Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/January 1888/Sketch of Cleveland Abbe

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THE name of Cleveland Abbe is especially associated with the installation of the meteorological service and weather forecasts of the United States Signal Service, and he has been prominently active in the movement to establish a uniform standard of time for the American continent, which should also be in conformity with the standards of other nations.

Professor Abbe was born in New York city, December 3, 1838. He is a son of the late George Waldo Abbe, who was for many years prominent in the business life of New York, and closely identified with its principal charitable organizations. He received his academical education at the New York Free Academy, now College of the City of New York, where he made a most honorable record for diligence and fidelity in his studies, or to use the words of one of his classmates, as "a young man who was interested in his work, and anxious to learn. As he went through college his ability in mathematical and mathematico-physical science became more and more apparent, and, at the close of the college course, there could be no question of his superiority." Having been graduated from this institution in 1857, he taught mathematics in Trinity Latin School for one year, and afterward connected himself with the University of Michigan, where he served as teacher of the higher mathematics in the Scientific School, and studied astronomy under Professor Brünnow. Thence he removed, in 1860, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he spent four years in association with Dr. B. A. Gould, and was engaged upon the telegraphic longitude work of the United States Coast Survey. In continuance of his astronomical work, he resided for the two years, 1865–′66, at the Observatory of Poulkova, in Russia, which was then under the direction of the illustrious Otto Struve, in the position of supernumerary astronomer, as those young persons not military officers are called, who are allowed by the statutes of the institution to reside within its precincts for their own advantage. Generally, according to Mr. Abbe's account of the observatories at "Dorpat and Poulkova," which is given in the report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1867, "these inevitably contribute something to the furtherance of the scientific work of the observatory, while receiving from it the treatment of guests. The new statutes allow the director to give these young men a position and rank as civilians serving the observatory, but not in the service of the state; thus they may be properly considered as supernumerary astronomers, who, however, enjoy some of the privileges of such as are permanently in the state service, which is no mean advantage in the autocratic Russian Empire. Although these are at liberty to devote their whole time to their own studies, they yet generally choose to contribute several hours daily to the regular work of the observatory, receiving a small compensation therefor." Returning to the United States, he became connected, in 1867, with the National Observatory at Washington; but he had not resided there long before, on the 1st of February, 1867, he accepted the position of director of the Cincinnati Observatory, and he removed there on the 1st of June. This institution, which had been founded through the exertions of Professor O. M. Mitchell, and the corner-stone of which was laid with accompaniment of great public interest by John Quincy Adams, in 1843, had never been adequately supported, and had been virtually suspended for the past half dozen years. Preparatory to taking charge of it, Mr. Abbe visited the other observatories and astronomers of the country, and found everywhere the heartiest pleasure exhibited at the intended resuscitation of the institution. "Each," he says, "seemed to seek to find some way in which to offer assistance and encouragement, while all united in deploring the inaction of the past ten years. There is, in astronomy, a continual endeavor on the part of each one to add something to our knowledge by his own original observations and researches; nor does any one feel that he has attained to any degree of usefulness until this has been accomplished; accordingly, all unite in expressing the hope that we shall now push on in the field of astronomical activity." Encouraged by such expressions, he declared as the sentiment that should actuate the future course of the institution, that "the pursuit of abstruse astronomical investigations, and the utilization of practical astronomy are equally important to the true interests of the observatory, and should be simultaneously cultivated."

In the more detailed plan for the future activity of the observatory which be outlined in his inaugural report, Professor Abbe gave a prominent place to the particular subjects, in connection with which he has won fame. It was his desire, primarily, to extend the field of activity so as to embrace, on the one hand, scientific astronomy, meteorology, and magnetism, and, on the other, the application of these sciences to geography and geodesy, to storm predictions, and to the wants of the citizen and the land-surveyor. In meteorology, he remarked, the observatory ought to keep record of regular hourly observations of all phenomena depending upon observations of the atmosphere: "The science of meteorology is slowly advancing to that point at which it will begin to yield most valuable results to the general community. Although we can not yet predict the weather for a week in advance, yet we are safe in saying that, with a proper arrangement of outposts, we can generally predict three days in advance any extended storm, and six hours in advance any violent hurricane. This may be effected simply by constituting the observatory a central station, to which telegraphic reports of the weather are regularly daily transmitted. The careful study of these dispatches enables the meteorologist safely to make the predictions mentioned, which can be at once disseminated through the public papers or otherwise. In France, Italy, and England, and on our own eastern coast, such storm-warnings are considered of very great importance." The co-operation of the Smithsonian observers and those of the army had already been promised; and at the end of the year, in consideration of the fact that the most of our storms appear on this side of the Rocky Mountains and move eastward, observers had been secured at Omaha, Cheyenne, Sherman, and Salt Lake City. It would also be one of his objects to secure and supply more accurate determinations of time, and for this purpose the observatory would furnish the hour regularly to all the watchmakers who would apply for it; an offer was also made to the municipal government to furnish it to the city.

The location of the observatory in the smoke-saturated atmosphere of Cincinnati had been for some time recognized as unfavorable, and efforts were making to secure a more suitable position for it. While this was going on there could be but little heart in such measures as might be proposed for permanent improvements in the building or the fixed apparatus. It therefore seemed evident that the remaining time spent upon Mount Adams could be best improved by paying special attention to meteorology. An hourly record was begun of all important atmospheric phenomena. Monthly reports of meteorological observations were received from observers in other cities. The interest of the Chamber of Commerce was engaged in the organization of a system of daily weather-reports and storm-predictions; the gratuitous co-operation of experienced observers was tendered; and the use of the Western Union telegraph lines was offered at a nominal price. The daily "Weather Bulletin" of the Cincinnati Observatory was issued, first in manuscript form, for the use of the Chamber of Commerce, and a week later in print, as an independent publication. It was supported for three months by the Chamber of Commerce, then passed into the hands of the observatory. Finally, the independent publication was discontinued, and the bulletin only appeared under the same title in the morning papers. Subsequently, the publication, by a manifold process, of a daily weather-chart was undertaken, which, in consequence of the observatory's lack of means, was kept up at the expense of the Cincinnati office of the Western Union Telegraph Company, The National Board of Trade meeting at Richmond, Virginia, united in a memorial to Congress, the fruit of which, with other proceedings of a similar character, among which was Professor Lapham's memorial asking for the institution of signals for Milwaukee and Lake Michigan, was the passage of a joint resolution authorizing the Secretary of War to provide for taking meteorological observations at military posts in the interior of the continent, and on the lakes and sea-coasts, for the purpose of giving warning of the approach and probable force of storms.

The superintendency of these observations, or the "Weather Bureau," was put in the charge of General Albert J. Myer, Chief of the Army Signal Service, who appointed Professor Abbe his assistant, or meteorologist. In this position. Professor Abbe, during 1871, organized the methods and work of the so-called "probability" or study-room, in making weather-maps, drawing isobars, ordering storm-signals, etc., and dictated the published official tri-daily synopses and "probabilities" of the weather. In the same year he began and urged the collection of lines of leveling, and in 1872, by laborious analysis, deduced the altitudes of the Signal-Service barometers above sea-level. He instituted in 1872, and reorganized in 1874, the work of publishing a monthly weather-review, with its maps and studies of storms. He urged the extension of simultaneous observations throughout the world, as the only proper method of studying the weather; and, as General Myer distinctly avowed, the success of the negotiations of the Vienna Congress of 1874 was due to following his advice. And he organized, in 1875, the work of preparing the material and publishing the "Daily Bulletin of Simultaneous International Meteorological Observations." Especially is the organization of the numerous State weather services of the country due to his advocacy, and to the letters sent by his advice by General Hazen to the Governors of the States.

Professor Abbe's unselfish devotion to the pursuit of science for its advancement and not for his own, has prevented his name from appearing as prominently in connection with the work of the Weather Bureau as it deserved to do; but there is a general concurrence of testimony that he has been its guiding spirit. A gentleman, whose special researches in co-operation with it, have given him a world-wide reputation, characterizes him in a note to us as an enthusiastic meteorologist, whose whole soul and energies "seem to have been given to the furtherance and interests of the service. He kept well read up on all meteorological matters, and had a very high appreciation of much that he read; and, when this was the case, he was always very desirous of bringing the matter and the author into notice by means of translations and republications. In fact, he seemed to me to be more desirous of bringing the works and the claims of others into notice than his own. His notes on meteorological subjects, published in the Smithsonian Reports, sprung from his extensive reading and desire to communicate to the public whatever he found of value in the course of his reading. These notes have been very valuable in keeping before the mind the principal results obtained in various ways in the progress of meteorological discovery. Being virtually the scientific adviser of the Signal Service, and having control mostly of its scientific work, on account of his generous and unselfish nature he was not content to occupy the field of scientific work alone, but when General Hazen was put at the head of the service and a more liberal policy toward civilians and in the encouragement of scientific work was adopted, he seemed to wish that all the leading meteorologists of the country could have a part in what he considered the great work of the country, and he especially interested himself in endeavoring to give a chance to promising young men of the country to have a part in this work."

Another gentleman, of world-wide eminence in physical investigation, writes to us: "I will merely state what will, I think, be generally admitted by all competent to express an opinion, that for the good work done by the United States Weather Service, and for the high estimation in which it has been held by Europeans generally, the country is indebted to Professor Abbe more than to any other one man. He was unquestionably the first to put into actual operation the scheme of telegraphic weather-warnings, and thus to realize the suggestions and hopes of Professor Henry in that direction. This he did at Cincinnati, Ohio, before the organization of the United States Weather Service. . . . It was his success in this preliminary work at Cincinnati which led to his being called into the service almost immediately after the organization of the Weather Bureau as a branch of the Signal Service of the United States Army. His relations to this service have always been in some degree anomalous and yet of the very highest importance. . . . In the beginning he was the one man in the service who knew much of meteorology, and from that time to the present he has been conspicuously the representative of that science in Government employ. The constant change in the personnel of a bureau of the army, the continued coming in of this officer and the going out of that, is one of the serious obstacles in the way of the successful cultivation of a science, either pure or applied, under a military régime. The weather service has been preserved from stagnation and decay by the continued presence of such an ardent student as Professor Abbe. On all important questions touching the scientific work of the service, his advice has been sought by the Chief Signal Officer; most plans for its improvement and extension have originated with him, and he has done much to stimulate the study of meteorology outside of the service as well as within it."

We are informed by Mrs. Hazen, widow of the late Chief of the Signal Office, that Professor Abbe was always held in high esteem by her husband, "and relied on not only as a very scientific man, but as a loyal friend." This sentence brings out another salient trait in his character—his loyalty to his chief. Readers of the "Monthly" will recollect the tribute which he improved the first opportunity after General Hazen's death to pay to his character and the worth of his work for science; but they do not know, for that is matter of personal confidence, that he was extremely anxious that General Hazen should receive full credit for all that he did, all that he helped to do, and all that he was in any way the means of having done for science; and particularly that he should be vindicated from the unfriendly criticisms which the newspapers had cast against him—all of which Professor Abbe believed to be unjust and unfounded.

Professor Abbe's efforts, while engaged at the Cincinnati Observatory, to furnish accurate time to the watchmakers and the public clocks of the city have already been mentioned. This service he regarded as always a daily duty in a well-organized observatory. Similar work was already performed by a number of observatories in America and Europe, one of the earliest instances of it being the giving of the time to the city and province of the Magnetic Observatory at Toronto in 1842. The British Astronomer Royal began the dropping of the noon time-ball at Deal in 1852, and was followed by the United States Naval Observatory at Washington in 1855. An automatic apparatus for controlling the public clock from the observatory was ordered in Cincinnati in 1870. Afterward the Pennsylvania Railroad Company intrusted its time-signals to the Allegheny Observatory, under Langley. In 1877 an arrangement was made between the Naval Observatory and the Western Union Telegraph Company for delivering time-signals at important places in the United States.

The inconveniences arising from the ever-varying standards of local time, which required a change of the watch for every few miles of traveling east or west, had attracted an increasing attention for many years, and had been the subject of earnest discussion by the general time conventions of the railroad officials. The matter was also taken up by Professor Dowd in 1870, and was agitated by the American Metrological Society, which at Abbe's suggestion appointed a special committee on the subject, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor Abbe, Dr. F. A. P. Barnard, Mr. E. B. Elliott, and Mr. W. F. Allen were among the earliest, and were at all times the most active and efficient, advocates of a reform in this matter in the United States. The most practicable way to secure a reform seemed to be to induce the railroads of the country, which were shown to be using no less than seventy-five different standards in regulating the movements of their trains, to accept some uniform system. Hitherto it had appeared impossible to agree upon any plan which they would recognize as practicable. Some persons advised a uniform standard for the whole country, such as the time of the seventy-fifth meridian (nearly Washington time) or of the ninetieth meridian, while others proposed the "hour difference" plan. Professor Abbe was the chairman of the committee on the subject of the American Metrological Society, and in 1879 presented a report in which the whole question was carefully reviewed. This report embodied a number of resolutions, advising the discontinuance of the use of local times and the adoption instead of the standards of the principal railroads in their respective localities; and suggesting to railroad officers a reduction of their time-standards to one for every hour of longitude. But while the adoption of a few standard meridians was regarded as an improvement, which could be no inconvenience, but would tend to diminish inconveniences already almost intolerable, the committee could "but look upon it as only a step forward by the community at large toward that absolute uniformity of all time-pieces, that is, we think, already practicable on the part of railroad and telegraph companies." The adoption of an absolute uniformity of time throughout the whole country was therefore urged upon those companies and all kindred associations, and the time of a meridian six hours west of Greenwich, or the ninetieth meridian, was recommended as such ultimate common standard. The adoption of the reform thus indicated would, the committee believed, materially help toward the adoption of a uniform standard throughout the world. This standard, it was suggested, could most conveniently conform to the meridian one hundred and eighty degrees from Greenwich. Nevertheless, this question was regarded as one for the distant future, to be considered in some international convention. "This report," says Professor Dowd, in relating the part which he had taken in the movement, "is specially worthy of mention, as it seemed to present the first plan, other than the one forming the subject of this paper, for systematizing the time-standards of the country. Although the report centered upon one time-standard for the country—the plan upon which I started and which I had felt obliged to abandon—yet it grouped together so much practical information, and was so suggestive of new lines of thinking, that it really marked a new era in the history." Professor Abbe presented another very important report to the Metrological Society at the December meeting of 1880. President Barnard was appointed to draw up a circular upon the subject, and send it out to all who might have an interest in the matter; and with the help of Mr. Allen, of the Railway Time Convention, the plan of hourly-standards, which is now in use, was prepared, and the co-operation of nearly all the important railroads secured for its successful introduction.

As the delegate of the United States to the International Meridian and Time Conference, which met at Washington in October, 1884, Professor Abbe presented an argument which had considerable weight in deciding the questions at issue, although it was only circulated in proof-sheets among the members, and was withheld from publication because if it became official it would necessitate a long reply from the French delegates, and prolong a discussion that was likely to be unnecessarily tedious. In this paper he offered as a solution of the question of the real neutrality of the prime meridian, which the French delegates insisted upon, the proposition that "the prime meridian shall be defined by references as exact as may be practicable to all the national astronomical observatories of the twenty-five nations represented in this conference; the grounds belonging to these observatories shall be declared neutral territory, and the astronomers in charge shall be respected in all international matters; the precise choice of the prime meridian shall be based on the principle of doing the least possible violence to the existing customs of the world consistent with the attainment of the greatest possible good; that when adopted this meridian shall receive no national designation obnoxious to any people, but the whole system shall be known as the International Prime Meridian, International Longitude, International Time."

Professor Abbe led the party which went out from the Cincinnati Observatory to observe the total eclipse of August 7, 1869. The company traveled in wagons from Sioux City to the line of totality near Sioux Falls. His own attention was devoted to the observation, under high power and in a small field of view, of three conical protuberances of peculiar character, and he missed the coronal streamers which were observed by the others with the naked eye and with opera-glasses; and he doubted whether the latter were not individual and subjective phenomena, or originating in the earth's atmosphere.

At the eclipse of August, 1878, he selected a station on the summit of Pike's Peak, but was taken ill there, and had to be removed to the Lake House (elevation ten thousand feet). Having recovered to a sufficient extent, he was laid upon the ground during the eclipse and devoted himself wholly to the study of the rays that extended above the brilliant ring which was presumed to represent the true solar atmosphere. On this occasion, these rays revealed themselves so distinctly and brightly, and shone with such steady light, that he could no longer doubt the accuracy of the accounts of his fellow-observers of the eclipse of 1869, nor that the phenomena were independent of personal equations and atmospheric effects. He explained them as being due to reflection from the streams of meteor-dust which are supposed to be constantly flowing toward and around the sun.

The list of Professor Abbe's published papers down to 1880 includes eighty-four titles, several of which cover more than one article. The papers relate chiefly to subjects in astronomy and meteorology, and to matters connected with the author's particular work. They include reports and other articles of a documentary character, seventeen articles in "Appletons' Cyclopædia," nine in Johnson's, contributions to Baird's "Annual Record of Science and Industry," articles in scientific periodicals, and articles in newspapers—all tending directly to the increase or diffusion of knowledge. Professor Abbe has been engaged for many years in the supervision of a bibliography, which is now near completion; and has completed a treatise on meteorological instruments that will soon be published by the Signal Office.

Some of Professor Abbe's personal qualities have already appeared incidentally in the regular course of this sketch. The key to them appears to be unselfishness—a virtue which has been prominently manifested through the whole of his life. His classmate, already quoted from, writes: "Everybody liked Cleveland Abbe thirty years ago, as I suppose everybody likes him now. He was unselfish, modest, kindly then, and, in disposition, though only twenty years old, a scientific man, a lover of scientific truth." A scientific friend, whom also we quoted before, corroborates this, saying: "In disposition, he is unselfish to a rare degree, generally managing that others shall get the credit for work in which he has had a large share. To this characteristic, together with the somewhat peculiar code of ethics which prevails in the Government service, must be attributed the fact that his contributions to the science of meteorology have appeared less frequently than was hoped for by some of his friends."

His policy in connection with the Signal Service is eloquently described in a letter of January 28, 1886, presented by General W. B. Hazen to the Joint Committee of Congress on the Signal Service, and printed in the bulky volume of testimony, where he says, page 1057 "Until finally accepting the inevitable, he announced it as his own established policy, on the one hand, to himself prepare little or nothing for publication of an original nature; and, on the other hand, to advise, assist, and stimulate the work of every member of the service to the very best of his ability." This policy is now ended by the special orders of Generals Hazen and Greely, who have directed that his time shall be mainly given to those greater works that the world has a right to expect from his knowledge and experience.