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   Chapter 8 THE LICK OBSERVATORY

The Reminiscences of an Astronomer By Simon Newcomb Characters: 18517

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


In the wonderful development of astronomical research in our country during the past twenty years, no feature is more remarkable than the rise on an isolated mountain in California of an institution which, within that brief period, has become one of the foremost observatories of the world. As everything connected with the early history of such an institution must be of interest, it may not be amiss if I devote a few pages to it.

In 1874 the announcement reached the public eye that James Lick, an eccentric and wealthy Californian, had given his entire fortune to a board of trustees to be used for certain public purposes, one of which was the procuring of the greatest and most powerful telescope that had ever been made. There was nothing in the previous history of the donor that could explain his interest in a great telescope. I am sure he had never looked through a telescope in his life, and that if he had, and had been acquainted with the difficulties of an observation with it, it is quite likely the Lick Observatory would never have existed. From his point of view, as, indeed, from that of the public very generally, the question of telescopic vision is merely one of magnifying power. By making an instrument large and powerful enough we may hope even to discover rational beings on other planets.

The president of the first board of trustees was Mr. D. O. Mills, the well-known capitalist, who had been president of the Bank of California. Mr. Mills visited Washington in the summer or autumn of 1874, and conferred with the astronomers there, among others myself, on the question of the proposed telescope. I do not think that an observatory properly so called was, at first, in Mr. Lick's mind; all he wanted was an immense telescope.

The question was complicated by the result of some correspondence between Mr. Lick and the firm of Alvan Clark & Sons. The latter had been approached to know the cost of constructing the desired telescope. Without making any exact estimate, or deciding upon the size of the greatest telescope that could be constructed, they named a very large sum, $200,000 I believe, as the amount that could be put into the largest telescope it was possible to make. Mr. Lick deemed this estimate exorbitant, and refused to have anything more to do with the firm. The question now was whether any one else besides the Clarks could make what was wanted.

I suggested to Mr. Mills that this question was a difficult one to answer, as no European maker was known to rival the Clerks in skill in the desired direction. It was impossible to learn what could be done in Europe except by a personal visit to the great optical workshops and a few observatories where great telescopes had been mounted.

I also suggested that a director of the new establishment should be chosen in advance of beginning active work, so that everything should be done under his supervision. As such director I suggested that very likely Professor Holden, then my assistant on the great equatorial, might be well qualified. At least I could not, at the moment, name any one I thought would be decidedly preferable to him. I suggested another man as possibly available, but remarked that he had been unfortunate. "I don't want to have anything to do with unfortunate men," was the reply. The necessity of choosing a director was not, however, evident, but communication was opened with Professor Holden as well as myself to an extent that I did not become aware of until long afterward.

The outcome of Mr. Mills's visit was that in December, 1874, I was invited to visit the European workshops as an agent of the Lick trustees, with a view of determining whether there was any chance of getting the telescope made abroad. The most difficult and delicate question arose in the beginning; shall the telescope be a reflector or a refractor? The largest and most powerful one that could be made would be, undoubtedly, a reflector. And yet reflecting telescopes had not, as a rule, been successful in permanent practical work. The world's work in astronomy was done mainly with refracting telescopes. This was not due to any inherent superiority in the latter, but to the mechanical difficulties incident to so supporting the great mirror of a reflecting telescope that it should retain its figure in all positions. Assuming that the choice must fall upon a refractor, unless proper guarantees for one of the other kind should be offered, one of my first visits was to the glass firm of Chance & Co. in Birmingham, who had cast the glass disks for the Washington telescope. This firm and Feil of Paris were the only two successful makers of great optical disks in the world. Chance & Co. offered the best guarantees, while Feil had more enthusiasm than capital, although his skill was of the highest. Another Paris firm was quite willing to undertake the completion of the telescope, but it was also evident that its price was suggested by the supposed liberality of an eccentric California millionaire. I returned their first proposal with the assurance that it would be useless to submit it. A second was still too high to offer any inducement over the American firm. Besides, there was no guarantee of the skill necessary to success.

In Germany the case was still worse. The most renowned firm there, the successors of Fraunhofer, were not anxious to undertake such a contract. The outcome of the matter was that Howard Grubb, of Dublin, was the only man abroad with whom negotiations could be opened with any chance of success. He was evidently a genius who meant business. Yet he had not produced a work which would justify unlimited confidence in his ability to meet Mr. Lick's requirements. The great Vienna telescope which he afterward constructed was then only being projected.

Not long after my return with this not very encouraging report, Mr. Lick suddenly revoked his gift, through some dissatisfaction with the proceedings of his trustees, and appointed a new board to carry out his plans. This introduced legal complications, which were soon settled by a friendly suit on the part of the old trustees, asking authority to transfer their trust. The president of the new board was Mr. Richard S. Floyd, a member of the well-known Virginia family of that name, and a graduate, or at least a former cadet, of the United States Naval Academy. I received a visit from him on his first trip to the East in his official capacity, early in 1876, I believe. Some correspondence with Mr. Lick's home representative ensued, of which the most interesting feature was the donor's idea of a telescope. He did not see why so elaborate and expensive a mounting as that proposed was necessary, and thought that the object glass might be mounted on the simplest kind of a pole or tower which would admit of its having the requisite motions in connection with the eyepiece. Whether I succeeded in convincing him of the impracticability of his scheme, I do not know, as he died before the matter was settled.

This left the trustees at liberty to build and organize the institution as they deemed best. It was speedily determined that the object glass should be shaped by the Clarks, who should also be responsible for getting the rough disks. This proved to be a very difficult task. Chance & Co. were unwilling to undertake the work and Feil had gone out of business, leaving the manufacture in the hands of his son. The latter also failed, and the father had to return. Ultimately the establishment was purchased by Mantois, whose success was remarkable. He soon showed himself able to make disks not only of much larger size than had ever before been produced, but of a purity and transparency which none before him had ever approached. He died in 1899 or 1900, and it is to be hoped that his successor will prove to be his equal.

The original plan of Mr. Lick had been to found the observatory on the borders of Lake Tahoe, but he grew dissatisfied with this site and, shortly before his death, made provisional arrangements for placing it on Mount Hamilton. In 1879 preparations had so far advanced that it became necessary to decide whether this was really a suitable location. I had grave doubts on the subject. A mountain side is liable to be heated by the rays of the sun during the day, and a current of warm air which would be fatal to the delicacy of astronomical vision is liable to rise up the sides and envelope the top of the mountain. I had even been informed that, on a summer evening, a piece of paper let loose on the mountain top would be carried up into the air by the current. But, after all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Holden united with me in advising that an experienced astronomer with a telescope should be stationed for a few weeks on the mountain in order to determine, by actual trial, what the conditions of seeing were. The one best man for this duty was S. W. Burnham of Chicago, who had already attained a high position in the astronomical world by the remarkable skill shown in his observations of double stars. So, in August, 1879, huts were built on the mountain, and Burnham was transported thither with his telescope. I followed personally in September.

We passed

three nights on the mountain with Captain Floyd, studying the skies by night and prospecting around in the daytime to see whether the mountain top or some point in the neighboring plateau offered the best location for the observatory. So far as the atmospheric conditions were concerned, the results were beyond our most sanguine expectations. What the astronomer wants is not merely a transparent atmosphere, but one of such steadiness that the image of a star, as seen in a telescope, may not be disturbed by movements of the air which are invisible to the naked eye.

Burnham found that there were forty-two first-class nights during his stay, and only seven which would be classed as low as medium. In the East the number of nights which he would call first-class are but few in a year, and even the medium night is by no means to be counted on. No further doubt could remain that the top of the mountain was one of the finest locations in the world for an astronomical observatory, and it was definitely selected without further delay.

Sometime after my return Mr. Floyd sent me a topographical sketch of the mountain, with a request to prepare preliminary plans for the observatory. As I had always looked on Professor Holden as probably the coming director, I took him into consultation, and the plans were made under our joint direction in my office. The position and general arrangement of the buildings remain, so far as I am aware, much as then planned; the principal change being the omission of a long colonnade extending over the whole length of the main front in order to secure an artistic and imposing aspect from the direction of San José.

In the summer of 1885, as I was in New York in order to sail next day to Europe, I was surprised by a visit from Judge Hagar, a prominent citizen of San Francisco, a member of the Board of Regents of the University of California, and an active politician, who soon afterward became collector of the port, to consult me on the question of choosing Professor Holden as president of the university. This was not to interfere with his becoming director of the Lick Observatory whenever that institution should be organized, but was simply a temporary arrangement to bridge over a difficulty.

In the autumn of 1887 I received an invitation from Mr. Floyd to go with him to Cleveland, in order to inspect the telescope, which was now nearly ready for delivery. It was mounted in the year following, and then Holden stepped from the presidency of the university into the directorship of the observatory.

The institution made its mark almost from the beginning. I know of no example in the world in which young men, most of whom were beginners, attained such success as did those whom Holden collected around him. The names of Barnard, Campbell, and Schaeberle immediately became well known in astronomy, owing to the excellence of their work. Burnham was, of course, no beginner, being already well known, nor was Keeler, who was also on the staff.

In a few years commenced the epoch-making work of Campbell, in the most refined and difficult problem of observational astronomy,-that of the measurement of the motion of stars to or from us. Through the application of photography and minute attention to details, this work of the Lick Observatory almost immediately gained a position of pre?minence, which it maintains to the present time. If any rival is to appear, it will probably be the Yerkes Observatory. The friendly competition which we are likely to see between these two establishments affords an excellent example of the spirit of the astronomy of the future. Notwithstanding their rivalry, each has done and will do all it can to promote the work of the other.

The smiles of fortune have been bestowed even upon efforts that seemed most unpromising. After work was well organized, Mr. Crossley, of England, presented the observatory with a reflecting telescope of large size, but which had never gained a commanding reputation. No member of the staff at first seemed ambitious to get hold of such an instrument, but, in time, Keeler gave it a trial in photographing nebul?. Then it was found that a new field lay open. The newly acquired reflector proved far superior to other instruments for this purpose, the photographic plates showing countless nebul? in every part of the sky, which the human eye was incapable of discerning in the most powerful of telescopes.

In 1892, only four years after the mounting of the telescope, came the surprising announcement that the work of Galileo on Jupiter had been continued by the discovery of a fifth satellite to that planet. This is the most difficult object in the solar system, only one or two observers besides Barnard having commanded the means of seeing it. The incident of my first acquaintance with the discoverer is not flattering to my pride, but may be worth recalling.

In 1877 I was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the meeting held in Nashville. There I was told of a young man a little over twenty years of age, a photographer by profession, who was interested in astronomy, and who desired to see me. I was, of course, very glad to make his acquaintance. I found that with his scanty earnings he had managed either to purchase or to get together the materials for making a small telescope. He was desirous of doing something with it that might be useful in astronomy, and wished to know what suggestions I could make in that line. I did not for a moment suppose that there was a reasonable probability of the young man doing anything better than amuse himself. At the same time, feeling it a duty to encourage him, I suggested that there was only one thing open to an astronomical observer situated as he was, and that was the discovery of comets. I had never even looked for a comet myself, and knew little about the methods of exploring the heavens for one, except what had been told me by H. P. Tuttle. But I gave him the best directions I could, and we parted. It is now rather humiliating that I did not inquire more thoroughly into the case. It would have taken more prescience than I was gifted with to expect that I should live to see the bashful youth awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for his work.

The term of Holden's administration extended through some ten years. To me its most singular feature was the constantly growing unpopularity of the director. I call it singular because, if we confine ourselves to the record, it would be difficult to assign any obvious reason for it. One fact is indisputable, and that is the wonderful success of the director in selecting young men who were to make the institution famous by their abilities and industry. If the highest problem of administration is to select the right men, the new director certainly mastered it. So far as liberty of research and publication went, the administration had the appearance of being liberal in the extreme. Doubtless there was another side to the question. Nothing happens spontaneously, and the singular phenomenon of one who had done all this becoming a much hated man must have an adequate cause. I have several times, from pure curiosity, inquired about the matter of well-informed men. On one occasion an instance of maladroitness was cited in reply.

"True," said I, "it was not exactly the thing to do, but, after all, that is an exceedingly small matter."

"Yes," was the answer, "that was a small thing, but put a thousand small things like that together, and you have a big thing."

A powerful factor in the case may have been his proceeding, within a year of his appointment, to file an astounding claim for the sum of $12,000 on account of services rendered to the observatory in the capacity of general adviser before his appointment as director. These services extended from the beginning of preparations in 1874 up to the completion of the work. The trustees in replying to the claim maintained that I had been their principal adviser in preparing the plans. However true this may have been, it was quite evident, from Holden's statement, that they had been consulting him on a much larger scale than I had been aware of. This, however, was none of my concern. I ventured to express the opinion that the movement was made merely to place on record a statement of the director's services; and that no serious intention of forcing the matter to a legal decision was entertained. This surmise proved to be correct, as nothing more was heard of the claim.

Much has been said of the effect of the comparative isolation of such a community, which is apt to be provocative of internal dissension. But this cause has not operated in the case of Holden's successors. Keeler became the second director in 1897, and administered his office with, so far as I know, universal satisfaction till his lamented death in 1900. It would not be a gross overstatement to say that his successor was named by the practically unanimous voice of a number of the leading astronomers of the world who were consulted on the subject, and who cannot but be pleased to see how completely their advice has been justified by the result of Campbell's administration.

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