Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/87

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77
ASTRONOMY IN AMERICA.

Two years later, President Adams urged on Congress the establishment of a national observatory as part of a wider scheme for the advancement of knowledge. His remarks on the astronomical portion of his scheme serve well to show the position of astronomy in America half a century ago. "Connected with the establishment of a university," he says, "or separate from it, might be undertaken the erection of an astronomical observatory, with provision for the support of an astronomer to be in constant attendance on the phenomena of the heavens, and for the periodical publication of his observations. It is with no feeling of pride as an American that the remark may be made that, on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe, there are existing more than one hundred and thirty of these lighthouses of the skies, while throughout the whole American Hemisphere there is not one. If we reflect for a moment upon the discoveries which in the last four centuries have been made in the physical constitution of the universe by means of these buildings, and of observers stationed in them, shall we doubt of their usefulness to every nation? And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second-hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light, while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe" (!) "and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?"

In March, 1826, a bill "to establish an observatory in the District of Columbia" was brought before Congress and read the first and second time, but the House journals show no further trace of it. This bill was due to the recommendations of Mr. Adams, who did not relax in his efforts to secure the erection of a national observatory, though delays and disappointments occurred which might well have exhausted his energy, seeing that the dates of his renewed and for a while useless appeals were 1836, 1838, 1840, and 1842.

Passing over many circumstances in the history of these transactions, not as being without interest, but because space will not permit of their being presented here, we may proceed to the time when the actual erection of the buildings was commenced. This was in 1843, or no less than thirty-three years after the plan for an observatory was first proposed, so that fully one-half of the period which has elapsed since Lambert, of Virginia, first called his countrymen's attention to the necessity of establishing a national observatory was lost in discussions and delays. At the close of September, 1844, the new building was ready for occupancy, and the instruments were adjusted.

From 1844 to 1861 the Washington Observatory was under the superintendence of Lieutenant Maury. In September, 1846, the first volume of "Observations" was issued. Its value has been thus described by an impartial and competent judge: "Besides a fair amount of observations with the two transit instruments in the meridian and