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   Chapter 5 LIFE AND WORK AT AN OBSERVATORY

The Reminiscences of an Astronomer By Simon Newcomb Characters: 44285

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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 everythi

ng 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 à Washington j'ai tout-de-suite songé à votre

observatoire, où vous avez acquis tant de droit à l'estime

de tout ceux qui achèvent la science. Je m'y rendrai donc

aujourd'hui à 7 heures du soir, et je compte vous y trouver,

surtout pour vous remercier de votre beau mémoire que j'ai

re?u peu avant mon départ de mon pays, et que je n'ai pas

pu, par conséquent, apprécier autant que je l'aurais voulu.

En me plaisant de l'espoir de vous conna?tre personnellement

je vous prie de me compter parmi vos affectionnés.

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.

The only evidence of the imperial will came out when he reached the great telescope. The moon, near first quarter, was then shining, but the night was more than half cloudy, and there was no hope of obtaining more than a chance glimpse at it through the clouds. But he wished to see the moon through the telescope. I replied that the sky was now covered, and it was very doubtful whether we should get a view of the moon. But he required that the telescope should be at once pointed at it. This was done, and at that moment a clear space appeared between the clouds. I remarked upon the fact, but he seemed to take it as a matter of course that the cloud would get out of the way when he wanted to look.

I made some remark about the "vernier" of one of the circles on the telescope.

"Why do you call it a vernier?" said he. "Its proper term is a nonius, because Nonius was its inventor and Vernier took the idea from him."

In this the national spirit showed itself. Nonius, a Portuguese, had invented something on a similar principle and yet essentially different from the modern vernier, invented by a Frenchman of that name.

Accompanying the party was a little girl, ten or twelve years old, who, though an interested spectator, modestly kept in the background and said nothing. On her arrival home, however, she broke her silence by running upstairs with the exclamation,-

"Oh, Mamma, he's the funniest emperor you ever did see!"

My connection with the observatory ceased September 15, 1877, when I was placed in charge of the Nautical Almanac Office. It may not, however, be out of place to summarize the measures which have since been taken both by the Navy Department and by eminent officers of the service to place the work of the institution on a sound basis. One great difficulty in doing this arises from the fact that neither Congress nor the Navy Department has ever stated the object which the government had in view in erecting the observatory, or assigned to it any well-defined public functions. The superintendent and his staff have therefore been left to solve the question what to do from time to time as best they could.

In the spring of 1877 Rear-Admiral John Rodgers became the superintendent of the observatory. As a cool and determined fighter during the civil war he was scarcely second even to Farragut, and he was at the same time one of the ablest officers and most estimable men that our navy ever included in its ranks. "I would rather be John Rodgers dead than any other man I know living," was said by one of the observatory assistants after his death. Not many months after his accession he began to consider the question whether the wide liberty which had been allowed the professors in choosing their work was adapted to attain success. The Navy Department also desired to obtain some expressions of opinion on the subject. The result was a discussion and an official paper, not emanating from the admiral, however, in which the duty of the head of the observatory was defined in the following terms:-

"The superintendent of the observatory should be a line officer of the navy, of high rank, who should attend to the business affairs of the institution, thus leaving the professors leisure for their proper work."

Although he did not entirely commit himself to this view, he was under the impression that to get the best work out of the professors their hearts must be in it; and this would not be the case if any serious restraint was placed upon them as to the work they should undertake.

After Rodgers's death Vice-Admiral Rowan was appointed superintendent. About this time it would seem that the department was again disposed to inquire into the results of the liberal policy heretofore pursued. Commander (since Rear-Admiral) William T. Sampson was ordered to the observatory, not as its head, but as assistant to the superintendent. He was one of the most proficient men in practical physics that the navy has ever produced. I believe that one reason for choosing so able and energetic an officer for the place was to see if any improvement could be made on the system. As I was absent at the Cape of Good Hope to observe the transit of Venus during the most eventful occasion of his administration, I have very little personal knowledge of it. It seems, however, that newspaper attacks were made on him, in which he was charged with taking possession of all the instruments of the observatory but two, and placing them in charge of naval officers who were not proficient in astronomical science. In reply he wrote an elaborate defense of his action to the "New York Herald," which appeared in the number for February 13, 1883. The following extract is all that need find a place in the present connection.

When I came here on duty a little more than a year since, I found these instruments disused. The transit instrument had not been used since 1878, and then only at intervals for several years previous; the mural circle had not been used since 1877; the prime vertical had not been used since 1867. These instruments had been shamefully neglected and much injured thereby. . . . The small equatorial and comet seeker were in the same disgraceful condition, and were unfit for any real work.

Admiral Franklin was made superintendent sometime in 1883, I believe, and issued an order providing that the work of the observatory should be planned by a board consisting of the superintendent, the senior line officer, and the senior professor. Professors or officers in charge of instruments were required to prepare a programme for their proposed work each year in advance, which programme would be examined by the board. Of the work of this board or its proceedings, no clear knowledge can be gleaned from the published reports, nor do I know how long it continued.

In 1885 Secretary Whitney referred to the National Academy of Sciences the question of the advisability of proceeding promptly with the erection of a new naval observatory upon the site purchased in 1880. The report of the academy was in the affirmative, but it was added that the observatory should be erected and named as a national one, and placed under civilian administration. The year following Congress made the preliminary appropriation for the commencement of the new building, but no notice was taken of the recommendation of the academy.

In 1891 the new buildings were approaching completion, and Secretary Tracy entered upon the question of the proper administration of the observatory. He discussed the subject quite fully in his annual report for that year, stating his conclusion in the following terms:-

I therefore recommend the adoption of legislation which shall instruct the President to appoint, at a sufficient salary, without restriction, from persons either within or outside the naval service, the ablest and most accomplished astronomer who can be found for the position of superintendent.

At the following session of Congress Senator Hale introduced an amendment to the naval appropriation bill, providing for the expenses of a commission to be appointed by the Secretary of the Navy, to consider and report upon the organization of the observatory. The House non-concurred in this amendment, and it was dropped from the bill.

At the same session, all the leading astronomers of the country united in a petition to Congress, asking that the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy should be carried into effect. After a very patient hearing of arguments on the subject by Professor Boss and others, the House Naval Committee reported unanimously against the measure, claiming that the navy had plenty of officers able to administer the observatory in a satisfactory way, and that there was therefore no necessity for a civilian head.

Two years later, Senator Morrill offered an amendment to the legislative appropriation bill, providing that the superintendent of the observatory should be selected from civil life, and be learned in the science of astronomy. He supported his amendment by letters from a number of leading astronomers of the country in reply to questions which he had addressed to them.

This amendment, after being approved by the Senate Naval Committee, was referred by the Committee on Appropriations to the Secretary of the Navy. He recommended a modification of the measure so as to provide for the appointment of a "Director of Astronomy," to have charge of the astronomical work of the observatory, which should, however, remain under a naval officer as superintendent. This arrangement was severely criticised in the House by Mr. Thomas B. Reed, of Maine, and the whole measure was defeated in conference.

In 1892, when the new observatory was being occupied, the superintendent promulgated regulations for its work. These set forth in great detail what the observatory should do. Its work was divided into nine departments, each with its chief, besides which there was a chief astronomical assistant and a chief nautical assistant to the superintendent, making eleven chiefs in all. The duties of each chief were comprehensively described. As the entire scientific force of the observatory numbered some ten or twelve naval officers, professors, and assistant astronomers, with six computers, it may be feared that some of the nine departments were short-handed.

In September, 1894, new regulations were established by the Secretary of the Navy, which provided for an "Astronomical Director," who was to "have charge of and to be responsible for the direction, scope, character, and preparation for publication of all work purely astronomical, which is performed at the Naval Observatory." As there was no law for this office, it was filled first by the detail of Professor Harkness, who served until his retirement in 1899, then by the detail of Professor Brown, who served until March, 1901.

In 1899 the Secretary of the Navy appointed a Board of Visitors to the observatory, comprising Senator Chandler, of New Hampshire, Hon. A. G. Dayton, House of Representatives, and Professors Pickering, Comstock, and Hale. This board, "in order to obviate a criticism that the astronomical work of the observatory has not been prosecuted with that vigor and continuity of purpose which should be shown in a national observatory," recommended that the Astronomical Director and the Director of the Nautical Almanac should be civil officers, with sufficient salaries. A bill to this effect was introduced into each House of Congress at the next session, and referred to the respective naval committees, but never reported.

In 1901 Congress, in an amendment to the naval appropriation bill, provided a permanent Board of Visitors to the observatory, in whom were vested full powers to report upon its condition and expenditures, and to prescribe its plan of work. It was also provided in the same law that the superintendent of the observatory should, until further legislation by Congress, be a line officer of the navy of a rank not below that of captain. In the first annual report of this board is the following clause:-

"We wish to record our deliberate and unanimous judgment that the law should be changed so as to provide that the official head of the observatory-perhaps styled simply the Director-should be an eminent astronomer appointed by the President by and with the consent of the Senate."

Although the board still has a legal existence, Congress, in 1902, practically suspended its functions by declining to make any appropriation for its expenses. Moreover, since the detachment of Professor Brown, Astronomical Director, no one has been appointed to fill the vacancy thus arising. At the time of the present writing, therefore, the entire responsibility for planning and directing the work of the observatory is officially vested in the naval superintendent, as it was at the old observatory.

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