Lincoln and the cosmos

Posted by Rich Talcott
on Monday, July 14, 2014

Guest blog provided by Kirk R. Benson, a retired Naval Officer who works for the U.S. Navy as the Precise Time and Astrometry Program Manager.

Every American owes a debt of gratitude to Abraham Lincoln, the man who rose from the humblest of beginnings to the presidency of a country whose soul was being tested, tortured, and redefined. By the summer of 1863, recurring casualty lists were a ghastly reality, and the fate of untold generations of Americans hung in the balance. Lincoln’s burden was imponderable. In the time following major victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Lincoln certainly must have wrestled with the complex issues that led to civil war. During this time, on a summer evening, a gaunt and war-weary Lincoln, seeking a moment of solace, visited the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. to observe the heavens.

In August of last year, the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) celebrated the 150th anniversary of this little heralded but significant visit from Lincoln. It would not be the last visit to the Naval Observatory during his presidency; Lincoln’s lifelong interest in astronomy, piqued by several celestial experiences, would ensure his return. Perhaps this connection to the cosmos provided Lincoln comfort during these trying times, as he struggled to unite his divided nation.

Building #2 at the Old Naval Observatory Site in 1866. The 9.6-inch Merz & Mahler Equatorial Telescope that Lincoln peered through at the Naval Observatory was purchased in 1843 by Lieutenant James Gilliss, who was instrumental in establishing the Naval Observatory. Following the acquisition of the 26-inch refractor telescope in 1874, the 9.6-inch telescope continued to be used as a secondary instrument for two decades until it was retired. During World War I, it is possible the Navy melted down the brass body of the 9.6-inch telescope, purportedly to make armaments, but this could not be confirmed. The 9.6-inch telescope’s objective lens, however, is preserved in the Smithsonian Institute’s Scientific Instrument Collection at the National Museum of American History. // Office of Medical History, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
Startled from his slumber early one morning in New Salem, Illinois, a young Lincoln beheld the sky filled with falling stars. Accumulated evidence makes it virtually certain that Lincoln observed the Leonid meteor storm of November 13, 1833. Decades later, during the Civil War, Lincoln received a delegation of bank presidents. The bankers asked the president if his confidence in the permanency of the Union was being shaken, whereupon Lincoln articulated the following story.

When I was a young man in Illinois, I boarded for a time with a deacon of the Presbyterian Church. One night I was roused from my sleep by a rap at the door, and I heard the deacon’s voice exclaiming, “Arise Abraham, the day of judgment has come.” I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window and saw the stars falling in great showers; but looking back of them in the heavens, I saw the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.

In 1858 in Beardstown, Illinois, Lincoln was the defense attorney for William “Duff” Armstrong, accused of murdering James Metzker, following a late evening fight, around 11 p.m. The prosecution witness, Charles Allen, stated he was “150 feet away from the fight but saw Duff strike the fatal blow clearly by the light of a bright, nearly Full Moon, high in the sky.” Lincoln challenged Allen’s credibility, producing an almanac listing a time for moonset that contradicted Allen’s sworn testimony. Following Armstrong’s acquittal, controversy arose almost immediately and remained intense for years to come, with some suggesting Lincoln had fabricated the almanac. At the request of several Lincoln historians, the lunar phase and time of moonset on the night of August 29, 1857, were recalculated by USNO astronomers in 1976, determining a moonset time of 12:04 am, supporting Lincoln’s claim that the moon at 11 p.m. on the 29th was low and near to setting.

That same year, Lincoln and Horace White, a reporter for the Chicago Press & Tribune, observed Donati’s Comet on the evening of September 14, the day before one of the legendary debates with incumbent U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, which White was covering for the newspaper. According to White, “Mr. Lincoln greatly admired this strange visitor, and he and I sat for an hour or more in front of the hotel looking at it.”

Five years later, on August 22, 1863, six weeks after the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln sought temporary relief from the grueling war. White House Coachman Laurance Mangan recalled that the president asked for the carriage after supper, announcing that he “wanted to go out and look at the stars through that big, new telescope they had installed at the Naval Observatory. Naval Observatory Astronomer Asaph Hall showed the president and his party the Moon and the bright star Arcturus through the observatory’s 9.6-inch telescope.

One night soon afterward, Hall was observing the stars when he heard a knock at the door. The visitor was Lincoln, who ascended the steps alone to pose a question from the previous evening that he could not resolve. Lincoln had noticed that the Moon, through the 9.6-inch telescope, was reversed and upside down from the way it appeared to the naked eye. Because of his work as a surveyor, he was familiar with terrestrial telescopes, which showed objects right-side up. He was puzzled why the astronomical telescope showed objects differently. The technical differences between the telescopes were explained by Hall, and with much gratification, Lincoln departed.

Naval Observatory’s 9.6-inch Equatorial Telescope that President Abraham Lincoln peered through on August 22, 1863. John Quincy Adams, an amateur astronomer, diplomat, secretary of state, and president, lobbied Congress to fund an observatory in the United States. Among other things, observatories provided data for nautical charts and almanacs, an area the Europeans excelled in at the time. At his 1825 State of the Union address to Congress, President Adams stated, “On the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe, there are existing more than 130 of these lighthouses of the skies. While throughout the whole American hemisphere, there is none.”

For five years, Congress refused to fund the project, so the proposal was rewritten and presented instead as a facility for charts and instruments, so that it might include a telescope and other astronomical instruments. The measure was passed and the Depot of Charts and Instruments was established in 1830.

The excitement of Encke’s Comet in 1842 motivated Congress to authorize the secretary of the Navy to construct a more suitable building for the Depot. Subsequently, the domed two-story observatory was completed in 1844 in the Foggy Bottom region of Washington, D.C. In 1854, the Depot of Charts and Instruments was renamed the Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office; however, the building itself was often referred to as the National Observatory.

Between 1844 and 1893, a time in American history of dramatic growth and expansion, the Naval Observatory was known as one of the nation’s foremost scientific institutions. In 1866, the Naval Observatory became the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO). An American made 26-inch refractor telescope, the world’s largest at the time, was acquired by USNO in 1874 and is still in use today. In the years following the Civil War, USNO became one of the world’s leading astronomical laboratories, highlighted by Asaph Hall’s discovery of the two moons of Mars in 1877.

A more earthly problem forced the Navy to move the observatory to its present location in 1893, in Georgetown Heights. Businesses along the Potomac’s riverfront stifled the river’s flow, creating a malarial swamp near Foggy Bottom. Subsequently, the site was used by the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery from 1894 to 2012. Today, the original Naval Observatory building is administered by the U.S. State Department. // James R. Osgood

Lincoln’s interest in the Moon, stars, and other celestial bodies motivated him to invite others to visit the Naval Observatory. Attorney Joseph Gillespie wrote, “He [Lincoln] was fond of astronomy. He invited me one day at Washington City to call upon him in the evening when he said we would go to the observatory and take a look at the Moon through the large teloscope [sic].” Lincoln also experienced a rare daytime observation of the planet Venus on the day of his second inauguration on March 4, 1865. Each of these celestial events that Lincoln observed contributed to his personal interest in the heavens.

There are well-documented accounts of Lincoln possessing his own telescope in the White House. When he was not viewing the stars, he would often use it to look around Washington. On one occasion, Lincoln was found lying on a sofa in the White House with his telescope propped between his feet, watching the ships sail on the Potomac. There exists other evidence of Lincoln’s celestial influenced views. Adeline Judd, wife of Illinois State Republican Chairman Norman Judd, recalled sitting on the Judds’ Chicago porch with Lincoln looking at the night sky. The president discoursed on about his fascination with the heavens.

The mysteries of astronomy and the discoveries since the invention of the telescope, that had thrown a flood of light and knowledge on what before was incomprehensible and mysterious; of the wonderful computations of scientists who had measured the miles of seemingly endless space which separated the planets in our solar system from our central sun, and our sun from other suns, which were now gemming the heavens above us with their resplendent beauty.

Lincoln also inspired in his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, a lifelong interest in astronomy. During Robert Lincoln’s time in Washington, D.C., he frequently visited the U.S. Naval Observatory to make observations. In his later years, he built his own observatory at his Manchester, Vermont, mansion that is still open today for educational purposes and tours.

We will never know what thoughts passed through Lincoln’s troubled mind as he gazed skyward on that summer evening in 1863, but it was the same mind that would, three months later, compose the Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most eloquent and profound piece of writing in America’s history. Lincoln’s interest in astronomy and his adoration for America are a lasting legacy that continues to shine across time.

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