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The First U.S. Naval Observatory 


Naval Observatory

Buildings erected in 1844 located from 23rd to 25th Sts NW, from E St NW to Potomac Park, Washington, DC, to house the Depot of Charts and Instruments and the Naval Observatory. The Naval Observatory remained at this location until 1893 (NH 1671).

The Naval Observatory in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, DC, completed in 1844, came more than a century after its European counterparts. There, national observatories had become integral parts of governments’ efforts to gather and interpret astronomical data for maritime trade and colonial expansion. Yet, however belated its arrival, the U.S. Naval Observatory’s contribution to the modernization of the United States was decisive.

The first Naval Observatory, its astronomers, and its partners outside the government succeeded in transforming 19th-century Americans’ relationships to time, space, and the cosmos.

The European Observatories

As early as the 17th century, the British state, emerging as the world’s foremost naval power, was sponsoring a good deal of astronomical research. Mapping the night sky and, in the 18th century, establishing a longitudinal meridian, became the principal activities of state-supported astronomers, now benefitting from impressive and expensive royal observatories.[1] Through a combination of mathematical analysis, astronomical observation, and geodetic measurement, royal cartographers worked in particular to establish a frame of reference for longitude. Exact longitudinal position had been heretofore elusive to mariners, who nonetheless needed desperately to know where their ships stood along the great east–west routes of the most far-flung colonies ever—from Cadiz to Veracruz, Lisbon to Goa, Bordeaux to Québec, Amsterdam to Ceylon, and Liverpool to Virginia.     

In Europe, the state was absolutely central to this research. Political leaders commissioned astronomical equipment for ever more precise and accurate measurements, granted prizes to the most innovative mathematical cartographers, and established state-of-the-art observatories.[2] Louis XIV created the Paris Observatory in 1667. Charles II followed suit in 1675. In Prussia, Frederick I ordered the construction of the Berlin Observatory in 1701. A student of central and west European naval and military technologies, Peter the Great funded the St. Petersburg Observatory in 1725. Astronomy in the assistance of cartography had become an essential function of the state as international competition for even more accurate maps—especially for naval and military use—intensified.[3]

Toward the end of the 18th century, Britain, with the world’s strongest navy and most productive observatory, became what historian Jason W. Smith describes as “the world’s leading producer of [oceanographic] charts and other sources of navigational knowledge.”[4] So long as the mariners on the eastern seaboard of North America remained colonial subjects of the British crown, they would continue to benefit from the Admiralty’s crucial contributions to the art and science of navigation.

The success of the American Revolution, however, left the Americans unable to determine even where, exactly, the United States lay in relation to other points on the globe. In fact, the coordinates of Washington, DC, still had to be determined with reference to the Prime Meridian at the king’s observatory at Greenwich. To make matters worse, the Greenwich meridian was not quite the constant that it is today. On the contrary, as new, better methods of judging longitude emerged, royal astronomers moved the meridian and with it the rest of the world, including the crown’s former colonies in North America. In the 19th century, in fact, North America moved about a half mile in relation to the former mother country, whose officials retained the power to determine the coordinates of the newly sovereign United States. The only way out of this bind was for the federal government to establish a meridian of its own.[5] To do so would require the construction of a first-class observatory.

The Early Republic and the Problem of Time and Space

The European impulse to chart the world, including its seas, and expand the navigational knowledge of humanity was one of many manifestations of the increasing ability of central governments to collect and use information. The advent of the modern census, of state-sponsored exploratory expeditions, of state-owned universities, and of national observatories—all of these developments—signaled the unprecedented effectiveness of state-directed efforts to gather and leverage data.[6]

This point was not lost on Democratic Republicans in the United States, who opposed all attempts by the Federalists to enhance the fact-finding powers of the federal government. The question of the establishment of a national observatory became a flashpoint in the conflict between states-rights crusaders like Andrew Jackson and champions of centralization like John Quincy Adams.[7]

Although the federal government did manage to create a Coast Survey (1807) and the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments in 1830, Congress repeatedly refused to authorize a national or even a naval observatory.[8]

Instead, the first moves toward a naval—and eventually national—observatory happened quietly and piecemeal on a pair of adjacent lots in the Capitol Hill neighborhood over the course of the 1830s.[9]

The Board of Navy Commissioners agreed to the creation of a Depot of Charts and Instruments in 1830 in order to coordinate efforts to judge longitude more accurately. More than a century after the invention of the chronometer, which allowed navigators to combine measurements of time and position relative to the stars and then calculate longitude, the U.S. Navy still had no reliable way of rating chronometers, the process by which astronomers helped navigators to correct for each individual machine’s compounding inaccuracy over time. The Depot of Charts and Instruments was supposed to rationalize and centralize this crucial process (while also accounting for the Navy’s growing inventory of navigational instruments such as theodolites and sextants). The depot would also produce better oceanographic charts according to the latest geodetic measurements.[10]

With these objectives in mind, it should have been easy to predict that the depot would require an observatory. Within four years of its founding, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, head of the depot, moved the facility from northwest Washington to North Capitol Street, where he proceeded to create a makeshift observatory for the rating of chronometers. (His work would support the Navy’s Exploring Expedition of 1838–42, which charted large swaths of the Pacific Ocean and its coastal features.)[11]

By the early 1840s, Wilkes’s makeshift observatory contained, among other equipment, a transit instrument, which helped enormously with the rating of chronometers; a sidereal clock, which enabled the assessment of the relationship among the location of the observer, the rotation of the earth, the position of the stars, and the passage of time—also crucial to rating chronometers; and a large refracting telescope with lens elements that could correct for certain distortions and imprecisions. Additional equipment facilitated the observation of variations in the Earth’s magnetic field, yet another way to find longitude. Most important in Wilkes’s astronomical toolshed, however, might not have been any of the scientific instruments, but rather the lithographic press with which Wilkes mass-produced his up-to-date charts for use by naval officers and merchant mariners alike.[12]

The productivity of Wilkes’s instruments could no longer be in doubt, yet he and the depot lacked an appropriate building in which to house them. The depot also lacked the funds necessary for upgrading technologies as new inventions began to flood the market over the course of the industrial revolution.

The First Naval Observatory

On 31 August 1842, President John Tyler signed the bill into law that authorized the construction of a new, purpose-built naval observatory. Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur ordered Lieutenant James M. Gilliss (Wilkes’s successor at the Depot of Charts and Instruments) to travel to Philadelphia, West Point, and Boston to consult the country’s foremost astronomers. Delivering his designs for the new observatory to the Secretary of the Navy, Gilliss then sailed to Europe to visit the royal observatories and civilian manufacturers of scientific instruments. That trip entailed stops at Greenwich Observatory, supported by the British state; Altona Observatory, supported by the Danish state; and other outposts of the scientific community at Dublin, Oxford, Cambridge, Berlin, Leipzig, and Munich.[13]

The site for the new Naval Observatory was in the Foggy Bottom district of Washington, DC. A visitor in 1845, when the facility finally settled into regular operation, would have encountered a handsome, cream-colored edifice of neoclassical proportions and style, with a dome situated squarely atop the high, flat roof. Inside the double front doors of glass, the visitor would pass through an airy foyer and into a series of well-lit rooms designated for specific kinds of observations and calculations. Under sky-blue ceilings stood the most fantastic machines with even more fantastic names: a “prime-vertical transit,” an “equatorial refractor,” a “mural circle,” and a “comet seeker.”[14]

The dome above housed a 9.6-inch-wide telescope on a granite pier that extended all the way to the building’s foundation. East and west wings housed granite piers, too, for the transit instruments. At the level where the piers met the soil, a magnetic observatory had been constructed, which, unfortunately, never functioned. Cost-cutting measures during construction resulted in flooding, and the magnetic observatory had to be shut down and sealed off.[15]

Nevertheless, the first few decades of activities at the Naval Observatory were remarkably productive. Technological breakthroughs, increasing public and Congressional interest in scientific research, the proliferation of intercontinental trade, and the managerial skill of the observatory’s first director, Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, elevated the Naval Observatory to the level of national observatory in short order. True, astronomers at the observatory continued to toil on problems of navigation, but they also conducted research that would help Americans bridge the great distances contained within the ever-expanding borders of the United States.

The Naval Observatory as National Observatory

Historian Steven J. Dick, an expert on the history of the first Naval Observatory, has identified four areas of research for the period from about 1845 to 1893, when the observatory closed. All areas assisted in navigation in some way:

  • To establish and communicate the exact time of day,

  • To establish and communicate exact maps of the cosmos,

  • To establish and communicate physical and astronomical constants (such as acceleration due to gravity or the equatorial radius of the Earth),

  • And to observe (and thereby confirm) in reality the physical and astronomical theories of the mathematicians.[16]

The first area—about time—proved to be the observatory’s most central. The answers here would be the most trailblazing of all.[17]

Suspended on a pole atop the dome of the Naval Observatory was a time ball, an instrument for signaling time. The mechanism was very simple: Announce that the ball will drop at exactly noon, as calculated by the astronomers inside the observatory, and viewers outside could set their watches, clocks, and chronometers by it. Depending on sight lines, however, the time ball as such had limited range.

Connect it to a mechanism that switched an electromagnetic current on or off, and then transmit that current along a wire across town, across the District of Columbia, across state boundaries and all the way to New York, for instance—in other words, connect it with the newfangled telegraph—and a rudimentary technology of time signaling would become a technology for instantaneous synchronization across great distances.

In this way, the first Naval Observatory pioneered the telecommunication of time—vital to the cohesion of the nation, the functioning of its economy, and the operability of its railways—in the United States.

The custom until the later 19th century had been to set time locally, usually with recourse to a sundial or similar tool of celestial observation. Philadelphia’s noon was ever so slightly later than New York’s, therefore, which came some number of minutes after Boston’s. As historian Vanessa Ogle shows, even as late as 1875, rail travelers “had to calculate their way through a ticket of times,” about 75, in fact, before the creation of national time zones in 1883.[18]

The almost simultaneous arrivals of the railroad and the telegraph made these discrepancies apparent and demanded that they be solved. By proving that time could be calculated and disseminated from a central point—say, the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office in Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC—the U.S. Navy initiated the process that culminated, eventually, in the establishment of time zones, which required, above all, an infrastructure of dissemination and standardization.

The process began as early as 1846, when wires first connected the main telegraph lines in Washington to the Naval Observatory, and these lines in turn helped the Navy disseminate time to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and even Massachusetts.

After the Civil War, the Naval Observatory succeeded in transmitting direct, time-setting telegraphic signals even farther—all the way to the Navy’s branch hydrographic offices. At the local level, the Naval Observatory now disseminated time by telegraph to the Washington Fire Alarm Office, which then rang its bells three times a day, at set times, whereby the city’s residents and government offices might set their clocks. This local network soon extended to the State Department’s building, where Western Union also had offices.

By 1869, Western Union was passing Naval Observatory time via direct telegraphic loop all the way down the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Some ten years later, telegraphic technology had improved such that actual time ticks could travel over the wires that extended what was now the nation’s foremost observatory, the Navy’s.[19]

The majority of Americans were now on time—Navy time.

Closing the First Naval Observatory

Its central role in the determination, dissemination, and standardization of time was the first of the Naval Observatory’s crowning achievements. Other victories included the acquisition of the world’s largest telescope to date and the discovery of Mars’s two moons.[20]

Yet the first Naval Observatory entered a period of inexorable decline in the late 1870s that culminated in the closure of the first observatory in 1893 and the opening of the present facility in Georgetown Heights (Washington, DC) that same year.[21]

Part of the reason for the first observatory’s decline had to do with the neighborhood itself, which became contaminated by sewage as the area urbanized. Eventually—and ironically—when the astronomers vacated the site, the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine took over the facility and turned it into the Naval Museum of Hygiene. By the 1890s, moreover, civilian observatories had taken the lead in astronomical observation and research.[22]

The Navy’s central role in cartography persisted, however. In the 1960s, the Navy conducted some of the first experiments in satellite navigation, which initiated a process of innovation that resulted in the Global Positioning System, or GPS, which guides ships over all the world’s oceans and provides directions to everyone in possession of a smartphone, a cellular signal, and the desire to get somewhere.

—Adam Bisno, Ph.D., NHHC Communication and Outreach Division, September 2019

[1] Martin H. Geyer, “Prime Meridians, National Time, and Symbolic Authority of Capitals in the Nineteenth Century,” in Berlin–Washington, 1800–2000: Capital Cities, Cultural Representation, and National Identities, eds. Andreas W. Daum and Christof Mauch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 82.

[2] Matthew Edney, “Mathematical Cosmography and the Social Ideology of British Cartography, 1780–1820,” Imago Mundi 46 (1994), 107–11.

[3] Ibid., 109.

[4] Jason W. Smith, To Master the Boundless Sea: The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 30.

[5] Geyer, “Prime Meridians,” 82.

[6] Ibid., 82; cf. Steven J. Dick, Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 5.

[7] Geyer, “Prime Meridians,” 84–85. Cf. Marlana Portolano, “John Quincy Adams’s Rhetorical Crusade for Astronomy,” Isis 91 (2000), 480–503.

[8] Ibid., 83; Smith, Master, 101.

[9] Dick, Sky, 40.

[10] Ibid., 14 and 32; Smith, Master, 28–31.

[11] Dick, Sky, 42–44.

[12] Ibid., 41–42, 44, and 47.

[13] Ibid., 64 and 66–67.

[14] Ibid., 67–70.

[15] Jan K. Herman, A Hilltop on Foggy Bottom: Home of the Old Naval Observatory and the Navy Medical Department (Washington, DC: Naval Medical Command, 1984), 18–19.

[16] Dick, Sky, 3.

[17] Herman, Hilltop, 47; Smith, Master, 28.

[18] Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time, 1870–1950 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 125.

[19] Ian Bartky, “Naval Observatory Time Dissemination Before the Wireless,” in Sky With Ocean Joined: Proceedings of the Sesquicentennial Symposia of the U.S. Naval Observatory, December 5 and 8, 1980, eds. Steven J. Dick and LeRoy E. Doggett (Washington, DC: U.S. Naval Observatory, 1983), 2–6.

[20] Herman, Hilltop, 39.

[21] See Howard Plotkin, “Astronomers versus the Navy: The Revolt of American Astronomers over the Management of the United States Naval Observatory, 1877–1902,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 122 (1978): 385–399.

[22] Herman, Hilltop, 41.

Charles Wilkes, Commander U.S.N.

Commander Charles Wilkes (NH 119642) 

Published: Mon Sep 30 16:55:56 EDT 2019