Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel

Founding of the Cincinnati Observatory (quoted below)

Portrait of Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel  by unknown artist. c. 1860

Portrait of Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel
by unknown artist. c. 1860

The Cincinnati Observatory was founded by Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, who, as a Professor at Cincinnati College in 1842, generated public enthusiasm for astronomy through a series of public lectures. At that time, there were a few small telescopes in the country, but no organized observatory with a powerful instrument existed anywhere. Mitchel was able to interest a number of people in the possibility of erecting the first such observatory in the US. At the end of one of his lectures, Mitchel presented his plan to the audience of 2000. The plan was to organize the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, who would be shareholders in the observatory. Their shares would go for the purchase of a first-class instrument, and would entitle them to the use of the telescope. In three weeks, 300 subscribers had been obtained, and Mitchel set out to purchase the needed instrument.

In 1842, Mitchel inspected a 12 inch objective lens of the highest quality in Munich, at the optical institute formerly run by Fraunhofer, and ordered it for the observatory. Upon his return to the US, Mitchel undertook the supervision of the construction of the observatory.

The site of the future observatory was a 4 acre lot at the top of Mt. Ida, some 400 feet above the city of Cincinnati, which was given to the Astronomical Society by its owner, Nicholas Longworth. On the 9th of November, 1843, the cornerstone was laid by John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States. Adams had a deep interest in astronomical science, and had tried unsuccessfully in 1825 to persuade Congress to found a National Observatory. Although 77 years old, and not in the best of health, Adams travelled to Cincinnati for the occasion because he felt that the founding of the Cincinnati Observatory was such an important step to be taken if the US were to become internationally recognized for its intellectual and scientific endeavors. It was at the dedication that Adams gave his last public speech. Mt Ida was renamed Mt. Adams following this event.

By the time the observatory building foundation had been laid, the country was in an economic depression, and with nearly all of the money raised having gone to the purchase of the telescope (which cost about $9000, a considerable sum in those days), the project was without any money for its completion. Mitchel raised some additional money (and paid for much of it out of his own funds), while the majority of workmen gave their time and labor in exchange for shares in the Society. The telescope arrived in January 1845, and went into operation on April 14, 1845.

Because there were no funds remaining for an endowment for the new Cincinnati Observatory, Mitchel agreed to serve as its first director, without salary, relying on his income from the Cincinnati College. Soon after the completion of the Observatory, and before the telescope became operational, the college burned down, and he was left without any monetary support.

In spite of this setback, however, Mitchel still served as director of the Observatory, and began serious scientific investigations with the telescope. It was at this time that he discovered the stellar companion to the bright star Antares. It was also during this period that he founded The Sidereal Messenger, the first astronomical publication in the US (it was discontinued a few years later due to lack of funds). In 1848 he also developed what was probably the first working chronograph for automatically recording the beats of a clock, a necessity for accurate timing observations. This was part of a larger program to automatically transmit time and observational information in “real time” over telegraph wires. It was developed, in part, because of an experiment using telegraphy of time signals to determine the longitude of Cincinnati with respect to Philadelphia. It had been suggested by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal in England, that Cincinnati be the zero-point for land surveys in the US, as Greenwich was in England.

Eventually, however, Mitchel had to temporarily leave Cincinnati to find some source of income. Because his talks in Cincinnati had been so well received, he spent much of his time during the next few years lecturing around the country on the wonders of astronomy to large public audiences.

Mitchel’s enthusiasm and clarity impressed his audiences. As one person who heard him has said: “In New York the music Hall is thronged night after night to hear his impassioned eloquence poured in an unbroken flow of ‘thoughts that breathe and words that burn’ on the excited thousands. A sublimer spectacle in lecturing was never seen. The theme, the orator, the intellectual audiences, the rapt attention, the almost painful intensity of feeling, all crown him the prince of lecturers.” The great expansion of interest in astronomy, and the proliferation of observatories during the next few years owes a great deal to the efforts of Mitchel, who has sometimes been called “The Father of American Astronomy.”

In 1852, Mitchel provided the plans for another observatory, the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York. And in 1859, he accepted the directorship of Dudley, which paid him a regular salary.

After the Civil War broke out, the observatory ceased operation, and remained dormant until 1868, with the appointment of Cleveland Abbe as its new director. Abbe strongly urged that the Observatory be moved, since the Mt. Adams site had been rendered unsuitable due to the heated air, smoke, and dust of the rapidly-growing city. At this time he also established a system of daily weather reports and storm predictions, earning him the nickname “Old Probabilities”. His work impressed the US government so much that he was summoned to Washington to establish the United States Weather Bureau, and the Observatory was once again shut down.