Thursday, July 11, 2019

Crossed a singular slough

‘Started about sunrise, crossed a singular slough. Crossed a hard bottom covered knee deep with liquid black stagnant marsh mud, through which the men waded.’ This is from a diary kept by Simon Newcomb, an American astronomer, written on the way back to Boston from Manitoba where he had gone to observe a total solar eclipse. Newcomb, who died 110 years ago today, is considered to have been the most honoured American scientist of his day. He seems to have kept some diaries, but only a few extracts have been published - including the one above - and these can be found online in a short paper in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Newcomb was born in the town of Wallace, Nova Scotia, in 1835, the son of a school teacher who moved around teaching in different parts of Canada. Aged 16, he was apprenticed to Dr. Foshay, supposedly a herbalist. But, after serving two of his five years with the quack, he ran away, walking most of the 120 miles to Calais, Maine, from where he worked his passage on a boat to Salem, Massachusetts before reuniting with his father. He taught and tutored for several years in Maryland and near Washington, studying all the while, especially maths and astronomy. In 1857, he was appointed a functionary in charge of calculations at the Nautical Almanac Office in Cambridge, Massachusetts; he also enrolled at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, graduating BSc in 1858.

In 1861, Newcomb became professor of mathematics and astronomer at the United States Naval Observatory, Washington D.C., where he set to work on the measurement of the position of the planets as an aid to navigation, becoming increasingly interested in theories of planetary motion. He married Mary Caroline Hassler, daughter of a US Navy surgeon, in 1863, and they had four children.

In 1867, Newcomb published a revised value for the solar parallax (one which remained standard until his own revision in 1895). That same year, he first suggested the importance of determining an accurate velocity of light as a means to obtaining a reliable value for the radius of the earth’s orbit. With this aim, he started experiments in 1878, for a while collaborating with Albert Michelson. In 1877, Newcomb was appointed superintendent of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac Office. He launched a programme to reform the entire basis of fundamental data involved in the computation of the ephemeris - a monumental task, but one he eventually completed.

Newcomb authored a large number of papers on almost every branch of astronomy. He also published several mathematical textbooks as well as astronomical books for a popular audience, including Popular Astronomy (1878), The Stars (1901), and Astronomy for Everybody (1902). He was a founding member and first president (1899-1905) of the American Astronomical Society. He served as president the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1876-1878), president of the American Mathematical Society (1897-1898), and member (1869) and vice president (1883) of National Academy of Sciences. According to he was ‘the most honoured American scientist of his time’ and ‘his influence on professional astronomers and laymen was unparalleled’. He died on 11 July 1909. Further information is also available from Wikipedia, MacTutor, National Academy of Sciences, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and Newcomb’s own memoir The Reminiscences of an Astronomer.

The Library of Congress holds an archive of Simon Newcomb papers, among which are included ‘Diaries and Commonplace Books, 1852-1918’; but no further information is provided. Arthur L. Norberg says, in his essay on Simon Newcomb’s Early Astronomical Career (Isis, vol. 69, no. 2, 1978) that ‘the Newcomb diaries and correspondence allow us to reconstruct the details of Newcomb’s life from this period;’ and he footnotes the diaries several times. Otherwise, the only other published reference to diaries kept by Newcomb can be found in a paper by Kennedy, J. E. & Hanson, S. D for the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Vol. 90, p.292 - 1996) - available online at the Astrophysics Data System website.

The abstract to that paper reads as follows: ‘In I860 Simon Newcomb journeyed from Boston to Manitoba to observe a total solar eclipse. A microfilm copy of Newcomb’s Diary for the trip, along with a typescript, is held by the University of Saskatchewan Archives. Wherever entries appeared of relevance to astronomy or contained supplementary information about the trip to view the eclipse, they have been included here as excerpts. The scientific data on the Sun, which Newcomb and his party planned to obtain at totality, were summarized in a newspaper account by a reporter who accompanied them on a segment of their travels. Newcomb endured extreme hardships during his hazardous journey and clouds prevented him from viewing to his satisfaction the totally eclipsed Sun.’ And here are several of those excerpts.

11 June 1860
‘Talked with Mr. Inkster of Ft. Garry ... was informed by him that canoes were sometimes delayed on the lake whole days by storms.’

25 June 1860
‘Arrived at Fort Garry at 10 1/2 o’clock a.m. Found Gov[ernor] Mactavish, who said that we should have to get our boat &c. at the “lower Fort,” 22 miles down. Opened our instruments, and took out sextant & spy glass. (Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had instructed William Mactavish. Governor of Assiniboia and officer-in-charge of Upper Fort Garry, to provide whatever assistance the eclipse party required in carrying out their scientific pursuits. Mactavish arranged for their transportation, albeit in a leaky canoe, as well as provisions, a guide and paddlers for the two crossings of Lake Winnipeg. On their return to Fort Garry, Mactavish then arranged for the party’s return by wagon-train over the plains to St. Paul.]’

27 June 1860
‘Sent Kippling out in the morning to offer £3 10s each for canoe-men. In the afternoon, he returned stating that the middlemen wanted £4 10s each, and the bowman £5 10s. We shall probably have to engage four middlemen & a bow[ma]n at these rates.’

28 June 1860
‘Spent the forenoon in getting our provisions and equipment for the trip. Cost, including wages, [£]260. Started for Cumberland House at 3 1/2 p.m. in Sir George Simpson’s North canoe. Encamped at sunset, near the house of Peguis, Indian chief after whom we named our camp. Canoe still leaking. Comet fainter.’

29 June 1860
‘Started soon after sunrise. Had to stop every 1/2 hour and bale out canoe. Arrived at Lake Winnipeg at 8 3/4 a.m. A meteor in the evening in N.N.W. left a tail behind it which lasted 45 minutes, and moved 15° toward west.’

9 July 1860
‘Opened instruments this morning, and observed altitudes of Sun. Found chronometer to be fast of local time by 1h 48m 13s, and Latitude] to be 52° 4' 9" ±3". Tried to observe Polaris, but could not, owing to the badness of the mercury.’

17 July 1860
‘Men still paddling, but rather sleepy, they make very slow progress owing to the swiftness of the current. In the afternoon clouds and rain, and every appearance of a cloudy morning for the eclipse.’

18 July 1860
‘Eclipse morning. Cloudy till eclipse was 1/4 way through. End of totality at 8h 15m 0s per chronom[eter] of eclipse at 9h 15m 23s.2. Emersion of elongated spot at 9h 1m 34s. Darkness not so great as I had expected. Cirrus clouds luminous in the N.E. during totality. Took observations for time and Latitude with difficulty owing to the unsteadiness of the ground. Went to The Pas in the afternoon.’

24 July 1860
‘Men paddled all last night; arrived at Cedar Lake House between 2 and 3 a.m. Ran down to the portage, arriving there early in the forenoon. Had portage finished by about 10 o’clock. Arrived at the mouth of the Saskatchewan before 2 p.m.’

8 August 1860
‘Awakened after 5 a.m. by the landing of the boat. Found that we were 2 or 3 miles past Willow Is[land]. Arrived at the mouth of the Red River at 10 a.m. Started up the river at 11 1/4 with side wind. Passed many Ind(ian] lodges. Arrived at Stone Fort, (or Lower Fort Garry) at 7 1/2 p.m.’

9 August 1860
‘Slept last night at Fort, in civilized bed. At 8 a.m. started for Fort Garry on foot, arriving at 1 1/2. Roads were very bad the first few miles. Found that steamboat had not arrived, or been heard from, though she was due Saturday last. Wrote an account of our voyage for the Nor’Wester. Stopped at Royal House. Mr. Lilly up to-night.’

28 August 1860
‘Started about sunrise, crossed a singular slough. Crossed a hard bottom covered knee deep with liquid black stagnant marsh mud, through which the men waded. Camped alongside an Indian or other circular mound 30 feet in diam[eter] & 4 high. Place is called Snake Hill, and the river Snake River.’

12 September 1860
‘Arrived at Anoka shortly after 11 a.m. From there walked very slowly, and got into stage about 3 1/2 o’clock, about 3 miles above Manomin. Arrived at St. Paul about dark, went to P.O., and got a letter from Capt. Davis, enclosing draft for $89. Capt. D[avis] had written to Mr. Terry expressing apprehension for our safety. Called on Gov[ernor] Ramsay.’

13 September 1860
‘Went on board the steamboat Alhambra (stem wheel boat) at 8 a.m. Boat aground frequently.’

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