Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/March 1884/Sketch of Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel
WITH the year 1842 practically commences the history of astronomical science in America. In that year, Ormsby Macknight Mitchel, a young graduate of West Point, and Professor of Mathematics at Cincinnati, having met with success in lecturing before his classes, was invited to give a course in the college hall. So successful was he in this course, and so great was the interest that he awakened in the subject, that he resolved to turn it to account, and enlist his hearers in the work of building an observatory. As the wealthier cities of the Eastern States had not yet moved in the direction, his plan was regarded by many as impracticable, but, after vigorous personal application, he succeeded in obtaining sufficient subscriptions to warrant a commencement of the work. The enterprise took shape by the organization of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society. Professor Mitchel had no observatory to model from, no practical knowledge of astronomy, and no instrument-makers from whom to purchase instruments or object-glasses. All this must be taught in older countries, and he resolved to go to Europe to this end. In order to husband his resources, he proceeded first to Washington, in the hope that he might be given some mission from the State Department, the remuneration for which would pay his expenses. Mr. Webster, then Secretary of State, informed him that his request was impossible, and nearly everybody, including President Tyler, was inclined to sneer at him as an impractical enthusiast. There was one notable exception—John Quincy Adams spoke words of kindness and encouragement. His application failed, and he proceeded on his journey, crossing the ocean in a sailing-vessel. Upon arriving in England, he looked for an object-glass, but found none worthy of his attention. From England he proceeded to Paris, and called upon M. Arago at the observatory there, who received him kindly; but, not finding what he desired in France, he proceeded to Germany, where he found a fine glass in the Frauenhofer works at Munich, which he purchased. Returning to England, he entered as a student in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and for some months devoted himself to the study of practical astronomy. Upon his return to America, he applied himself vigorously to the work of getting his observatory building ready for the reception of the equatorial telescope that he had ordered in Munich. He desired to secure the services of Mr. John Quincy Adams to deliver the oration at the laying of the corner-stone, and went to Niagara, where he learned Mr. Adams was sojourning at the time, to induce him to go to Cincinnati for that purpose. Notwithstanding the opposition of Mr. Adams's family, on account of his advanced age and infirmity, and the difficulties attending so long a journey in a stage-coach, so great was the ex-President's interest in the matter, and so certain did he feel it to be his duty, that he consented. On November 9, 1842, he delivered the address.
The time required to mount the glass, financial depression, and various discouragements prevented the completion of the building and the arrival of the telescope till the spring of 1845, when Professor Mitchel commenced his duties. He occupied himself in the ordinary routine of astronomical work. He paid considerable attention to perfecting instruments for attaining greater delicacy of observation. He claimed to be the first (though he found a rival to dispute this honor with him) to make a clock record its beats, thus obtaining a graphical and more minute measurement of time.
The pioneer of American observatories was not destined to be long-lived. Before many years rolled round, the smoke from the growing city at the base of the hill on which it stood rendered observations impossible. Its immediate successor, containing its instruments, is located some five or six miles from the original site, and other observatories, built afterward, occupy many a hill-top throughout America.
At the time the observatory was finished, an accident occurred which at first seemed very unfortunate for Professor Mitchel, but which in the end served to call out the full extent of his practical powers. The building of the college, from which he drew his only means of support, took fire and burned to the ground. The observatory was without endowment, and he had engaged to be its director for ten years without compensation, relying for support on his college professorship. He determined to enter the field as a professional lecturer on astronomy. With characteristic boldness he proceeded to Boston, believing that if he could succeed in that critical city, where the arts and sciences had been so thoroughly cultivated, and which numbered among its own citizens so many men of high scientific attainment, he could succeed elsewhere. He met with perfect success, and thus commenced that series of brilliant efforts in every city in the United States which lasted for fifteen years.
He published, in 1848, "Planetary and Stellar Worlds"; in 1860, "Popular Astronomy"; he also published, from 1846 to 1848, the "Sidereal Messenger," a periodical; and after his death a fragment, entitled "Astronomy of the Bible," was given to the public. These works, though the progress of science and of thought has left them now far behind, are still read by some who can discern in them the ardent poetic nature of their author. But his great work in science was in exciting an interest, wherever he appeared in person, to talk of the wonders of the heavens. He never attempted to amuse an audience, and never dropped below the dignity of the sublime subject of which he spoke. When flights of eloquence came to him, they seemed to meet him from among the lofty realms to which he ascended. Thither he carried his hearers, not by diagrams, not by actual pictorial representations, but by language alone. He possessed the power of magnetism to a remarkable degree. He could at once gain the sympathy of his audience, and always held it till he had ceased to speak. To him, far more than to any other man, is due the interest that grew up in astronomical science in America between the years 1842 and 1860, for there was scarcely a town or city in the United States in which he did not speak during that period.
In 1859 he delivered a course of lectures in the Academy of Music in New York for the benefit of an observatory that it was proposed to erect in Central Park. The last lecture of this course was the last he ever delivered. It was a fitting close to a brilliant work. The Academy was crowded almost to the ceiling. On the platform were seated many of the most prominent men in New York. As he led his audience out into space, to planet and sun and system, it became powerfully moved. When he closed, the ordinary methods of applause seemed inadequate. His hearers rose from their seats and cheered—an act not uncommon at meetings of a political nature, but probably without precedent at an astronomical lecture.
In 1860 Professor Mitchel was called to the directorship of the Dudley Observatory at Albany, the building of which he had himself designed.
At the opening of the late civil war, Professor Mitchel felt called upon to turn the military education he had received to the account of the Government that had given it. He was appointed a brigadier-general of volunteers. At the time of his appointment, Cincinnati—his former home—was threatened by the Confederates, and he was sent to defend it. After fortifying the city, he desired to occupy East Tennessee. By order of the Secretary of War, he organized a force for the purpose; but it was necessary to move through a department commanded by another general. That general would not consent, and the expedition had to be abandoned.
In April, 1862, he found himself in command of a division of General Buell's army (detached from the main column, then proceeding on the route to Corinth), and directed to observe the country south of him. Without orders, he proceeded by forced marches to Huntsville, Alabama, surprised and captured that part of the railroad and territory lying between Stevenson and Decatur, with seventeen locomotives and eighty cars, and held the territory he had been ordered to observe. For this service President Lincoln promoted him to be major-general. He asked for troops with which to march through Georgia, but Mr. Lincoln replied that all available forces had been given to General McClellan and General Halleck. He then asked to be transferred to a more active field, but Mr. Lincoln directed him to remain for future operations in the territory where his "military genius had effected so much." Upon General Buell's arrival with the rest of the Army of the Ohio at Huntsville, in July, 1862, General Mitchel urged an immediate advance into East Tennessee. General Buell delayed, and General Mitchel asked to be relieved. It was not, however, till the President determined to use him in a special service that he ordered him to report at Washington.
Mr. Lincoln proposed to send an army down the Mississippi under his command. He selected the force and wrote the order; but just at that time concluded to appoint General Halleck his military adviser. When General Halleck arrived at Washington he declined to appoint General Mitchel to this command. For two months he was unemployed, and in September, 1862, was sent, by General Halleck's order, to the then quiescent Department of the South, in South Carolina. Here he died of yellow fever on the 30th of October, 1862. His term of military service was fourteen months. During this time he found but one opportunity to act upon his own uncontrolled judgment.
Professor Mitchel was born in Union County, Kentucky, August 28, 1810. At twelve years of age, having acquired a tolerably fair knowledge of Latin and Greek and the elements of mathematics, he became a clerk in Miami, Ohio, but afterward removed to Lebanon, in the same State where he had been educated. He entered the Military Academy at West Point in June, 1825, having himself earned the money with which he was enabled to reach the school. After being graduated in 1829, he became acting Assistant Professor of Mathematics in the Academy, and served in that capacity for two years. He then removed to Cincinnati, where he practiced law till 1834, when he became Professor of Mathematics, Philosophy, and Astronomy, in Cincinnati College, a position in which he remained for ten years, or till the college-building was burned.
Of the more important features of his work at the observatory, "Nature" says, in an article on "Observatories in the United States" (July 9, 1874): "At the request of Professor Bache, the telegraph company connected the observatory with their stations for determining longitude, Cincinnati being then a central point in such work. The astronomer royal, under whose instruction Mitchel had passed three months in 1842, urged, in an encouraging letter, that 'the first application of his meridional instruments should be for the exact determination of his geographical latitude and longitude, and that his observing energies should be given to the large equatorial.' With this advice, he directed his attention largely to the remeasurement of Struve's double stars south of the equator.
"Airy and Lamont had invited him to make minute observations of the satellites of Saturn, since in the latitude of Cincinnati the planet is observed at a more favorable altitude than at Pulkova, twenty degrees farther north. To these, and chiefly 'to the physical association of the double, triple, and multiple stars,' he gave his close attention. He made interesting discoveries in the course of this review. 'Stars which Struve had marked as oblong were divided and measure; others marked double were found to be triple.' He proposed a new method for observing, and new machinery for recording north polar distances or declinations. Professor Peirce reported favorably on this method at the meeting of the American Association in 1851, and Professor Bache, as Superintendent of the Coast Survey, indorsed their approval in his report for that year, presenting also a full account of work done by the new method in observations made by the enthusiastic astronomer and his patient wife, who assisted him through all. It was claimed that the results rivaled the best work done at Pulkova. Mitchel was the first 'to prepare a circuit interrupter with an eight-day clock, and to use it to graduate the running fillet of paper'; and to invent and use the revolving-disk chronograph for recording the dates of star-signals. Professors Bache and Walker had declined to adopt the first of these improvements in astronomical appliances, through an apprehension of injury to the astronomical clock. Mitchel's work proved the apprehension to be groundless. His revolving disk is an invaluable invention.
"To the perfection of such methods and instruments, together with the routine work of observation, he gave all the energies not of necessity employed in outside labors devolving on him for his support. Unhappily these, at an early date, became almost absorbing. For the Astronomical Society, having secured their observatory and their director, had failed to secure a basis for its support."
Of his lectures, "Nature" remarks that he stirred up an enthusiasm by them "which quickened the movements resulting in the establishment of some of the first observatories of this day in the United States."
General Mitchel always acted with the incentive of genius rather than talent, if such a distinction exists. Hence his proposals were often regarded as impracticable. Their practicability depended upon his energy, resource, and magnetism. Without these, they would have been mere visionary schemes.
His simplicity and purity of character, his earnest patriotism and military foresight, are all minutely recorded in his correspondence. It is expected that the record will some day pass—one of its many chapters—into the voluminous history of the rebellion.