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”
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.