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The Reminiscences of an Astronomer By Simon Newcomb Characters: 31698

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

I date my birth into the world of sweetness and light on one frosty morning in January, 1857, when I took my seat between two well-known mathematicians, before a blazing fire in the office of the "Nautical Almanac" at Cambridge, Mass. I had come on from Washington, armed with letters from Professor Henry and Mr. Hilgard, to seek a trial as an astronomical computer. The men beside me were Professor Joseph Winlock, the superintendent, and Mr. John D. Runkle, the senior assistant in the office. I talked of my unsuccessful attempt to master the "Mécanique Céleste" of Laplace without other preparation than that afforded by the most meagre text-books of elementary mathematics of that period. Runkle spoke of the translator as "the Captain." So familiar a designation of the great Bowditch-LL. D. and a member of the Royal Societies of London, Edinburgh, and Dublin-quite shocked me.

I was then in my twenty-second year, but it was the first time I had ever seen any one who was familiar with the "Mécanique Céleste." I looked with awe upon the assistants who filed in and out as upon men who had all the mysteries of gravitation and the celestial motions at their fingers' ends. I should not have been surprised to learn that even the Hibernian who fed the fire had imbibed so much of the spirit of the place as to admire the genius of Laplace and Lagrange. My own rank was scarcely up to that of a tyro; but I was a few weeks later employed on trial as computer at a salary of thirty dollars a month.

How could an incident so simple and an employment so humble be in itself an epoch in one's life-an entrance into a new world? To answer this question some account of my early life is necessary. The interest now taken in questions of heredity and in the study of the growing mind of the child may excuse a word about my ancestry and early training.

Though born in Nova Scotia, I am of almost pure New England descent. The first Simon Newcomb, from whom I am of the sixth generation, was born in Massachusetts or Maine about 1666, and died at Lebanon, Conn., in 1745. His descendants had a fancy for naming their eldest sons after him, and but for the chance of my father being a younger son, I should have been the sixth Simon in unbroken lineal descent. [1]

Among my paternal ancestors none, so far as I know, with the exception of Elder Brewster, were what we should now call educated men. Nor did any other of them acquire great wealth, hold a high official position, or do anything to make his name live in history. On my mother's side are found New England clergymen and an English nonconformist preacher, named Prince, who is said to have studied at Oxford towards the end of the seventeenth century, but did not take a degree. I do not know of any college graduate in the list.

Until I was four years old I lived in the house of my paternal grandfather, about two miles from the pretty little village of Wallace, at the mouth of the river of that name. He was, I believe, a stonecutter by trade and owner of a quarry which has since become important; but tradition credits him with unusual learning and with having at some time taught school.

My maternal grandfather was "Squire" Thomas Prince, a native of Maine, who had moved to Moncton, N. B., early in his life, and lived there the rest of his days. He was an upright magistrate, a Puritan in principle, and a pillar of the Baptist Church, highly respected throughout the province. He came from a long-lived family, and one so prolific that it is said most of the Princes of New England are descended from it. I have heard a story of him which may illustrate the freedom of the time in matters of legal proceedings before a magistrate's court. At that time a party in a suit could not be a witness. In the terse language of the common people, "no man could swear money into his own pocket." The plaintiff in the case advised the magistrate in advance that he had no legal proof of the debt, but that defendant freely acknowledged it in private conversation.

"Well," said the magistrate, "bring him in here and get him to talk about it while I am absent."

The time came.

"If you had n't sued me I would have paid you," said the defendant.

On the moment the magistrate stepped from behind a door with the remark,-

"I think you will pay him now, whether or no."

My father was the most rational and the most dispassionate of men. The conduct of his life was guided by a philosophy based on Combe's "Constitution of Man," and I used to feel that the law of the land was a potent instrument in shaping his paternal affections. His method of seeking a wife was so far unique that it may not be devoid of interest, even at this date. From careful study he had learned that the age at which a man should marry was twenty-five. A healthy and well-endowed offspring should be one of the main objects in view in entering the marriage state, and this required a mentally gifted wife. She must be of different temperament from his own and an economical housekeeper. So when he found the age of twenty-five approaching, he began to look about. There was no one in Wallace who satisfied the requirements. He therefore set out afoot to discover his ideal. In those days and regions the professional tramp and mendicant were unknown, and every farmhouse dispensed its hospitality with an Arcadian simplicity little known in our times. Wherever he stopped overnight he made a critical investigation of the housekeeping, perhaps rising before the family for this purpose. He searched in vain until his road carried him out of the province. One young woman spoiled any possible chance she might have had by a lack of economy in the making of bread. She was asked what she did with an unnecessarily large remnant of dough which she left sticking to the sides of the pan. She replied that she fed it to the horses. Her case received no further consideration.

The search had extended nearly a hundred miles when, early one evening, he reached what was then the small village of Moncton. He was attracted by the strains of music from a church, went into it, and found a religious meeting in progress. His eye was at once arrested by the face and head of a young woman playing on a melodeon, who was leading the singing. He sat in such a position that he could carefully scan her face and movements. As he continued this study the conviction grew upon him that here was the object of his search. That such should have occurred before there was any opportunity to inspect the doughpan may lead the reader to conclusions of his own. He inquired her name-Emily Prince. He cultivated her acquaintance, paid his addresses, and was accepted. He was fond of astronomy, and during the months of his engagement one of his favorite occupations was to take her out of an evening and show her the constellations. It is even said that, among the daydreams in which they indulged, one was that their firstborn might be an astronomer. Probably this was only a passing fancy, as I heard nothing of it during my childhood. The marriage was in all respects a happy one, so far as congeniality of nature and mutual regard could go. Although the wife died at the early age of thirty-seven, the husband never ceased to cherish her memory, and, so far as I am aware, never again thought of marrying.

My mother was the most profoundly and sincerely religious woman with whom I was ever intimately acquainted, and my father always entertained and expressed the highest admiration for her mental gifts, to which he attributed whatever talents his children might have possessed. The unfitness of her environment to her constitution is the saddest memory of my childhood. More I do not trust myself to say to the public, nor will the reader expect more of me.

My father followed, during most of his life, the precarious occupation of a country school teacher. It was then, as it still is in many thinly settled parts of the country, an almost nomadic profession, a teacher seldom remaining more than one or two years in the same place. Thus it happened that, during the first fifteen years of my life, movings were frequent. My father tried his fortune in a number of places, both in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Our lot was made harder by the fact that his ideas of education did not coincide with those prevalent in the communities where he taught. He was a disciple and admirer of William Cobbett, and though he did not run so far counter to the ideas of his patrons as to teach Cobbett's grammar at school, he always recommended it to me as the one by which alone I could learn to write good English. The learning of anything, especially of arithmetic and grammar, by the glib repetition of rules was a system that he held in contempt. With the public, ability to recite the rules of such subjects as those went farther than any actual demonstration of the power to cipher correctly or write grammatically.

So far as the economic condition of society and the general mode of living and thinking were concerned, I might claim to have lived in the time of the American Revolution. A railway was something read or heard about with wonder; a steamer had never ploughed the waters of Wallace Bay. Nearly everything necessary for the daily life of the people had to be made on the spot, and even at home. The work of the men and boys was "from sun to sun,"-I might almost say from daylight to darkness,-as they tilled the ground, mended the fences, or cut lumber, wood, and stone for export to more favored climes. The spinning wheel and the loom were almost a necessary part of the furniture of any well-ordered house; the exceptions were among people rich enough to buy their own clothes, or so poor and miserable that they had to wear the cast-off rags of their more fortunate neighbors. The women and girls sheared the sheep, carded the wool, spun the yarn, wove the homespun cloth, and made the clothes. In the haying season they amused themselves by joining in the raking of hay, in which they had to be particularly active if rain was threatened; but any man would have lost caste who allowed wife or daughter to engage in heavy work outside the house.

The contrast between the social conditions and those which surround even the poorest classes at the present day have had a profound influence upon my views of economic subjects. The conception which the masses of the present time have of how their ancestors lived in the early years of the century are so vague and shadowy as not to influence their conduct at the present time.

What we now call school training, the pursuit of fixed studies at stated hours under the constant guidance of a teacher, I could scarcely be said to have enjoyed. For the most part, when I attended my father's school at all, I came and went with entire freedom, and this for causes which, as we shall see, he had reasons for deeming good.

It would seem that I was rather precocious. I was taught the alphabet by my aunts before I was four years old, and I was reading the Bible in class and beginning geography when I was six.

One curious feature of my reading I do not remember to have seen noticed in the case of children. The printed words, for the most part, brought no well-defined images to my mind; none at least that were retained in their connection. I remember one instance of this. We were at Bedeque, Prince Edward Island. During the absence of my father, the school was kept for a time by Mr. Bacon. The class in reading had that chapter in the New Testament in which the treason of Judas is described. It was then examined on the subject. To the question what Judas did, no one could return an answer until it came my turn. I had a vague impression of some one hanging himself, and so I said quite at random that he hanged himself. It was with a qualm of conscience that I went to the head of the class.

Arithmetic was commenced at the age of five, my father drawing me to school day by day on a little sled during the winter. Just what progress I made at that time I do not recall. Long years afterward, my father, at my request, wrote me a letter describing my early education, extracts from which I shall ask permission to reproduce, instead of attempting to treat the matter myself. The letter, covering twelve closely written foolscap pages, was probably dashed off at a sitting without supposing any eye but my own would ever see it:-

June 8th, '58.

I will now proceed to write, according to your request, about your early life.

While in your fifth year, your mother spoke several times of the propriety of teaching you the first rudiments of book-learning; but I insisted that you should not be taught the first letter until you became five. [2] I think, though, that at about four, or four and a half I taught you to count, as far, perhaps, as 100.

When a little over four and a half, one evening, as I came home from school, you ran to me, and asked, "Father, is not 4 and 4 and 4 and 4, 16?" "Yes, how did you find it out?" You showed me the counterpane which was napped. The spot of four rows each way was the one you had counted up. After this, for a week or two, you spent a considerable number of hours every day, making calculations in addition and multiplication. The rows of naps being crossed and complexed in various ways, your greatest delight was to clear them out, find how many small ones were equal to one large one, and such like. After a space of two or three weeks we became afraid you would calculate yourself "out of your head," and laid away the counterpane.

Winter came, and passed along, and your birthday came; on that day, having a light hand-sled prepared, I fixed you on it, and away we went a mile and a half to school.

According to my belief in educational matters "that the slate should be put into the child's hands as soon as the book is," you of course had your slate, and commenced making figures and letters the first day.

In all cases, after you had read and spelled a lesson, and made some figures, and worked a sum, suppose one hour's study, I sent you out, telling you to run about and play a "good spell." To the best of my judgment you studied, during the five months that this school lasted, nearly four hours a day, two being at figures.

* * * * *

During the year that I taught at Bedeque, you studied about five hours a day in school; and I used to exercise you about an hour a day besides, either morning or evening. This would make six hours per day, nearly or quite two and a half hours of that time at numbers either at your slate or mentally. When my school ended here, you were six and a half years of age, and pretty well through the arithmetic. You had studied, I think, all the rules preceding including the cube root. . . .

I had frequently heard, during my boyhood, of a supposed mental breakdown about this period, and had asked my father for a description of it in the letter from which I am quoting. On this subject the letter continues:-

You had lost all relish for reading, study, play, or talk. Sat most of the day flat on the floor or hearth. When sent of an errand, you would half the time forget what you went for. I have seen you come back from Cale Schurman's crying, [3] and after asking you several times you would make out to answer, you had not been all the way over because you forgot what you went for. You would frequently jump up from the corner, and ask some peculiar question. I remember three you asked me.

1st. Father, does form mean shape? Yes. Has everything some shape? Yes. Can it be possible for anything to be made that would not have any shape? I answered no; and then showed you several things, explaining that they all had some shape or form. You now brightened up like a lawyer who

had led on a witness with easy questions to a certain point, and who had cautiously reserved a thunderbolt question, to floor the witness at a proper time; proceeded with, "Well, then, how could the world be without form when God made it?"

* * * * *

3d. Does Cale Schurman's big ram know that he has such big crooked horns on him? Does he know it himself, I mean? Does he know himself that he has such horns on him?

You were taken down suddenly I think about two or three days from the first symptoms until you were fairly in the corner. Your rise was also rapid, I think about a week (or perhaps two weeks) from your first at recovery, until you seemed to show nothing unusual. From the time you were taken down until you commenced recovery was about a month.

We returned to Prince Edward Island, and after a few weeks I began to examine you in figures, and found you had forgotten nearly all you had ever learned.

* * * * *

While at New London I got an old work on Astronomy; you were wonderfully taken with it, and read it with avidity. While here you read considerable in "Goldsmith's History of England." We lived two years in New London; I think you attended school nearly one year there. I usually asked you questions on the road going to school, in the morning, upon the history you had read, or something you had studied the day previous. While there, you made a dozen or two of the folks raise a terrible laugh. I one evening lectured on astronomy at home; the house was pretty well filled, I suppose about twenty were present. You were not quite ten years old and small at that. Almost as soon as I was done you said: "Father, I think you were wrong in one thing." Such a roar of laughter almost shook the house.

You were an uncommon child for truth. I never knew you to deviate from it in one single instance, either in infancy or youth.

From your infancy you showed great physical courage in going along the woods or in places in the dark among cattle, and I am surprised at what you say about your fears of a stove-pipe and trees.

Perhaps I should have said "mental" instead of physical courage, for in one respect you were uncommonly deficient in that sort of courage necessary to perform bodily labor. Until nine or ten years of age you made a most pitiful attempt at any sort of bodily or rather "handy" work.

* * * * *

An extraordinary peculiarity in you was never to leap past a word you could not make out. I certainly never gave you any particular instructions about this, or the fact itself would not at the time have appeared so strange to me. I will name one case. After a return to Wallace (you were eleven) I, one day, on going from home for an hour or so, gave you a borrowed newspaper, telling you there was a fine piece; to read it, and tell me its contents when I returned. On my return you were near the house chopping wood. "Well, Simon, did you read the piece?" "No, sir." "Why not?" "I came to a word I did not know." This word was just about four lines from the commencement.

At thirteen you read Phrenology. I now often impressed upon you the necessity of bodily labor; that you might attain a strong and healthy physical system, so as to be able to stand long hours of study when you came to manhood, for it was evident to me that you would not labor with the hands for a business. On this account, as much as on account of poverty, I hired you out for a large portion of the three years that we lived at Clements.

At fifteen you studied Euclid, and were enraptured with it. It is a little singular that all this time you never showed any self-esteem; or spoke of getting into employment at some future day, among the learned. The pleasure of intellectual exercise in demonstrating or analyzing a geometrical problem, or solving an algebraic equation, seemed to be your only object. No Junior, Seignour or Sophomore class, with annual honors, was ever, I suppose, presented to your mind.

Your almost intuitive knowledge of geography, navigation, and nautical matters in general caused me to think most ardently of writing to the Admiral at Halifax, to know if he would give you a place among the midshipmen of the navy; but my hope of seeing you a leading lawyer, and finally a judge on the bench, together with the possibility that your mother would not consent, and the possibility that you would not wish to go, deterred me: although I think I commenced a letter.

Among the books which profoundly influenced my mode of life and thought during the period embraced in the foregoing extracts were Fowler's "Phrenology" and Combe's "Constitution of Man." It may appear strange to the reader if a system so completely exploded as that of phrenology should have any value as a mental discipline. Its real value consisted, not in what it taught about the position of the "organs," but in presenting a study of human nature which, if not scientific in form, was truly so in spirit. I acquired the habit of looking on the characters and capabilities of men as the result of their organism. A hot and impulsive temper was checked by the reflection that it was beneath the dignity of human nature to allow a rush of blood to the organs of "combativeness" and "destructiveness" to upset one's mental equilibrium.

That I have gotten along in life almost without making (so far as I am aware) a personal enemy may be attributed to this early discipline, which led me into the habit of dealing with antagonism and personal opposition as I would deal with any physical opposition-evade it, avoid it, or overcome it. It goes without saying, however, that no discipline of this sort will avail to keep the passions of a youth always in check, and my own were no exception. When about fifteen I once made a great scandal by taking out my knife in prayer meeting and assaulting a young man who, while I was kneeling down during the prayer, stood above me and squeezed my neck. He escaped with a couple of severe though not serious cuts in his hand. He announced his intention of thrashing me when we should meet again; so for several days thereafter I tried, so far as possible, in going afield to keep a pitchfork within reach, determined that if he tried the job and I failed to kill him, it would be because I was unable to do so. Fortunately for both of us he never made the attempt.

I read Combe's "Constitution of Man" when between ten and twelve years of age. Though based on the ideas of phrenology and not, I believe, of high repute as a system of philosophy, it was as good a moral tonic as I can imagine to be placed in the hands of a youth, however fallacious may have been its general doctrines. So far as I can recall, it taught that all individual and social ills were due to men's disregard of the laws of Nature, which were classified as physical and moral. Obey the laws of health and we and our posterity will all reach the age of one hundred years. Obey the moral law and social evils will disappear. Its reading was accompanied by some qualms of conscience, arising from the non-accordance of many of its tenets with those of the "Catechism" and the "New England Primer." The combination of the two, however, led to the optimistic feeling that all wrongs would be righted, every act of injustice punished, and truth and righteousness eventually triumph through the regular processes of Nature and Society. I have been led to abandon this doctrine only by much experience, some of which will be found in the following pages.

In the direction of mathematical and physical science and reading generally, I may add something to what I have quoted from my father. My grandfather Simon had a small collection of books in the family. Among those purely literary were several volumes of "The Spectator" and "Roderick Random." Of the former I read a good deal. The latter was a story which a boy who had scarcely read any other would naturally follow with interest. Two circumstances connected with the reading, one negative and the other positive, I recall. Looking into the book after attaining years of maturity, I found it to contain many incidents of a character that would not be admitted into a modern work. Yet I read it through without ever noticing or retaining any impression of the indelicate side of the story. The other impression was a feeling of horror that a man fighting a duel and finding himself, as he supposed, mortally wounded by his opponent, should occupy his mind with avenging his own death instead of making his peace with Heaven.

Three mathematical books were in the collection, Hammond's Algebra, Simpson's Euclid, and Moore's Navigator, the latter the predecessor of Bowditch. The first was a miserable book, and I think its methods, which were crude in the extreme, though not incorrect, were rather more harmful than beneficial. The queer diagrams in Euclid had in my early years so little attraction for me that my curiosity never led me to examine its text. I at length did so in consequence of a passage in the algebra which referred to the 47th proposition of the First Book. It occurred to me to look into the book and see what this was. It was the first conception of mathematical proof that I had ever met with. I saw that the demonstration referred to a previous proposition, went back to that, and so on to the beginning. A new world of thought seemed to be opened. That principles so profound should be reached by methods so simple was astonishing. I was so enraptured that I explained to my brother Thomas while walking out of doors one day how the Pythagorean proposition, as it is now called, could be proved from first principles, drawing the necessary diagrams with a pencil on a piece of wood. I thought that even cattle might understand geometry could they only be communicated with and made to pay attention to it.

Some one at school had a copy of Mrs. Marcet's "Conversations on Natural Philosophy." With this book I was equally enraptured. Meagre and even erroneous though it was, it presented in a pleasing manner the first principles of physical science. I used to steal into the schoolhouse after hours to read a copy of the book, which belonged to one of the scholars, and literally devoured it in a few evenings.

My first undertaking in the way of scientific experiment was in the field of economics and psychology. When about fourteen I spent the winter in the house of an old farmer named Jefferson. He and his wife were a very kindly couple and took much interest in me. He was fond of his pipe, as most old farmers are. I questioned whether anything else would not do just as well as tobacco to smoke, and whether he was not wasting his money by buying that article when a cheap substitute could be found. So one day I took his pipe, removed the remains of the tobacco ashes, and stuffed the pipe with tea leaves that had been steeped, and which in color and general appearance looked much like tobacco. I took care to be around when he should again smoke. He lit the pipe as usual and smoked it with, seemingly, as much satisfaction as ever, only essaying the remark, "This tobacco tastes like tea." My conscience pricked me, but I could say nothing.

My father bought a copy of Lardner's "Popular Lectures on Science and Art." In this I first read of electricity. I recall an incident growing out of it. In Lardner's description of a Leyden jar, water is the only internal conductor. The wonders of the newly invented telegraph were then explained to the people in out of the way places by traveling lecturers. One of these came to Clements, where we then lived, with a lot of apparatus, amongst which was what I recognized as a Leyden jar. It was coated with tin-foil on the outside, but I did not see the inner coating, or anything which could serve as the necessary conductor. So with great diffidence I asked the lecturer while he was arranging his things, if he was not going to put water into the jar.

"No, my lad," was his reply, "I put lightning into it."

I wondered how the "lightning" was going to be conveyed to the interior surface of the glass without any conductor, such as water, but was too much abashed to ask the question.

Moore's "Navigator" taught not only a very crude sort of trigonometry, but a good deal about the warship of his time. To a boy living on the seacoast, who naturally thought a ship of war one of the greatest works of man, the book was of much interest.

Notwithstanding the intellectual pleasure which I have described, my boyhood was on the whole one of sadness. Occasionally my love of books brought a word of commendation from some visitor, perhaps a Methodist minister, who patted me on the head with a word of praise. Otherwise it caused only exclamations of wonder which were distasteful.

"You would n't believe what larnin' that boy has got. He has more larnin' than all the people around here put together," I heard one farmer say to another, looking at me, in my own view of the case, as if I were some monster misshapen in the womb. Instead of feeling that my bookish taste was something to be valued, I looked upon myself as a lusus natur? whom Nature had cruelly formed to suffer from an abnormal constitution, and lamented that somehow I never could be like other boys.

The maladroitness described by my father, of which I was fully conscious, added to the feeling of my unfitness for the world around me. The skill required on a farm was above my reach, where efficiency in driving oxen was one of the most valued of accomplishments. I keenly felt my inability to acquire even respectable mediocrity in this branch of the agricultural profession. It was mortifying to watch the dexterous motions of the whip and listen to the torrent of imperatives with which a young farmer would set a team of these stolid animals in motion after they had failed to respond to my gentle requests, though conveyed in the best of ox language.

I had indeed gradually formed, from reading, a vague conception of a different kind of world,-a world of light,-where dwelt men who wrote books and people who knew the men who wrote books,-where lived boys who went to college and devoted themselves to learning, instead of driving oxen. I longed much to get into this world, but no possibility of doing so presented itself. I had no idea that it would be imbued with sympathy for a boy outside of it who wanted to learn. True, I had once read in some story, perhaps fictitious, how a nobleman had found a boy reading Newton's "Principia," and not only expressed his pleased surprise at the performance, but actually got the boy educated. But there was no nobleman in sight of the backwoods of Nova Scotia. I read in the autobiography of Franklin how he had made his way in life. But he was surrounded with opportunities from which I was cut off. It does seem a little singular that, well known as my tastes were to those around me, we never met a soul to say, "That boy ought to be educated." So far as I know, my father's idea of making me a lawyer met with nothing but ridicule from the neighbors. Did not a lawyer have to know Latin and have money to pursue his studies? In my own daydreams I was a farmer driving his own team; in my mother's a preacher, though she had regretfully to admit that I might never be good enough for this profession.

[1] The actual sixth was my late excellent and esteemed cousin, Judge Simon Bolivar Newcomb, of New Mexico.

[2] He had evidently forgotten the home instruction from my aunts, received more than a year previous to the date he mentions.

[3] The grandfather of President Schurman of Cornell University. I retain a dreamy impression of two half-grown or nearly grown boys, perhaps between fourteen and eighteen years of age, one of whom became, I believe, the father of the president.

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