Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/January 1892/Sketch of Elias Loomis

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 40 January 1892  (1892) 
Sketch of Elias Loomis
PSM V40 D302 Elias Loomis.jpg



DURING fifty-six years of active life Prof. Loomis made original investigations and contributed valuable additions to our knowledge of terrestrial magnetism, the aurora borealis, meteoric showers, astronomy, and meteorology, and gave to students an excellent series of mathematical text-books. He was connected with four important institutions of learning, of one of which — Yale — Prof. H. A. Newton says his life and work form no mean portion of its wealth.

Elias Loomis was born August 7, 1811, at Willington, Conn., where his father — "a man possessed of considerable scholarship, of positive convictions, and of a willingness to follow at all hazards wherever truth and duty, as he conceived them, might lead"—was pastor of a church. He grew up inclined to sedentary habits, having a taste for mathematics inherited from his father, and exhibiting a love for the languages at an age so early that he was reading with ease the New Testament in Greek at a period when many bright boys still have hard work with the reading of English. He prepared for college chiefly under the instruction of his father, spending only one winter at the academy, and was examined and admitted to Yale College at the age of fourteen, but waited, on account of his health, another year before taking his place in class. In college he took a good rank in all his studies, without showing a particularly superior proficiency in any one over another. A few weeks before his graduation, in 1830, he entered Mount Hope Institute, near Baltimore, as a teacher. Thence he went, in the fall of 1831, to Andover Theological Seminary as a student for the ministry, but was called from that vocation in May, 1833, to become a tutor in Yale College. He remained in this position till the spring of 1836, when he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Western Reserve College, Hudson, Ohio. Prior to entering upon the duties of this chair he spent a year in Europe attending the lectures of the distinguished French physicists of the time. He also purchased in London and Paris apparatus for use in his professorship and an outfit for a small observatory. He remained at Hudson—the college and himself being both in straitened financial condition—till 1844, when he became Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in the University of New York. He then spent one year at Princeton College in the professorship which had been vacated by the resignation of Prof. Joseph Henry to become Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, then returned to his old place in the University of New York, and continued there till 1860, when he was elected to the professorship in Yale College made vacant by the death of Prof. Olmsted. Here he spent the remainder of his life in active service, teaching, investigating, experimenting, and publishing as long as he was able to work.

For a summary of Prof. Loomis's labors for the increase and extension of knowledge we are indebted to the memorial address of Prof. H. A. Newton, delivered before the President and Fellows of Yale College, in April, 1890, of which what follows is essentially an abridgment.

He had begun his active career before his mind seemed to incline to any one direction of study in preference to another. In childhood he was most ready in Greek; in college he was equally proficient in all his studies; at Andover he led his class in Hebrew; in his tutorship at Yale he taught Latin when he might have had mathematics. The great meteoric shower of 1833 was the subject of general conversation in the college, and lie participated with ranch interest in the discussions that took place in the Tutors' Club over the views of Prof. Twining and Prof. Olmsted concerning the origin of the mysterious bodies. In the organization of the department committees of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1834, Mr. Loomis was assigned to that on mathematics and natural philosophy. From this time on he devoted himself predominantly to those branches of science in which he became distinguished.

He began systematic studies of the earth's magnetism during his tutorship in Yale College, setting up the variation compass of the institution in the north window of his room and making hourly observations of it, usually for seventeen hours of a single day, for thirteen months. The results of these observations—the only published American observations, except some made by Prof. Bache during ten days in 1833, that were made before 1834—were published in Silliman's Journal in 1836. He also undertook the collection of observations of magnetic declination in the United States and the construction of a magnetic chart of the country. This work was published about 1830, and in a revised second edition, with additional observations, two years later. Prof. Bache, comparing Mr. Loomis's results with those obtained by himself sixteen years later under much more favorable circumstances for exact observation and collation, declared that, when proper allowance had been made for secular changes, the agreement was remarkable. The first charts contained but few records of dip; but after removing to Western Reserve College Prof. Loomis undertook, with a dipping needle which he had procured in Europe, systematic observations of this feature. They were continued for several years at seventy stations in thirteen States, and the results were published in successive papers in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society.

Prof. Loomis's interest in astronomy apparently dates from the meteoric shower of 1833. He read a paper on that subject before the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in October, 1834, in which he reviewed the concerted observations made by Brandes and his pupils in Germany in 1823, and deduced from them an argument in favor of the cosmic origin of the shooting stars. In November of the same year he made similar observations at New Haven in concert with Prof. Twining who was stationed near West Point, N. Y., the first observations of the kind undertaken in America.

With the new five-inch telescope, the largest then in the country, given to Yale College by Mr. Sheldon Clark, Prof. Olmsted and Mr. Loomis obtained the first sight of Halley's comet on its predicted return in 1835, and observed it throughout its course. Mr. Loomis, with such means as were at his command, observed its place and computed its orbit. In the same year he computed, from observations of Polaris and of moon culminations, the latitude and longitude of the Athenaeum tower—the longitude to within less than two seconds of the best determinations of the present.

In September, 1838, in a small observatory he had constructed at Hudson, Ohio, he began observations with the instruments—a four-inch equatorial, a transit instrument, and an astronomical clock—which he had bought in Europe. They were made upon culminations and occultations of the moon for longitude, on Polaris for latitude, and upon five comets for computations of their orbits. A sixth comet was observed by him at Hudson in 1850. These observations were of much greater relative importance in those small days of astronomy in this country, when the facilities we now enjoy did not exist, than they would be now. While Yale College had a telescope but no observatory, and the Williams College Observatory was used for instruction but not for original work, and while Lieutenant Gillis at Washington, and Mr. Bond at Dorchester, Mass., were only preparing to begin observations in connection with the Wilkes Exploring Expedition, there was, as Prof. Loomis said in his inaugural address at Hudson, in 1838, no place in the United States where astronomical observations were regularly and systematically made. A few years later the first telegraph lines had been set up, and the services of Prof. Loomis and Mr. Sears C. Walker were enlisted by Superintendent Bache, of the Coast Survey, in telegraphic determinations in 1847 and 1848—Prof. Loomis having charge of the end of the line at Jersey City and New York—of the differences of longitude of Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Cambridge. In the next summer (1849) Prof. Loomis assisted in a similar work to connect Hudson with Eastern stations. These observations were made from three to five years before telegraphic methods were first used in Europe.

Prof. Loomis's interest in meteorology, in which his most important work was done, appears to have begun at about the same time his attention was drawn to magnetism and astronomy. He followed the discussions of the rival theories of Mr. Redfield and Prof. Espy, which began about the time of his graduation, and thenceforward made a particular study of the theory of storms. With a set of meteorological instruments bought in Europe he took complete meteorological observations twice a day at Hudson. The examination of the track of a tornado which passed near that place gave him some light respecting the course of the storm-wind and sharpened his desire to learn more about it. He next undertook the discussion of a large storm—that of December 20, 1836—concerning which, it occurring on one of the term days which Sir John Herschel had suggested as days for a general system of observations, he was able to collect data from all parts of the United States and some stations in Canada. His discussion of this storm, in a paper read before the American Philosophical Society in March, 1840, was. Prof. Newton says, "probably more complete than that of any previous one, and the methods which he employed were better fitted to elicit the truth than any earlier methods. . . . The results which he was able to secure did not sustain either of the two rival theories, but rather tended to prove some features in each of them." The studies were continued with the examination of the track of a second tornado in February, 1842, which proved to be a part of a general storm, and of another great storm that occurred in the same month. The paper embodying the results of these observations, which was read at the centennial meeting of the American Philosophical Society, in May, 1843, is remarkable for having introduced a new method of investigation. The delineations of storms previous to the composition of this paper had attempted no more than to indicate the progress of the center of minimum pressure by lines drawn from point to point, to which a few lines were added to show certain facts about the movements of the air. "In the discussion of the storms of 1842, instead of the line of minimum depression of the barometer, Prof. Loomis drew on the map a series of lines of equal barometric pressure, or rather of equal deviations from the normal average pressure for each place. A series of maps representing the storm at successive intervals of twelve hours were thus constructed, upon each of which was drawn a line through all places where the barometer stood at its normal or average height. A second line was drawn through all places where the barometer stood two tenths of an inch below the normal," etc.; and also for places where the barometer stood above its normal height. "The deviations of the barometric pressure from the normal were thus made prominent, and all other phenomena of the storm were regarded as related to those barometric lines. A series of colors represented respectively the places where the sky was clear, where the sky was overcast, and where rain or snow was falling. A series of lines represented the places at which the temperature was at the normal, or was 10°, 20°, or 30° above the normal or below the normal. Arrows of proper direction and length represented the direction and intensity of the winds at the different stations. These successive maps for the three or four days of the storm furnished to the eye all its phenomena in a simple and most effective manner." The introduction of this method, which is the prototype, still but little improved upon, of the weather charts now in general use, is regarded by Prof. Newton as perhaps the greatest of the services which Prof. Loomis rendered to science. The author expressed the opinion in his memoir that "if the course of investigations adopted with respect to the two storms of February, 1842, was systematically pursued we should soon have some settled principles in meteorology. If we could be furnished with two meteorological charts of the United States daily for one year—charts showing the state of the barometer, thermometer, winds, sky, etc., for every part of the country—it would settle forever the laws of storms. No false theory could stand against such an array of testimony. Such a set of maps would be worth more than all which has been hitherto done in meteorology. . . . A well-arranged system of observations spread over the country would accomplish more in one year than observations at a few isolated posts, however accurate and complete, continued till the end of time." Prof. Loomis suggested that the American Philosophical Society should undertake the supervision of such a work, for which local observers would not be wanting. The idea was seconded by Professors Bache and Peirce. The Academy of Sciences at Boston appointed a committee, of which Prof. Loomis was a member, to urge the execution of such a plan upon some proper authority. The American Philosophical Society added its voice. Prof. Henry determined to make American meteorology one of the subjects of investigation to be aided by the Smithsonian Institution; and, by his invitation. Prof. Loomis made a detailed report on the scheme, with an outlined plan of research. This plan was adopted in part by the Smithsonian Institution, but a more perfect organization of observations was needed than the institution could then command before it could reach the perfection of the present system.

In connection with a rediscussion of the storm of 1836, which Prof. Loomis undertook in 1854, he collected a series of observations made in Europe of a storm that occurred there about a week later than the one under review; but, instead of tracing a connection between them, he found that they were distinct, and that the laws of American and European storms did not agree in all cases.

Another subject in which Prof. Loomis was interested, and which stood in relation with his researches in terrestrial magnetism, was that of the aurora borealis. He collected the accounts from North America, Europe, Asia, and even the Southern Hemisphere, of the great display of August and September, 1859; and, comparing them with such facts as he could gather about other auroras, he deduced many conclusions which have since been confirmed in their essential features concerning the relations of the aurora and electricity, magnetism, light, heat, and sun-spots; the movement of the auroral display and its correspondence with magnetic movements on the earth ; the velocity of the auroral wave; the distribution of auroras over the earth's surface; their occurrence in the Southern Hemisphere ; their periodicity; and other points, with the discussion of which the world has since become familiar. In these investigations and in those on other subjects Prof. Loomis was ever intent. Prof. Newton says, upon answering the questions, "What are the laws of Nature? What do the phenomena teach us? "To establish laws which had been already formulated by others, but which still needed confirmation, was to him equally important with the formulation and proof of laws entirely new."

Prof. Loomis was a prolific writer. The list of his books and papers comprises one hundred and sixty-four titles upon every topic of the sciences in which he was especially interested with which he came in contact, recording the results of his experiments and their different stages. What are perhaps his most important papers were the series of Contributions to Meteorology which, beginning in April, 1874, he communicated twice a year to the National Academy of Sciences, and afterward to the American Journal of Science, in which they furnished the leading articles in eighteen volumes. In them were discussed the results of the Signal-Service observations and the subjects of European publications in meteorology. A revision of the papers was begun in 1884, on which he labored for the rest of his life, and was given to the public in three chapters, the third chapter, discussing the theory of storms, appearing in 1889. In connection with his college lectures on meteorology he published a treatise on the subject in 1868, which, "notwithstanding the rapid advances of the science during more than twenty years, is still indispensable to the student of meteorology." He published in 1850 a volume on The Recent Progress of Astronomy, especially in the United States, which went through two editions, and was then rewritten and enlarged. It was followed by the Introduction to Practical Astronomy and by popular articles in periodicals. During his connection with the University of New York he prepared a series of text-books in mathematics. The series comprised nearly twenty volumes on the subjects from arithmetic up, and, being well adapted to the requirements of teachers, has proved highly useful and successful. Not in the line of science, but a work of industry useful and interesting to all concerned, is the Loomis Genealogy, for which he made inquiries on each of his four visits to Europe, and entered into personal correspondence with every family of Loomis in the United States of which he could hear, and which grew till it contained the names of 8,680 descendants in the male and 19,000 in the female line, of Joseph Loomis, the first American ancestor, who settled in Windsor, Conn., in 1639. Other subjects than those already specified, mentioned by Prof. Newton as those on which Prof. Loomis made experiments and published papers, were the phenomena of optical moving figures; the vibrations sent out from waterfalls as the water flows over certain dams; the orbits of the satellites of Uranus; the temperature of the planets; the variations of light of the stars η Argus and Algol; and the comet of 1861.

A striking illustration of the value of Prof. Loomis's improvement in the construction of weather maps is cited by Prof. Newton as among his recollections of conversations with Sir George Airy and Le Verrier. The former, before Prof. Loomis's maps were published, expressed himself as having little hope for the progress of meteorology in the shape in which the data then appeared. Le Verrier, exhibiting, in 1869, charts made like those of Prof. Loomis, said: "I care not for the mass of observations made in the usual form; what I want is the power and material for making such charts as these."

A description of Prof. Loomis's characteristics as a teacher is given by a biographer in the Phrenological Journal, who says: "He was a man of quick impressions and very solid convictions. A really kind man, but so strict in his views of propriety and duty that the student, as a rule, regarded him as severe. "We remember him well as he appeared in the lecture-room of the university, always calm and even-toned, strict in his demands upon students who might be reciting, very brief in question, a mere trace of a smile if the student acquitted himself well, and nothing more than 'Sit down' when a student showed his ignorance of the lesson by his blundering. He was never sarcastic, never censorious. There might be a coldness of manner and a slight sharpness in his tone when annoyed, but these were passing cloudlets, so to speak, in the calm blue of his manner. He awed the frisky, mischievous ones into quiet, even well-behaved young men while they were under his penetrating eye, so that we never knew of a single instance of insubordination in his room during our course." In a description in general harmony with this. Prof. Newton includes an acknowledgment that was made by Chief-Justice Waite, that "if I have been successful in life, I owe that success to the influence of tutor Loomis more than to any other cause whatever."