The U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830-2000

Dick, Steven J. Sky and Ocean Joined: the U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830-2000

John B. Hattendorf

Dick, Steven J. Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830-2000. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003. 609pp. $130

In this beautifully produced, albeit very expensive volume, Steven Dick of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., has written the fascinating story of the origins and development of the Navy’s and the nation’s oldest scientific organization. It is a fascinating and well written story that ranges from the establishment of the observatory in 1830, as part of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments under Lieutenant Louis Goldsborough, to the sixteen-and-a-half-year tenure of the longest-serving superintendent, Matthew Fontaine Maury, who led when it was first designated the National Observatory. The institution was originally established to serve the very practical application of astronomy to the measurement of time in day-to-day navigation at sea. Under Charles Wilkes and Maury, it quickly moved beyond this restricted use to extend its work to geomagnetic, astronomical, and meteorological observations that soon brought it into the forefront of scientific research, bringing global credit to the U.S. Navy and the United States.

Dick, who has a degree in astrophysics, as well as a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science, tells the wide-ranging story of the observatory’s work over 170 years, from the rise in the use of the chronometer in the U.S. Navy in the early nineteenth century, to its new work in the opening of the twenty-first century with the application of the satellite Global Positioning System. His highly competent and very readable explanation of the observatory’s scientific accomplishments ranges across the administrative and bureaucratic elements in its history and provides strikingly humanistic portraits of some of the key and colorful scientific figures that were involved, such as Maury Simon Newcomb, and Asaph Hall.

The story that unfolds encompasses a range of fascinating and quite different events aim details, which many readers, whether they are general readers, naval historians, or historians of science, will not readily associate with the achievements of the U.S. Navy. Chief among them are the discovery of Phobos and Deimos, the moons of the planet Mars, and Charon, the moon of Pluto; the sixteen nineteenth-century expedition; to measure the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun; and the establishment of the master clock of the United States.

In terms of practical contributions to fleet operations, the observatory played a key role in providing the most up-to-date navigational technology to ships at sea, even mass-producing chronometers during both world wars, and providing early applications of punch-card calculating technology for the production of an improved and more accurate American Air Almanac from 1941. Because the Nautical Almanac had one of the few scientific computation laboratories in the United States, its equipment was adapted in late 1943 to do rapid calculations in spherical trigonometry to calculate the positions of German U-boats, using incoming intelligence and radio bearings from a hundred listening stations around the world. For this purpose, the observatory staff used the equipment at night, when it was not being used for Almanac computations, and calculated solutions to a quarter of a million spherical triangles to locate the real-time positions of enemy U-boats within five miles.

For those interested in the history of Washington, D.C., the book contains a fascinating account of the different sites of the Naval Observatory, as it moved from its first location on G Street near the White House, to Capitol Hill from 1834 to 1842, to temporary quarters on Pennsylvania Avenue near New Hampshire Avenue from 1842 to 1844, on to Foggy Bottom until 1893. It was then that famed architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the buildings on Observatory Hill on Massachusetts Avenue, including the Superintendent’s Residence, which served from 1928 as the residence of the Chief of Naval Operations, and which in 1974 was designated as the official residence of the vice president of the United States.

Readers of this journal will be particularly interested in the recurring civilian-military controversy through the observatory’s history and in the question as to whether the Navy should hand over administration of all or part of its functions to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Bureau of Standards, or some other civilian agency. The natural administrative tensions that result from competing national security interests and scientific interests were ameliorated as early as 1908 by the creation of the Astronomical Council that allowed leading astronomers to have an influence on decisions relating to the staff’s scientific work. From 1958, with the employment of increasingly complicated astronomical technology, the appointment of a civilian scientific director has provided a more effective means to work under the active-duty naval officer who is the superintendent. On this point, Dick concludes that maintaining the observatory as a scientific institution under Department of Defense control, within the Department of the Navy, is particularly important in regard to the observatory’s continuing role in providing accurate atomic clock time to the Global Positioning System satellites and its contributions to accurate detail on star positions and earth orientation, critical elements to current defense projects in space.


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