observatory, and was drawing around him the best young men that could be found to do that work. He made it a point that his relations with his scientific subordinates should be not only official, but of the most friendly social character. All were constantly invited to his charming family circle. It was from the occasional talks thus arising that I learned the details of his plan of work with the coming instrument.

In 1862 Gilliss had the working force increased by the appointment of four "aides," as they were then called,—a number that was afterwards reduced to three. This was the beginning of the corps of three assistant astronomers, which is still maintained. It will be of interest to know that the first aide was Asaph Hall; but before his appointment was made, an impediment, which for a time looked serious, had to be overcome. Gilliss desired that the aide should hold a good social and family position. The salary being only $1000, this required that he should not be married. Hall being married, with a growing family, his appointment was long objected to, and it was only through much persuasion on the part of Hubbard and myself that Gilliss was at length induced to withdraw his objections. Among other early appointees were William Harkness and John A. Eastman, whose subsequent careers in connection with the observatory are well known.

The death of Professor Hubbard in 1863 led to my taking his place, in charge of the mural circle, early in September of that year. This gave me an opportunity of attempting a little improvement in the arrangements. I soon became conscious of the fact, which no one had previously taken much account of, that upon the plan of each man reducing his own observations, not only was there an entire lack of homogeneity in the work, but the more work one did at night the more he had to do by day. It was with some trepidation that I presented the case to Gilliss, who speedily saw that work done with the instruments should be regarded as that of the observatory, and reduced on a uniform plan, instead of being considered as the property of the individual who happened to make it. Thus was introduced the first step toward a proper official system.

In February, 1865, the observatory sustained the greatest loss it had ever suffered, in the sudden death of its superintendent. What it would have grown to had he lived it is useless to guess, but there is little doubt that its history would have been quite different from what it is.

Soon afterward Admiral Davis left his position as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation to take the subordinate one of Superintendent of the Observatory. This step was very gratifying to me, Davis had not only a great interest in scientific work, especially astronomy, but a genuine admiration of scientific men which I have never seen exceeded, accompanied with a corresponding love of association with them and their work.

In October, 1865, occurred what was, in my eyes, the greatest event in the history of the observatory. The new transit circle arrived from Berlin in its boxes. Now for the first time in its history, the observatory would have a meridian instrument worthy of it, and would, it was hoped, be able to do the finest work in at least one branch of astronomy. To my great delight, Davis placed me in charge of it. The last three months of the year were taken up with mounting it in position and making those investigations of its peculiarities which are necessary before an instrument of the kind is put into regular use. On the 1st day of January, 1866, this was all done, and we were ready to begin operations. An opportunity thus arose of seeing what we could do in the way of a regular and well-planned piece of work. In the greater clearness of our sky, and the more southern latitude of our observatory, we had two great advantages over Greenwich. Looking back at his first two or three years of work at the observatory, Maury wrote to a friend, "We have beaten Greenwich hollow." It may be that I felt like trying to do the same thing over again. At any rate, I mapped out a plan of work the execution of which would require four years.

It was a piece of what, in astronomy, is called "fundamental work," in which results are to be obtained independent of any previously obtained by other observers. It had become evident to me from our own observations, as well as from a study of those made at European observatories, that an error in the right ascension of stars, so that stars in opposite quarters of the heavens would not agree, might very possibly have crept into nearly all the modern observations at Greenwich, Paris, and Washington. The determination of this error was no easy matter. It was necessary that, whenever possible, observations should be continued through the greater part of the twenty-four hours. One observer must be at work with comparative steadiness from nine o'clock in the morning until midnight or even dawn of the morning following. This requirement was, however, less exacting than might appear when stated. One half the nights would, as a general rule, be cloudy, and an observer was not expected to work on Sunday. Hence no one of the four observers would probably have to do such a day's work as this more than thirty or forty times in a year.

All this was hard work enough in itself, but conditions existed which made it yet harder. No houses were then provided for astronomers, and the observatory itself was situated in one of the most unhealthy parts of the city. On two sides it was bounded by the Potomac, then pregnant with malaria, and on the other two, for nearly half a mile, was found little but frame buildings filled with quartermaster's stores, with here and there a few negro huts. Most of the observers lived a mile or more from the observatory; during most of the time I was two miles away. It was not considered safe to take even an hour's sleep at the observatory. The result was that, if it happened to clear off after a cloudy evening, I frequently arose from my bed at any hour of the night or morning and walked two miles to the observatory to make some observation included in the programme.

This was certainly a new departure from the free and easy way in which we had been proceeding, and it was one which might be unwelcome to any but a zealous astronomer. As I should get the lion's share of credit for its results, whether I wanted to or not, my interest in the work was natural. But it was unreasonable to expect my assistants, one or two of whom had been raised to the rank of professor, to feel the same interest, and it is very creditable to their zeal that we pursued it for some time as well as we did. If there was any serious dissatisfaction with the duty, I was not informed of that fact.

During the second year of this work Admiral Davis was detached and ordered to sea. The question of a successor interested many besides ourselves. Secretary Welles considered the question what policy should be pursued in the appointment. Professor Henry took part in the matter by writing the secretary a letter, in which he urged the appointment of an astronomer as head of the institution. His position prevented his supporting any particular candidate; so he submitted a list of four names, any one of which would be satisfactory. These were: Professor William Chauvenet, Dr. B. A. Gould, Professor J. H. C. Coffin, U. S. N., and Mr. James Ferguson. The latter held a civil position at the observatory, under the title of "assistant astronomer," and was at the time the longest in service of any of its force.

A different view was urged upon the secretary in terms substantially these: "Professors so able as those of the observatory require no one to direct their work. All that the observatory really needs is an administrative head who shall preserve order, look after its business generally, and see that everything goes smoothly." Such a head the navy can easily supply.

The secretary allowed it to be given out that he would be glad to hear from the professors upon the subject. I thereupon went to him and expressed my preference for Professor Coffin. He asked me, "How would it do to have a purely administrative head?"

I replied that we might get along for a time if he did not interfere with our work.

"No," said the secretary, "he shall not interfere. That shall be understood."

As I left him there was, to my inexperienced mind, something very odd in this function, or absence of function, of the head of an establishment; but of course I had to bow to superior wisdom and could say nothing.

The policy of Commodore (afterward Rear-Admiral) Sands, the incoming superintendent, toward the professors was liberal in the last degree. Each was to receive due credit for what he did, and was in every way stimulated to do his best at any piece of scientific work he might undertake with the approval of the superintendent. Whether he wanted to observe an eclipse, determine the longitude of a town or interior station, or undertake some abstruse investigation, every facility for doing it and every encouragement to go on with it was granted him.

Under this policy the observatory soon reached the zenith of its fame and popularity. Whenever a total eclipse of the sun was visible in an accessible region parties were sent out to observe it. In 1869 three professors, I being one, were sent to Des Moines, Iowa, to observe the solar eclipse which passed across the country in June of that year. As a part of this work, I prepared and the observatory issued a detailed set of instructions to observers in towns at each edge of the shadow-path to note the short duration of totality. The object was to determine the exact point to which the shadow extended. At this same eclipse Professor Harkness shared with Professor Young of Princeton the honor of discovering the brightest line in the spectrum of the sun's corona. The year following parties were sent to the Mediterranean to observe an eclipse which occurred in December, 1870. I went to Gibraltar, although the observation of the eclipse was to me only a minor object. Some incidents connected with this European trip will be described in a subsequent chapter.

The reports of the eclipse parties not only described the scientific observations in great detail, but also the travels and experiences, and were sometimes marked by a piquancy not common in official documents. These reports, others pertaining to longitude, and investigations of various kinds were published in full and distributed with great liberality. All this activity grew out of the stimulating power and careful attention to business of the head of the observatory and the ability of the young professors of his staff. It was very pleasant to the latter to wear the brilliant uniform of their rank, enjoy the protection of the Navy Department, and be looked upon, one and all, as able official astronomers. The voice of one of our scientific men who returned from a visit abroad declaring that one of our eclipse reports was the laughing-stock of Europe was drowned in the general applause.

In the latter part of 1869 I had carried forward the work with the transit circle as far as it could be profitably pursued under existing conditions. On working up my observations, the error which I had suspected in the adopted positions of the stars was proved to be real. But the discovery of this error was due more to the system of observation, especially the pursuit of the latter through the day and night, than it was to any excellence of the instrument. The latter proved to have serious defects which were exaggerated by the unstable character of the clayey soil of the hill on which the observatory was situated. Other defects also existed, which seemed to preclude the likelihood that the future work of the instrument would be of a high class. I had also found that very difficult mathematical investigations were urgently needed to unravel one of the greatest mysteries of astronomy, that of the moon's motion. This was a much more important work than making observations, and I wished to try my hand at it. So in the autumn I made a formal application to the Secretary of the Navy to be transferred from the observatory to the Nautical Almanac Office for the purpose of engaging in researches on the motion of the moon. On handing this application to the superintendent he suggested that the work in question might just as well be done at the observatory. I replied that I thought that the business of the observatory was to make and reduce astronomical observations with its instruments, and that the making of investigations of the kind I had in view had always been considered to belong to the Nautical Almanac Office. He replied that he deemed it equally appropriate for the observatory to undertake it. As my objection was founded altogether on a principle which he refused to accept, and as by doing the work at the observatory I should have ready access to its library, I consented to the arrangement he proposed. Accordingly, in forwarding my application, he asked that my order should be so worded as not to detach me from the observatory, but to add the duty I asked for to that which I was already performing.

So far as I was personally concerned, this change was fortunate rather than otherwise. As things go in Washington, the man who does his work in a fine public building can gain consideration for it much more readily than if he does it in a hired office like that which the "Nautical Almanac" then occupied. My continued presence on the observatory staff led to my taking part in two of the great movements of the next ten years, the construction and inauguration of the great telescope and the observations of the transit of Venus. But for the time being my connection with the regular work of the observatory ceased.

On the retirement of Admiral Sands in 1874, Admiral Davis returned to the observatory, and continued in charge until his death in February, 1877. The principal event of this second administration was the dispatch of parties to observe the transit of Venus. Of this I shall speak in full in a subsequent chapter.

One incident, although of no public importance, was of some interest at the time. This was a visit of the only emperor who, I believe, had ever set foot on our shores,—Dom Pedro of Brazil. He had chosen the occasion of our Centennial for a visit to this country, and excited great interest during his stay, not only by throwing off all imperial reserve during his travels, but by the curiosity and vigor with which he went from place to place examining and studying everything he could find, and by the singular extent of his knowledge on almost every subject of a scientific or technical character. A Philadelphia engineer with whom he talked was quoted as saying that his knowledge of engineering was not merely of the ordinary kind to be expected in an intelligent man, but extended to the minutest details and latest improvements in the building of bridges, which was the specialty of the engineer in question.

Almost as soon as he arrived in Washington I received the following letter by a messenger from the Arlington Hotel:—

Mr.: En arrivant a Washington j'ai tout-de-suite songe a votre observatoire, ou vous avez acquis tant de droit a l'estime de tout ceux qui achevent la science. Je m'y rendrai donc aujourd'hui a 7 heures du soir, et je compte vous y trouver, surtout pour vous remercier de votre beau memoire que j'ai recu peu avant mon depart de mon pays, et que je n'ai pas pu, par consequent, apprecier autant que je l'aurais voulu. En me plaisant de l'espoir de vous connaitre personnellement je vous prie de me compter parmi vos affectionnes. D. Pedro D'Alcantara. 7 Mai, 1876.

Like other notes which I subsequently received from him, it was in his own autograph throughout: if he brought any secretary with him on his travels I never heard of it.

The letter placed me in an embarrassing position, because its being addressed to me was in contravention of all official propriety. Of course I lost no time in calling on him and trying to explain the situation. I told him that Admiral Davis, whom he well knew from his being in command of the Brazilian station a few years before, was the head of the observatory, and hinted as plainly as I could that a notification of the coming of such a visitor as he should be sent to the head of the institution. But he refused to take the hint, and indicated that he expected me to arrange the whole matter for him. This I did by going to the observatory and frankly explaining the matter to Admiral Davis. Happily the latter was not a stickler for official forms, and was cast in too large a mould to take offense where none was intended. At his invitation I acted as one of the receiving party. The carriage drove up at the appointed hour, and its occupant was welcomed by the admiral at the door with courtly dignity. The visitor had no time to spend in preliminaries; he wished to look through the establishment immediately.

The first object to meet his view was a large marble-cased clock which, thirty years before, had acquired some celebrity from being supposed to embody the first attempt to apply electricity to the recording of astronomical observations. It was said to have cost a large sum, paid partly as a reward to its inventor. Its only drawbacks were that it would not keep time and had never, so far as I am aware, served any purpose but that of an ornament. The first surprise came when the visitor got down on his hands and knees in front of the clock, reached his hands under it, and proceeded to examine its supports. We all wondered what it could mean. When he arose, it was explained. He did not see how a clock supported in this way could keep the exact time necessary in the work of an astronomer. So we had to tell him that the clock was not used for this purpose, and that he must wait until we visited the observing rooms to see our clocks properly supported.

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