Counting Stars

Counting Stars Blog BannerWelcome to the musings and maunderings of the staff of Dudley Observatory at the Museum of Science and Innovation.

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Charles Dudley vs. The Velociraptor

Oh, the joys of working at a hybrid museum …

Charles E. Dudley meets a velociraptor

Charles E. Dudley meets a velociraptor

Notice, no sweat on Charles Dudley.  After years of being at the top of New York State politics, he no longer fears anything.

The dinosaurs are here, and the exhibit will officially open on June 4th.  Charles Dudley will soon disappear behind some scenery until they’re gone.

A Scientific Puritan: Benjamin Apthorp Gould

Benjamin A. Gould

Benjamin A. Gould

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel and James Armsby both deserve credit for inspiring and founding the Dudley Observatory.  But when Mitchell was tied up working as an engineer, Armsby had to look elsewhere to find a director who could organize the construction of the Observatory building and get the instruments working.  Through a developing partnership with the US Costal Survey, the premier scientific institution in America at the time, Armsby and the rest of the financial backers approached an employee of the Survey, Benjamin Apthorp Gould jr.

On paper, it’s hard to find a candidate as impressive as Benjamin Gould.  To start, his Boston pedigree was impeccable.  His grandfather was Captain Benjamin Gould, who served under Benedict Arnold at West Point and helped ferret out his treachery – albeit too late.  Gould’s father served as principal at the Boston Latin School, considered the top classical school in early America.  Due to health issues in his father, Gould was largely raised by his aunt Hannah, a respected local poet.

Gould was a prodigy, a fact that may explain some on his later eccentricities.  He was reading by the age of three, and composing Latin odes at five.  He dabbled in electrical engineering, building simple electrical machines and delivering lectures on the principles, by age ten.  Despite having to take a hiatus between his junior and senior years due to family financial problems, Gould still graduated from Harvard in 1844, at nineteen years old.

Gould’s interests had turned to science and mathematics, and particularly to astronomy. In the 1840s, Americans wanting higher education in science still had to travel to Europe.  So Gould sailed in 1845, packing letters of recommendation from sources like Harvard mathematician Benjamin Pierce and President John Quincy Adams.

Gould did a sort of academic grand tour, stopping at the greatest observatories of the day in Greenwich, Paris and Berlin.  Gould was probably most impressed by Berlin, which he described as a “great scientific emporium.”  He was impressed by the no-nonsense German style of science, and was particularly fond of the combative attitudes of the great German thinkers.  He later admitted that he preferred to be where “scientific men fight like cats and dogs,” an attitude that would come back to haunt him.

One of Gould’s last stops was the University of Göttingen, where he studied under no less an authority that Carl Friedrich Gauss, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the age.   Under Gauss, Gould would complete his doctorate in 1848, at the ripe old age of twenty three.  He was the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Astronomy.

Gould returned to America at the end of 1848.  Having spent three years in the greatest universities of Europe, he was taken aback at how far behind American astronomers were.  America still lacked the institutions of science; not only the observatories but also the journals, libraries and great universities.

Another scientist may have just given American the laugh and headed back to Europe, where scientific institutions were more developed, and scientific jobs were easier to find.  Instead, true to his Puritanical roots, Gould set out to reform American science.  Supporting himself by teaching languages and mathematics, Gould relentlessly published articles on astronomy .  Finally in 1849, Gould began publishing his own astronomical journal, imaginatively named the Astronomical Journal.

This was the first professional quality astronomical journal in America.  O.M. Mitchell was already publishing the Sidereal Messenger, but true to Mitchel’s nature this was aimed at amateur astronomers.  Gould went the other direction; only original research from professional astronomers was published.  In a time period where slow communications made it difficult for astronomers to stay abreast of what their colleagues were doing, Gould’s journal became essential.

Gould’s commitment to reforming American science can be seen in his reaction to a job offer in 1851.  His mentor, Carl Friedrich Gauss, offered him a position in Göttingen as a full professor and the director of the observatory.  Had he accepted, Gould would likely have become a famous name in the history of astronomy.  But he refused, because he was committed to staying the course and remaking American science.

This drive was remarkable, but Gould was not alone.  He had some impressive allies looking to advance American science.  But more on them later.

No Longer in the Collection: Scheutz Difference Engine

Scheutz Difference Engine

Scheutz Difference Engine

Of all the instruments that Dudley has used throughout its century and a half of operation, the one that most stands out is the Scheutz Difference Engine.  Although it is now housed in the Smithsonian, the Scheutz served Dudley well for the first half of its life, and it allowed a small observatory with limited staff to operate at a much higher level.

The Scheutz Difference Engine was created by the father and son team of George and Edvard Scheutz, two Swedish publisher and inventors inspired by the notes of Charles Babbage.  Babbage himself had been unable to complete his design, supposedly because he could not get parts made to the necessary precision.

Babbage may have been ahead of his time, but not by much.  Babbage sketched out his designs in the 1820s, and George and Edvard were able to create a very basic model by the late 1830s.  Thanks to a grant by the Swedish government, the father and son were able to design and create a full scale difference engine by 1853.

The Scheutz family put the working difference engine on display during the Paris “Exposition Universelle” in 1855.  One of the five million visitors was Benjamin Gould, traveling through Europe in order to acquire a telescope for the new Dudley observatory.  A friend of Charles Babbage, Gould was impressed by the engine and bought the first available model.

The engine was crank operated.  By turning the handle – seen on the left side of the image above- a sequence of wheels and gears would turn throughout the machine.  The engine had four banks of number wheels with fifteen wheels each.  As the wheels turned, the settings on these wheels were run through what amounted to an adding process.  The results were displayed on one set of the number wheels and also printed out on a slip of paper.

Scheutz Engine Print-outs

Scheutz Engine Print-outs

That last bit was a leap forward.  Charles Babbage himself had been unable to get a machine to print, but the Scheutz family managed a working solution.  Here at Dudley, astronomers kept notebooks of their calculations.  When working with the the Schuetz engine, the astronomers just pasted the print-outs into their notebooks and marked them up as part of their calculations.  While we no longer have the engine, we still have many of these notebooks, which are now probably the oldest computer print-outs surviving.

While the Scheutz Difference Engine was an incredible achievements, it had its issues.  While it was a great proof of concept, it simply wasn’t reliable enough for constant use.  The usefulness of the engine was directly proportional to the technical ability of the person who had to fix it: Benjamin Gould could keep it operating, as could his successor George Washington Hough, but Lewis and Benjamin Boss could not get it working.  The machine was sold to Dorr E. Felt, inventor of the comptometer, in 1924.  Felt and some of his fellow inventors were able to keep the engine working and put it on display.  In 1963, Felt’s collection of early computers was donated to the Smithsonian.  The Scheutz Difference Engine is now part of the National Collection and is sometimes on display at the National Museum of History.

The Poetry of Benjamin Gould


Observatory Lyrics 
Tom Tom the President
Begged Grabbed the money and quickly spent
But Jimmy was caught though he was bought
And now Tommy's going to get what he ought.
Published in NYT, July 28, 1858

Published in NYT, July 28, 1858

This little bit of doggerel was one of Benjamin A. Gould’s ways of blowing off steam.  He would pen a scathing poem directed at whoever was irritating him at the moment.  This one is undated, so it’s not clear what had Gould riled up, but we can puzzle some of it out.  Tom the President was probably Thomas Olcott, President of the Board.  Jimmy is harder to pin down.  The poem is clearly about some issue of money being spent, but there were so many issues about money during the founding of the Dudley Observatory that this doesn’t help.

We have no idea how many of these little verses Gould wrote because, of course, they likely got tossed away.  Only one of his poems ever got published, to Gould’s regret.  This one was written while Gould was trying to convince academics and politicians in New York City to adopt his plan of selling accurate time from Dudley Observatory.  As I wrote previously, this idea never took off, and Gould got frustrated with some of the administrators who were rejecting his idea.  He penned this bit of song, set to the tune of the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock-Robin,” to mock the cluelessness of some of the professors at New York University.

Somehow, someone got a hold of this Gould’s throw-away poem and slipped it to the New York Times while the Letters to the Editors page was still arguing about the Dudley controversy. Gould’s career at Dudley was basically over by that point, but this leak must have seemed like the door hitting him on the way out.

Dr. James Armsby

Dr. James H. Armsby

Dr. James H. Armsby

In a previous post, I mentioned that Dudley had benefited from two institution builders, the first being Ormsby Macknight Mitchel.  Mitchel was an energetic founder of observatories and lecturer on the topic of astronomy, and his enthusiasm is likely what started the idea of building the Dudley Observatory.

But the person who first gave voice to the idea, and who worked hard to see that the idea took root, was Doctor James H. Armby (1800-1875).  Armsby was vital to Dudley Observatory, but he was also important for many other educational and medical institutions in Albany.  It’s safe to say that Armsby, now largely forgotten, is partially responsible for the shape of intellectual life in Albany today.

For all that, he was not an Albany native.  Born in Sutton, Massachusetts and trained at the Vermont Academy of Medicine, Armsby didn’t arrive in Albany until 1932. He followed his brother-in-law, Dr. Alden March, to the Capital Region to help combat the Cholera epidemic that swept New York during the summer.

Armsby became a resident the next year.  Albany got a glimpse of what it could expect from the new citizen when he began campaigning to establish a new medical school, hospital and YMCA chapter in the city.  Like Mitchel, Armsby turned to the lecture circuit to raise money and support.  Those lectures, along with come public dissections, eventually founded the Albany Medical College.

Until his death by heart disease in 1875, Armby worked to build educational institutions.  Through another series of lectures, he raised enough money to save Albany Law School during a financial crisis.  He helped organize the Albany Army Relief Bazaar which supported the US Sanitary Commission (and our collection of his correspondence include many of the tedious but necessary letters where he sells raffle tickets.)

Armsby appears to have been the first person to suggest that an observatory be added to the plans for a university in Albany.  Even after the idea of the university faded, he remained a booster of the Observatory.   He served as the secretary of the board during the early years, but realistically was far more important to the budding institution.  He seemed to be everywhere and doing everything.  If you liked him, he was indefatigable and endlessly helpful.  If you didn’t like him, he was a meddling busybody.

One of the few people who seemed to have disliked him was Benjamin Gould.  It was Gould’s inability to get along with Armsby, and a few ham-fisted comments that were perceived as sleights at Armby, that turned the disagreement between Gould and the board into verbal warfare.

From the Collection: Riefler Clock

1903 Riefler Clock

1903 Riefler Clock Face

While a telescope may be the most valuable piece of equipment found in an observatory, a close second is the clock.  Through most of Dudley’s history, the type of astronomical work it was doing required precise, consistent timekeeping.  Not surprisingly, Dudley has owned some of the best clocks available.  Sometimes they were adventurous attempts at timekeeping, like the Polsey Clock by Moses Farmer.  Other times the director played it safe by simply purchasing the most reliable clock on the market.

This is one of the latter: a clock by the Clemens Riefler Company of Munich, Germany, built in 1903.  Started by Sigmund Rielfer, the company made the most accurate clocks in the world during the later 19th century until the invention of quartz timekeeping in the late 1920s.  At their best, Riefler clocks could operate with a variance of only 10 milliseconds per day. The US Bureau of Standards used a Riefler clocks to set the standard time from 1904 to 1929.

Full Riefler Clock

Full Riefler Clock

This accuracy required a bit of work.  Dudley’s clocks were mounted inside glass cylinders.  These cylinders then had the air pumped out using a foot pump (you can see the handle of the pump in the bottom right of the photograph here.)  This protected the clock from changes in atmospheric pressure, which could alter the motion of the gears enough that a few milliseconds could be gained or lost.  These cylinders were fitted with an iron collar and bolted to a stone pier that was anchored in the ground.  This protected the clock from vibrations.

Dudley owns two Rielfer clocks, both purchased during the years when Dudley was working with the Carnegie Institution. Dudley was the Institution’s Department of Meridian Astronomy, working to produce the most accurate star catalog to the early 20th century.  This task, probably more than any other task in astronomy, require precise time.  Even more, it required consistent time, as the job went on, night after night, for years.

If this clock looks familiar, it’s because it was recently part of the “Capital Region in 50 Object” exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art, where it sat between a giant metal butterfly from the Albany Pinebush Preserve and a gorgeous Dutch Kas from the Schenectady County Historical Society.  I thank the good folks at the AIHA for inviting us into the exhibit, and also for letting us use one of their old vertical mummy display cases, which makes me feel strangely honored.

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (1810-1862)

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (1810-1862)

American astronomy has benefited from a number of people who had a knack, and an obsession, with institution building.  The most famous is George Ellery Hale (1868-1938), who secured funding to build the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin and the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories in California.  There’s an old joke that the success of American astronomy hinged on two major discoveries: Edward Pickering’s discovery of women, and George Hale’s discovery of money.

Dudley Observatory began with two dedicated institution builders.  One was Dr. James Armsby, who we’ll meet later.  The other is Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, the (almost) first director and (briefly) second director of the Dudley Observatory.

Hale would buy telescopes and build observatories, Armsby would build hospitals and colleges, and Mitchel would build anything.  He was a restless, tireless individual who wore a multitude of hats and had a dizzying career.    During his early career he was a soldier and a lawyer, but worked as a professor of mathematics at West Point and then Cincinnati College.  While in Cincinnati he began teaching astronomy as well, in addition to becoming an engineer building railroads, and an administrator founding the college’s law school.  And he was just getting started.

Mitchel is probably most famous for raising the funds to build the Cincinnati Observatory, starting in 1842 and ending with a functioning observatory in 1845.  There are stories of him going door-to-door to collect funds,  but one of the most important things he did was go on the traveling lecture circuit.

In the 1840s, lectures were big business.  With few other entertainment options, people were willing to pay money to spend an afternoon being educated.  The emerging railroad system could take popular lecturers from city to city, allowing them to reach fresh audiences.  Mitchel was focused on astronomy, and there had been a surge of interest in the subject in America following an impressive meteor shower in 1833 and an particularly bright comet in 1843.

Charles Piazzi Smyth's "The Great Comet of 1843"

Charles Piazzi Smyth’s “The Great Comet of 1843”

Competition for lecturers was high, but Mitchel turned out to be a spell-binding speaker.  He continued to tour even after the observatory was complete.  During the winter season, when the clouds made observation difficult, he would travel the country giving astronomy lectures, raising money to keep the observatory running.  He is partially responsible for the popularity of astronomy in mid-19th century America, and his tours would spark the building of many small observatories.

In January, 1951, he took a tour through Albany, New York.  Plans were in the works to build a new university, and suddenly an observatory became a part of the design.  Mitchel was brought into the planning, and while his schedule kept him from being a major contributor, his name helped popularize the idea.  So much so that the observatory became an independent part of the plan, and while the overall plan for the university faded the observatory continued.  And supposedly it was Mitchel who selected the site for the new Dudley Observatory on a rise just to the north of Albany now known as Dudley Heights.

When the Dudley Observatory was still on the drawing board, it was actually assumed that Mitchel would be the first director.  But money was getting increasingly tight for Mitchel, and the touring schedule must have been taxing.  Mitchel ended up taking another job as an engineer to make ends meet and had to turn down the offer of a directorship.  The organizers of the Dudley would go on to use Mitchel’s name to support their fundraising, but found a new director in Benjamin A. Gould.

When this didn’t work out ( see the Battle of the Board) and Gould was ousted, and so in 1859 the organizers of Dudley turned once again to Ormsby Mitchel.  This time Mitchel was on a better footing, and accepted.

This is a great “what if” moment.  Mitchel and Gould were polar opposites.  Gould represented the new “professional” science, while the mostly self-taught Mitchel was very much of the old way.  Gould was probably the better astronomer and very much wanted to drive the science of astronomy forward, while Mitchel had a more balanced focus on diffusing the existing understanding of astronomy to popular audiences.  Both men were driven, but Mitchel was clearly the more gregarious and better at working with the public.  A Dudley Observatory under Ormsby Mitchel would be a very different place than under Gould or Lewis Boss.

But it wasn’t to be.  Mitchel’s wife began having health problems, and so they remained in Cincinnati for a time.  By the time Mitchel was ready to move, the Civil War began.  Mitchel returned to his original trade as a solider, and died of yellow fever is South Carolina in 1862.  While Mitchel was the second director of Dudley Observatory, he never actually set foot in the finished building.

Today, Mitchel is remembered as an important part of the history of American science, and his Cincinnati Observatory is known as the birthplace of American astronomy.  Here in Albany, Mitchel is also remembered as the man who lit the spark and fanned the flames that created Dudley Observatory.

From the Collection: Meteorites

Slice of the Brenham Pallasite metoerite

Slice of the Brenham Pallasite Meteorite

Dudley has a nice collection of meteorites.  Modest is number, but with a good range.  Granted, the bulk of them are micrometeorites embedded in some kind of material, but we’ve still got a fair number that are actually visible to the naked eye.

To the right is one of my favorite, a slice of a Pallasite meteorite found in Kansas known as the Brenham.  A Pallasite is a type of stony-iron meteorite made up of olivine crystals embedded in the usual iron-nickle.  It creates a striking look.

This piece was purchased from the American Meteorite Laboratory when it was run by Harvey Nininger.  An American original, Nininger was a biologist who became a self-taught collector and educator about all things involving meteorites. He directed the American Meteorite Museum and distributed samples through the Laboratory.  We have a number of his original typewritten identification slips, and they may someday become as collectible as the meteorites themselves.

Odessa Iron-Nickle Meteorite

Odessa Iron-Nickle Meteorite

Less visually striking, but heavier, is this piece from Odessa, Texas.  It is exactly what it looks like, a big chunk of meteorite iron.  It came down in Odessa sometime in prehistoric times, breaking into pieces and forming a series of craters.  One of the largest craters is now on the registry as a National Natural Landmark.

McKownville meteorite fragment

McKownville meteorite fragment

Most meteorites aren’t quite this impressive, and don’t leave lasting marks.  This last piece comes to us from exotic McKownville, NY.  According to the report, its entry was witness by an observer who saw it strike a metal fence and shatter.  This is the only piece that could be recovered, while the fence was unharmed.

Odds and Ends: Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Throughout its history, Dudley Observatory has had a weird sort of half-fame. Yes, it’s a modest observatory in smAlbany, but there have been a lot of eyes upon it. Particularly during the early phase, with the initial promise of an observatory that could compete with the best in Europe.

As a result, I run into references to Dudley in unexpected places. Here’s a little chart created by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the great feminist activist and co-organizer of the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention.

Speech from Elizabeth Cady Stanton

[The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: National protection for national citizens, 1873 to 1880, pp. 8-9]

The above was part of a speech delivered to the Women’s Taxpayers Association of Rochester, NY. Stanton was encouraging women to invest in their own education, since despite the taxes paid by women the government didn’t seem willing.

I’m not sure exactly what qualified the Dudley Observatory as a “scientific institution for men,” other than the fact that it was run by men , and solely staffed by men until the early 20th century.  That’s probably enough.  It’s possible that Blandina Dudley and the observatory were on Stanton’s radar because her friend and ally Elizabeth “Libby” Smith Miller had married Blandina’s nephew Charles Dudley Miller.  She mentions them both is passing in her autobiography, Eighty Years and More.


From the Collection: Polsey Clock

Polsey ClockThis piece is a bit of a mystery. It comes down to us simply as the “Polsey Clock.” Our other clocks come from famous makers, but Polsey is virtually unknown. It’s also very plain, somewhat battered, and missing a few pieces. Still, in its way, it’s the most interesting clock we have. It may be the lone surviving remnant from an ambitious project created by Moses Farmer.

Here’s where I get to put on my miSci cap. Moses Gerrish Farmer was one of the countless electrical inventors that appeared during the nineteenth century, before the giant corporations like GE and Westinghouse formed and sucked up all the oxygen. Farmer, from New Hampshire, is one of the most important of these inventors, and some of his contributions were long lasting.

For example, in 1856 Farmer demonstrated a duplex telegraph between New York and Philadelphia, sending two signals down the same wire. In 1872, Thomas Edison took his technique, combined it with some other ideas, and created the duplex and quadruplex telegraphy system, sending two signals down the wire and two signals back. He sold the idea to Western Union, one of his first major sales.

(Being Thomas Edison, he then also sold it to Jay Gould’s Atlantic and Pacific company. This is probably the incident that caused the editors of the New York Tribune to dub him the “great professor of duplicity and quadruplicity,” one of the more colorful insults that Edison ever received.)

But before all that, Farmer was working on a fire alarm system in Boston that would work much like systems we use today; there would be a central alarm with signal boxes scattered throughout the city, all connected by telegraph cable. In 1855, he ran into the director of Dudley, Benjamin Gould, who must have liked the idea of a central system that could communicate through telegraph. But rather than fire, Gould was thinking clocks.

New York State Capitol Building with Time Ball, ca. 1860

New York State Capitol Building with Time Ball, ca. 1860

So in 1855, Moses Farmer, along with an assistant named John Polsey, came to the Dudley Observatory to create a clock system. The clock was set into a niche near the entrance to the observatory, and it was wired to other clocks throughout the building through telegraph cable. This allowed the main clock to send signals to the other clocks that would keep them all synchronized. And the telegraph cable also ran out of the building, allowing the clock to send accurate time to distant places.

That last part was part of Gould’s plan to sell accurate time to buildings throughout the capital and down to New York City. It was an ambitious plan, which would have meant telegraph cables running to the government buildings and railroad depots along the Hudson, all reaching back to Dudley Observatory to keep every clock running accurately.

The system was finished in 1856, just in time for the inauguration. It became a centerpiece of Gould’s inauguration speech:

The clock for mean time has been made by our accomplished fellow-citizen, Mr. Farmer, of Boston. Its pendulum has no weights, and needs no winding. […]On the right is the great marble dial, three feet square, which shows the Observatory time, beat by the beautiful electro-magnetic pendulum which is swinging on the left, and which is not only to supply this city with its time correct to the fraction of a second, but is to flash it along the electric wire till its little tick be heard upon the lakes and at the ocean, and in all the rail-road stations lying between — the stay of the navigator, the guardian of the traveler, the safeguard of human life, and the promoter of human welfare on land and sea.

It never worked out the way Gould wanted it to. His successor, George Washington Hough, did send accurate time to the state capitol, but it never became the large scale (and lucrative) operation that Gould wanted.

Farmer’s clock system disappears from the record soon after the inauguration. When the original observatory building was vacated, the system was dismantled. This portion of the system, most likely one of the secondary clocks in the system, was set up in the central dome with the Pruyn telescope. It appears to be the only portion that now survives.