Maria Mitchell Nantuckets Great Astronomer

The quote concerning the eclipse of 1878 with which Chapter 9 began was from the writings of Maria Mitchell, who was Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College (in Poughkeepsie, New York) from 1865 until 1888. She died the following year in Lynn, Massachusetts, but she had been born in 1818 on Nantucket, and she is still strongly associated with the island.

Mitchell was a woman famed around the world, with due cause. The list of her achievements is phenomenal, especially in the context of her times, when almost all spheres of public life were entirely the provinces of men. She was the first female professor of astronomy, and indeed one of the greatest American scientists of the nineteenth century. In 1848 she was elected the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (and it was 1943 before another woman was voted in, a situation Mitchell herself would have deplored). Two years later, in 1850, the American Association for the Advancement of Science also admitted her to its ranks. In 1869 the American Philosophical Society accepted her as a member, again breaking ground for the female sex. She was presented with numerous awards by a variety of foreign scientific societies and governments. In fact it was a gold medal from the King of Denmark that thrust her into international prominence.

Maria was fortunate to be born into a large Quaker family, in which the parents encouraged the girls as well as the boys in their education and intellectual pursuits. As a result she became first a schoolteacher, and then a librarian, with the time to read books on astronomy and other areas of science. Her father, a cashier at the Pacific Bank on Nantucket, built a small observatory on the roof of their house, adjoining the bank building. This he equipped with a small refractor: a lens telescope with an aperture of four inches. It was installed chiefly for him to collect observations of the positions of stars on behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard. But his daughter also put it to good use (see Figure 11-1).

While scanning the skies on the night of October 1, 1847, Maria came across a comet that was not shown in any of the most recent astronomical information available to her. Her father

FIGURE 11-1. Maria Mitchell discovers her comet in 1847.

immediately wrote to William Bond, professor of astronomy at Harvard University, concerning his daughter's discovery. Bond in turn communicated the news to European astronomers, knowing that the Danish king had been for some years offering an award for any comet discovery made through a telescope. Until that time all comets had been found using just the naked eye, and the use of telescopes in searching for new ones was in its infancy.

Of course the delay in delivering a letter across the Atlantic Ocean was considerable in those days, the first transoceanic telegraph still decades in the future. As a result, before the claim reached Europe the same comet had been independently spotted by an accomplished Jesuit astronomer working in Rome, Father Francesco de Vico, and the decision had been made to award him the prize. It was quickly realized that the priority lay with Mitchell, because she had seen the comet two days earlier than de Vico, and so it was arranged that another gold medal be presented to Mitchell a year later.

This brought Maria immediate fame, and her many astro nomical attainments were quickly recognized. Soon she was offered a position at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, carrying out the complicated celestial calculations that needed to be done by hand in this era long before the first electronic computers were built. In 1856 she began an extended visit to Europe, meeting many prominent astronomers there, and after her return she was appointed to the faculty at Vassar, where she did her utmost to encourage the female students.

The 1878 eclipse was not the only one that Mitchell witnessed. Already in 1869 she had headed to Iowa to make observations of that event. In the later year she took with her as assistants not only her sister, Mrs. Phebe Kendall, but also four Vassar graduates, all of whom had specific assigned duties to ensure that the maximum scientific benefit could be derived from their little eclipse camp near Denver.

As it happened, after a tortuous trip by rail their efforts were almost negated not by clouds, but by the railroad companies, which managed to lose their trunks in Pueblo, where they had changed lines. If those trunks had contained only clothes it would not have been a great problem, as it is easy to find new vestments, but Maria had packed the lenses from her telescopes among the soft materials to ensure they were not damaged along the way. In the end the trunks were found and delivered to Denver, and under a clear blue sky this all-female eclipse party made a series of good measurements. The only hiccup during the actual event was when one of the students was so overwhelmed by the sight of totality that she wavered from her task of counting the seconds aloud, which was necessary so that the others could time their predetermined actions.

In the light of the story of the Shawnee Prophet in Chapter 8,

Mitchell's comments regarding her sight of the lunar shadow moving off southeastwards across the plains seem somewhat surprising: "We saw the giant shadow as it left us and passed over the lands of the untutored Indian; they saw it as it approached from the distant west, as it fell upon the peaks of the mountain-tops and, in the impressive stillness, moved directly for our camping-ground. The savage, to whom it is the frowning of the Great Spirit, is awestruck and alarmed; the scholar, to whom it is a token of the inviolability of law, is serious and reverent." As we have seen, often it has been the "untutored savage" who has benefited most from an eclipse, at least in terms of the conduct of battles and wars.

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