|Author:||Anonymous & Orville James Victor
|About:||In his book, Men of the Time: Being Biographies of Generals, Volume 3, (Beadle and Company, New York, 1863), pp.96–99, Victor describes how Major-General Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, professor of Astronomy at Cincinnati College and founder of the Cincinnati Observatory visited Airy at Greenwich prior to setting up the Cincinnati Observatory in 1842. It contains numerous quotes from ‘one who was at that time intimately acquainted with the Professor's movements’ and helps illuminate Airy’s attitude towards visitors. An almost, identical account of the visit was published the following year in: The portrait gallery of the war civil military and naval: A biographical record (Derby & Miller), a volume edited by Frank Moore. This volume was republished in 1865 by D.Van Nostrand, New York.|
|Click here to read the account from: Men of the Time: Being Biographies of Generals, in its original format|
|Click here to read the account from:The portrait gallery of the war civil military and naval, in its original format|
[From: Men of the Time: Being Biographies of Generals, Volume 3 (Beadle and Company, New York, 1863), pp.96–99 by Orville James Victor]
At the close of this course, the Professor stated his wish to raise funds to build an observatory In Cincinnati and to procure a first-class telescope. He stated his plan, and it was as shrewd as his lectures. It was proposed to divide the stock into shares of twenty-five dollars each, and, when some three hundred were obtained, these were to elect their directors or trustees. At the time, the Professor was a laborious teacher of mathematics in college for six hours a day, but when that work was done, he was out in the stores, shops, dwellings and streets of Cincinnati, explaining his plan to Individuals. He obtained his three hundred subscribers in less than a month, and the society was formed. One of its first resolutions was to send Professor Mitchell to Europe to buy apparatus for the observatory. Concerning what followed we are told in the words of one who was at that time intimately acquainted with the Professor's movements. The celerity of movement then exhibited has since been carried to the battlefield.
He was absent from Cincinnati just one hundred days, in which time he visited Washington to get his papers and letters of introduction to distinguished persons of the Old World—London, Paris and Munich; found the optic glass wanted, contracted for its mountings, returned to London, made his way into the confidence of Professor Airy, of the Greenwich Observatory, over very great obstacles, studied there with him perhaps two or three weeks, and was back in Cincinnati at the opening of the fall term of college. It was regarded as a great feat, and the popular clamor was for the Professor to give a lecture relative to his experiences of his rapid tour. He consented, and, for sprightliness and interest, it was one of his best.
The rapidity of his movements disgusted the savans of Europe; for, although it was his first visit to the Old World, he seemed to have no eyes or ears for any thing but telescopes. His conversation glided into rapid inquiries about optic glasses, the best mountings of a telescope, and the best arrangements of an observatory. The magnificence of the French capital was nothing. As soon as the fact was ascertained that there was no optic glass in Paris such as he wanted, he started for Munich. At some point on the journey travelers usually leave the direct route in order to visit Lake Geneva; but our hardy Professor forced the drivers to push him through on the same night, not a little to their disgust that a gentleman should come so far, be so near such a glorious spot, and yet hurry by it.
At Munich he was successful in finding what he sought, but to get it would require him to raise about three thousand dollars more than his employers had empowered him to do; but there, too, he "went ahead" and made the contract, and dashed back to London. Here his desire was to gain access for a few weeks into the Greenwich Observatory as a student. He had the most pressing letters of introduction, but Professor Airy treated him with the most freezing politeness, not even offering to show him his sanctum.
One afternoon, perhaps at his first interview after his return from Munich, in order to break the Englishman's shell, if possible, Professor Mitchell asked him his opinion as to the best mode of mounting a telescope. "Go to Cambridge, and you will see my opinion practically embodied in that observatory," was the answer. This hint the Professor was not slow to take; he did not want to go to Cambridge, but he did want to get into Greenwich Observatory, and he was afraid if ho did not do the former he might not secure the latter. There were only a few minutes left before the train started for Cambridge, and, calling a hackman, he told him to drive him to the station. He had barely time to get his ticket and his seat before the train was off. It was a superb night for un astronomer, and he well knew that before he could reach the observatory the directors would be locked in. About ten o'clock he rung the bell of the Professor's house and asked for the lady. She proved to be a genuine lady, and not ten minutes had she been under the influence of Professor Mitchell's tongue before she told him she would go and ask her husband to come and see him. And so she did, and her husband did as she asked him. All night long the Englishman and the Buckeye were together in the observatory, the latter recording and copying observations in amounts which astonished his companion. At daylight he was back to the station, and by the time Professor Airy, of Greenwich, had fairly swallowed his breakfast, Professor Mitchell was ready for him. The Englishman, supposing his advice had not been followed about going to Cambridge, was colder than ever; but when Professor Mitchell told him he had been there, he uttered an exclamation which was a genteel way of saying, "That's a lie." Mitchell, however, quietly told the Professor, if he would listen, in a few moments he would convince him that he had been to Cambridge. And then he described the observatory there, telescope and Professor, even to the minutest particular, and closed by displaying the records of the last night's observations. "That beats any thing I ever heard of," exclaimed the astonished Airy; and, thoroughly thawed, he added: "You must dine with me to-day." At the dinner-table he was seated by Mrs. Airy, and in the course of the good cheer she said to her husband: "I have a favor to ask of you—that you will take Professor Mitchell into the observatory and let him have every facility to perfect himself while he remains." "It is granted on one condition," said the Englishman, laughing, "and that is that while he is in the observatory he shall keep that tongue of his still."
Having spent every available moment in this privileged place, the Professor started for home, and, a new college being opened, he was seated in his class-room, as if nothing worthy of note had happened during the vacation.
[From: The portrait gallery of the war civil military and naval: A biographical record (D.Van Nostrand, New York, 1865) pp.22–24, Edited by Frank Moore]
In the spring of 1842 he commenced a course of lectures on astronomy to a popular audience, the first attempt of the kind which had been made in the West, if not the first in the United States. The course, which occupied two or three evenings each week, lasted two months, and a hall capable of seating nearly two thousand people was crowded every evening during its delivery. It was, we believe, at the close of these lectures that he first broached the idea of an Observatory at Cincinnati. The idea was certainly a bold one, for there was not a first-class observatory at that time in the United States. Indeed, there were but five of any kind then in existence in the country, and a sixth in process of erection. Of these, the Williams College and Yale College Observatories were small and but poorly furnished with instruments, and neither had been in existence a dozen years; there was also a small observatory at Western Reserve College, Hudson, Ohio, and a better one at Philadelphia, both erected in 1838, and in 1840 an observatory had been erected for the first time at West-Point . The Government were at this very time establishing one at Washington.
Professor Mitchel's plan was to divide the sum necessary for the building and furnishing the Observatory with proper instruments into shares of twenty-five dollars each, and when three hundred were taken up the stockholders were to elect their directors or trustees. He was at this time engaged in teaching six hours a day, but he entered upon his work of procuring subscriptions to the stock with such activity and zeal that in less than a month the whole amount was subscribed, and Nicholas Longworth, the Cincinnati millionaire, had donated a site for it . One of the first resolutions of the directors, after their election, was to send Professor Mitchel to Europe to purchase the apparatus for the Observatory. He complied with the wishes of the directors, but he would not trench upon his duties to the college. He accordingly left Cincinnati at the close of the spring term, and was absent from the city just one hundred days, during which time he visited Washington to obtain his papers and letters of introduction to eminent astronomers abroad, hastened thence to New-York, from which city he sailed for Havre, and after a rapid exploration of Paris, which satisfied him that there was no refracting telescope there such as he wanted, started for Munich, refusing to delay on the route to see the Lake of Geneva or any other of the points usually visited by travellers, but making all speed to his destination. At Munich he found the lens of the great refractor, which is now mounted equatorially in the Cincinnati Observatory, in the manufactory of the celebrated opticians Merz and Mohler, but the price was ten thousand dollars, three thousand more than his directors had empowered him to expend; taking the responsibility, however, he made the contract for it, and directed the time, place, and circumstances of its shipment. This done, he hurried on to London, to gain access, for a few weeks, to the Greenwich Observatory as a student . He found Professor Airy, the Astronomer Royal, to whom he had strong letters of introduction, most freezingly polite, and evidently determined to grant him no privileges or courtesies beyond those of the most formal character. He was not even invited into the Observatory. But the young professor was not to be so easily repulsed . He knew that it was desirable that he should enjoy the opportunity of seeing the methods of observation adopted in the Greenwich Observatory, and he determined he would do it . He accordingly, after some general conversation, in which the English astronomer had been curt even to rudeness, asked Professor Airy's opinion as to the best mode of mounting a telescope. "Go to Cambridge, and you will see my opinion practically embodied in that observatory," was the ungracious reply. After a little further conversation, but without signifying his intention of complying with the advice thus tendered, Professor Mitchel withdrew. It was late in the afternoon, and the train for Cambridge would start in a few minutes. Calling a hackman, he ordered him to drive him to the station, secured his ticket and was off It was a remarkably fine night, and he well knew that before he could reach the Observatory the directors would be locked in. He made his way directly to the residence of the Professor of Astronomy and asked to see his lady. She proved to be a lady in the best sense of the word, and in ten minutes Professor Mitchel, whose powers of conversation were unequalled, had so interested her in his object that she went to the Observatory and called her husband to come and see him, and asked him to take him into the Observatory, which he readily consented to do. The whole night was spent in the Observatory, the Yankee professor recording and copying observations in quantities that astonished the English astronomer. At daylight he was back to the station; and by the time Professor Airy had swallowed his breakfast, Mitchel was at his residence in Greenwich, ready for another interview. The Astronomer Royal, supposing that his advice about going to Cambridge had not been taken, was colder than ever, and when Mitchel told him he had been there, he uttered an exclamation which was nearly equivalent to accusing him of falsehood. Mitchel replied by describing the Observatory, the telescope and professor there, even to the minutest particulars, and then exhibiting his copious records of the night's observations. The Astronomer Royal was by this time thoroughly thawed. "This beats any thing I ever heard of," he exclaimed; then added, as if to make amends for his previous coldness: "You must dine with me to-day." At the dinner-table he was seated by Mrs. Airy, and she was so much pleased with her guest that before the dinner was over she said to her husband: "I have a favor to ask of you — that you will take Professor Mitchel into the Observatory, and let him have every facility to perfect himself while he remains." "It is granted on one condition," replied the astronomer good humoredly, "and that is, that while he is in the Observatory he shall keep that tongue of his still."
The privilege, thus granted, was used up to the last available moment, and when the time came for the sailing of the steamer, the compilation and extension of the notes he had made sufficed to occupy the voyage. At the commencement of the next term in the college he was at his post, as ready for his duties as if he had but visited one of the lakes or the falls of the Upper Mississippi.