W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

Brief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. online

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before anything had been done about the Yerkes observatory.
Things moved rapidly at Chicago, however, and before the negoti-
ations with Mr. See were concluded, Mr. George E. Hale, who had
a private observatory in Chicago, was brought into relationship
to the University; and Mr. Hale and Dr. Harper together pre-
vailed on Mr. Yerkes to buy the 40-inch glass discs, then lying
unground in the shops of Alvan Clark & Sons, Cambridgeport,
Mass., for the lenses of what has since become the great telescope
of the Yerkes Observatory. It seems that Mr. Hale had written
Mr. Yerkes a letter asking if he would consider buying the discs;
and when he replied in the affirmative, Dr. Harper and Mr. Hale
secured his promise of the required funds, about October 1, 1892.
This was the beginning of the Yerkes Observatory.


When Dr. See reached Chicago the day after Christmas, 1892,
many of the departments of the University, which had opened
October 1, were just being organized, some of the classes meeting
in sheds, stores, and other temporary buildings. His first busi-
ness was to organize the department of astronomy. As he was
familiar with the work in astronomy at the great universities of
Berlin and Cambridge, he naturally tried to plan similar work at
Chicago, though its full development could only come gradually.
His first classes in the calculation of orbits of comets had about
eight graduate students, which was very satisfactory, considering the
attendance of only about two hundred students at the University.

Up to July 1, 1893, the fees from students allowed Dr. See,
as Docent, were only about $150.00; and it was therefore arranged
to advance his position to assistant, which would pay $800.00 per
annum, and be self-supporting for a young man. The work of
the department was rapidly developed and it was not long till it
was recognized everywhere as one of the best in the country.

Meanwhile the mounting of the large telescope was finished
by Warner & Swasey of Cleveland, Ohio, and exhibited at the
World's Fair, about two miles from the University. The grinding
of the glass discs, on the other hand, was a much slower process
than making the mounting, yet this optical work was making some
progress. During the winter of 1893-4 Mr. Hale was abroad for
study and some solar observations on Mt. Aetna. Everything
seemed to hang fire about the observatory, and no progress seemed
to be in sight, beyond what had been done by Warner & Swasey,
and the grinding of lenses by Alvan Clark & Sons.

It should be said in this connection that Professor S. W. Burn-
ham, long famed as the greatest double star observer in the world,
had quit Lick Observatory in California, in August, 1892, and
thus he was in Chicago when Mr. Yerkes agreed to give the funds
for the glass discs, October 1, 1892. He held a very lucrative, and
not very onerous but very responsible position as clerk of the
United States Court, and had his offices in the old post office build-
ing. Burnham thus had no connection with the University, but


it was understood that he was to have such connection as soon as
the Observatory was built. Naturally in his private situation he
could do nothing to promote the progress of the Observatory. In
the summer of 1894 Professor Hale returned from Europe, and
took steps to establish the Astrophysical Journal, and yet there
was not the least sign of any progress about the Observatory.
The site had not been selected, no buildings had been started, and
it looked as though it might be years before anything was done.

Now it happened that the promised advancement of Dr. See
and Dr. Laves at the University was predicated on the building of
the Yerkes Observatory; and as this was hung up, there was a
dubious prospect ahead for all concerned Burnham, Hale, See,
and Laves, as well as those whom it was hoped to have associated
with the Observatory later, of whom Professor Barnard was the
most famous.

In this state of general paralysis, about October 1, 1894, Dr.
See called to interview President Harper as to the cause for the
apparently indefinite delay in the building of the Observatory.
He was told that the running of the Observatory was estimated
to cost $30,000 per annum, and there was no avaiable source
of income adequate to meet this demand, nor likely to be any
during the rest of the present (19th) century thus there was
nothing in view but waiting for six years at least. " I like to get
gifts for the University, but I am worried to death to find funds
for the maintenance of the Observatory after it is built!" patheti-
cally cried President Harper. Dr. See assured him that he could
show him how to start the Observatory on the available income
of the University; and, at the president's request, submitted a
plan, a few days later, which accomplished this object, so that the
building began immediately.

Dr. See's plan consisted in cutting down the inflated budget,
on the principle that necessities come before luxuries, and a child
must crawl before it can walk. So also if an Observatory can get
started, and make a record for efficiency, it too should grow and
prosper; while by planning for the impossible it might be delayed




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for many years, or never get started at all. Mr. Yerkes died in
1905, and if it had not been built during his life- time, the whole
matter probably would have fallen through and come to nothing.
Accordingly whatever the Yerkes Observatory has accomplished
must be ascribed largely to the timely help of Dr. See.

As the outcome of this forward movement Burnham at once
became officially connected with the University as professor of
practical astronomy, while still holding his office in the court.
Barnard was called to Chicago from Lick Observatory in Cali-
fornia, and the site selected and work rushed forward at such a
rate that the Observatory was opened for observations and for-
mally dedicated in September, 1897, with an address by Professor
Simon Newcomb of Washington.

The importance of this founding and opening of the Yerkes
Observatory for American science has been considerable; for it
has now had sixteen years of creditable activity, and that many
years of the life of Burnham and Barnard have been usefully em-
ployed, whereas they were likely to be largely wasted, under the
unfortunate conditions existing prior to 1894 both at Lick and
at Chicago. Moreover enlarged opportunities have been opened
for Frost, Ritchey and others. Dr. See also was rewarded for
his untiring efforts, but not at Chicago.

It is well known that President Harper greatly appreciated
the services of Dr. See at the University, yet he ungratefully let
him leave, probably hoping thereby to placate the jealously of
Professor Hale, who is said to have blamed Dr. See for the reduc-
tion of the inflated budget, which alone made possible the building
of the Yerkes Observatory. It might be unfortunate that the
University could not better provide for the support of the Observ-
atory; yet it was obviously better to have a half loaf than no
bread, since with half a loaf it was possible to live and struggle
for more, whereas without it even the struggle could not be kept

We must now dwell on Professor See's scientific work at the
University of Chicago. It has already been pointed out that from


the first he had a goodly number of students, including some of
very great promise, such as the late Mr. George K. Lawton, Pro-
fessor F. R. Moulton, and Professor Eric Doolittle, and thirty or
forty others now holding responsible positions in various colleges,
universities and observatories. Dr. See's work and department
stood high at the University, but he felt that he labored at a great
disadvantage because of his rank being only that of instructor,
whereas many members of the faculty of nothing like his quali-
fications and experience were given the rank of assistant professor,
associate professor, or even professor.

Accordingly when Professor Percival Lowell, early in 1896,
offered him an opportunity to make a survey of the Southern
Heavens for the discovery and measurement of double stars, Dr.
See accepted it. President Harper then offered him leave of
absence, with the rank of assistant professor, but Dr. See insisted
that for obvious reasons it should be associate professor, the same
as that held by Professor Hale. When President Harper could
not see his way to grant that, Dr. See declined the assistant
professorship and merely went away, on leave, yet not expecting
to return, because it was evident that at the University of Chicago
nothing was being done on merit.

Soon after coming to Chicago in December, 1892, Dr. See had
come to be closely associated with Professor S. W. Burnham, the
greatest known authority on double stars. See would frequently
visit Burnham each week, and sometimes every few days, to get a
list of observations, for the calculation of the orbits of particular
double stars; for it was found in 1893 that all the published orbits
required revision, on the basis of recent observations, and by the
shorter and simpler methods which had been worked out by Burn-
ham and See. This work finally included the revision of the orbits
of forty double stars, and occupied Dr. See about three years,
from the summer of 1893 to 1896.

It was also made to embrace a critical mathematical investi-
gation into the action of central forces, with a new spectroscopic
method for testing the law of Newtonian gravitation among the


stellar systems. This latter work was published in July, 1895,
and attracted universal attention, because it had been held by
such authorities as Professor Asaph Hall of the Naval Observatory,
at Washington, (cf. article in the Astronomical Journal, Vol. VIII)
that it would never be possible to really test or prove the opera-
tion of the Newtonian law among the double stars, but that we
could merely make it more and more probable, by adding to the
number of orbits investigated.

Dr. See had been occupied with this question at Berlin in
1890, and had then prepared a small paper on the subject, and now
he gave it the final form, showing that a real test is actually possi-
ble, with the highest degree of rigor attainable in the observations
of the fixed stars, by means of the combination of the micrometer
and spectrograph. The latter instrument is a photographic
spectroscope for determining the motion in the line of sight, by
the method of slight displacement of the spectral lines, developed
by Huggins in 1868. Dr. See thus completed the methods for
testing the validity of the Newtonian law of attraction throughout
the sidereal universe, and they have since been used by Professors
Campbell and Wright of Lick Observatory, on Alpha Centauri,
Sirius, and other double stars.

During the month of April, 1895, Dr. See was making obser-
vations at the Leander McCormick Observatory of the University
of Virginia, and in August at the Washburn Observatory of the
University of Wisconsin, to secure the latest positions of the com-
panions of certain double stars. With the assistance of his post-
graduate students Lawton, Moulton and Doolittle he was rapidly
completing the forty orbits, which were to be made the basis of
the first volume of the famous Researches on the Evolution of the
Stellar Systems. President Harper had agreed to have this work
published by the University when finished.

Finally, in the spring of 1896, all was ready for the press, but
the excuse was made that no funds were available, for the Uni-
versity to do its part with; and so Dr. See had to publish it at his
own expense. About the time Dr. See was disheartened by this


breach of faith on the part of the University, after all his labor in
doing the work, he received a telegram from Professor Percival
Lowell to undertake the survey of the double stars of the Southern
Hemisphere with the 24-inch telescope at Flagstaff, Arizona, and
at the City of Mexico. The first volume of Dr. See's Researches
appeared in January, 1897, while he was at the City of Mexico,
surveying the brilliant region of the ship Argus, Centaurus, and
the Southern Cross, in which many important new double stars
were discovered.

As this volume of Researches was essentially finished at
Chicago, and only the proof read at his home in Montgomery City,
and later at the Lowell Observatory, we may state here that the
volume was everywhere recognized as setting a new standard in
double star astronomy. The enthusiasm over the work was
general throughout the scientific world. Thus Lord Kelvin wrote
Dr. See as follows:

The University, Glasgow, March 20th, 1897.
Dear Dr. See:

I thank you very much for your letter of January
7, and the accompanying copy of your new work "On the Evolu-
tion of the Stellar Systems," which you have kindly sent me and
which I duly received. It is a splendid book and full of matter
most interesting to me.

Double star astronomy has always been exceedingly interest-
ing in giving us some fundamental information of systems in dif-
ferent parts of the Universe analogous to our Solar System in
respect to orbital motion under gravitational force but different
from ours in that grand detail of two suns instead of one. And
the interest is now greatly enhanced by the revelations of physical
properties and of velocities relatively to our system which spectrum
analyses have given us within the last thirty-three years.

I enclose an extract from a letter which I received from Tis-
serand only a few months before his death, by which you will judge
how eagerly I looked to your Chapter 3, 4, and how interested I was

LORD KELVIN, (1824-1907)

From a photograph by Falk, New York, 1902. The most eminent British Natural

Philosopher of the past century, and one of the foremost of all time. He was one of

the first British authorities to adopt See's discoveries on the Constitution of the Sun

and on the Cause of Earthquakes and Mountain Formation.


The most eminent Italian astronomer since the time of Galileo, and one of the first to
adopt Professor See's Theories in Cosmogony and Geogony. He was so impressed
with the discovery of the Cause of Earthquakes and Mountain Formation, that,
although at an advanced age, he addressed young Professor See as " Revered Colleague. 1


to find in it the italicized paragraph on page 251. The physical
cause of the great eccentricities of the orbits of double stars is cer-
tainly a very important subject for investigation or speculation.

I hope the continuation of your work may prosper and that
before very long we may have a second volume.

Believe me, with kind regards, yours truly,


From Milan the illustrious Italian astronomer Schiaparelli
wrote that Dr. See's Researches "would constitute the third great
epoch in double star astronomy since those of W. Herschel and W.
Struve." To understand this fully we should recall that Sir
William Herschel first discovered and proved the existence of
double stars by the observations made with his great telescopes
from 1780 to 1802; while the celebrated William Struve of Dorpat,
Russia, first carried on a systematic campaign for measuring over
three thousand double stars, 1825-1837, and published the results
in his famous Mensurae Micrometricae, Petersburg, 1838. Thus
Herschel had found out that double stars exist, and proved that
some of them are in motion; while Struve had investigated the
motions on an extensive scale, with a view to determining their
orbits. These were the two great epochs in double star astronomy,
and Schiaparelli declared that the third great epoch (troisieme
grande epoque) would be made by Dr. See's Researhes on the Evo-
lution of the Stellar Systems, by which the origin of these wonderful
systems would be explained.

What Schiaparelli predicted, in 1897, is now a matter of
history. For it is now universally recognized that Dr. See's
Researches have marked the third great epoch in double star as-
tronomy, and that it is fully as important as the original epoch
made by Sir William Herschel, or the later great epoch made by
the systematic observations of W. Struve, at Dorpat, and subse-
quently at Poulkowa. The classic achievements of Herschel and
Struve have been repeated in the different and much more difficult
line of Cosmogony by America's famous astronomer, T. J. J. See.





'P to the time Dr. See joined the Lowell Observatory he was
known chiefly as a mathematician and calculator of orbits
of double stars. As astronomers are in many cases, un-
fortunately, either mere observers with the telescope, and almost
without knowledge of the mathematical branches of the science,
or, on the other hand, mere mathematicians and equally devoid
of a practical knowledge of the heavens as derived from the use
of the telescope, Dr. See became impressed with the view that
to obtain a really deep knowledge of the universe as it is, one
must be both a mathematician and a telescopic explorer of the

Accordingly after careful consideration he deemed it ad-
visable to accept Professor Lowell's generous offer of an oppor-
tunity to survey the Southern Heavens. Some of the mathema-
ticians, such as Dr. G. W. Hill, of New York, probably thought
that Dr. See was making a mistake to give up his mathematical
researches, even temporarily, to do telescopic work; but Dr. See
had before him the example of the two Herschels, and wisely de-
cided that intimate knowledge of the heavens was as necessary
now as it was a century ago. He rightly believed that it is the
one-sidedness of most modern investigators that prevents them
from obtaining the breadth of view required for the greatest ad-
vances in science. Since Professor See's revolutionary work in


establishing a New Science of Cosmogony (1910), itis certain that
his intuition of 1896 was right; for no one but an astronomer of
the widest experience could have sustained this comprehensive
creative effort, which marks one of the greatest epochs in the
history of astronomy.

Before joining Professor Lowell at Flagstaff, Arizona, about
August 1, 1896, Dr. See spent some J:hree months, May to July,
at his home near Montgomery City. Prior to leaving Chicago he
had planned for the work of the department of astronomy, during
his absence, and had the work of instruction divided between Dr.
Laves and Mr. Moulton. Mr. Moulton was considered by Dr.
See one of his ablest students, and President Harper had appointed
him (Moulton) upon Dr. See's sole recommendation, without even
seeing the young man so great was the President's confidence
in any recommendation submitted by Dr. See.

While visiting his Mother at Montgomery City, in June, 1896,
Dr. See suffered a mild attack of typhoid fever. It lasted some
twenty days, and left him weak, and somewhat emaciated, though
not extremely so. Accordingly when he first joined the Lowell
Observatory he had not yet fully recovered, and had to begin
heavy work by easy stages.

Professor Lowell was accompanied to Arizona by two assist-
ants, Mr. A. E. Douglass, and Mr. D. A. Drew; Alvan G. Clark,
the telescope maker; a secretary, Miss W. L. Leonard; and Dr.
See and his assistant, Mr. W. A. Cogshall, who were occupied with
the double star work. Mr. Clark went along chiefly to see that
all was right with the lens as finally fitted in its cell. The party
reached Flagstaff, over the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail-
road, during the last week in July, Dr. See and Mr. Cogshall
coming two days later than the rest, owing to arrangements for
the shipping of books which he had to be made in Chicago, where
the party first assembled.

The town of Flagstaff is in a desert, on the high plateau of
Northern Arizona, about 7,000 feet above the sea, and the observ-
atory is on Mars' Hill about a mile west of the town. The astron-


omers had to live at some of the hotels*, and climb the hill of
some four hundred feet elevation in going to their observations.
The observatory is surrounded by a magnificient pine forest and
the location is beautiful, except for the dryness, which, however,
is necessary for the best conditions in the investigations of the
heavenly bodies. All astronomical observations have to be made
through the terrestrial atmosphere, and in order to secure steady
seeing the observatory ought to be in a dry climate, and also on
a high plateau, which is above the densest part of the atmosphere.
Such was the site selected by Professor Lowell for his Observatory
in Arizona, at which so much famous work has been done.

The citizens of Flagstaff were very appreciative of the Lowell
Observatory, in fact it was the pride of the whole territory. People
came from all over the southwest to visit the observatory, as well
as from Chicago, New York and Boston, and even from Europe.

Professor Lowell had great enthusiasm for his favorite study
of the planet Mars. Thousands upon thousands of drawings and
sketches were made and afterwards digested and discussed in the
Annals of the Lowell Observatory, as well as in more popular books.
In this way Professor Lowell not only made his observations, but
got them before the world in an impressive form. Accordingly
ever since 1894 Lowell has been generally recognized as the highest
authority on the observations of the surfaces of the planets.

Dr. See's work consisted in sweeping the southern heavens
for the discovery of new double stars. His zone of work began at
about fifteen and extended to about sixty-five degrees south decli-
nation. Accordingly it included over half the southern celestial
hemisphere, but of course a period of two years was not enough
time in which to make the survey exhaustive. The southern most
part of the work could only be done at the City of Mexico. The

* While living at the Grand Canon Hotel Dr. See had the serious misfortune
to lose his library, valuable correspondence and many personal effects by fire,
September 14, 1897. He had to flee from the burning building at three o'clock in
the morning, carrying the unpublished records of the Lowell Observatory under
one arm, and Bowditch's Translation of Laplace's M^canique Celeste under the
other the latter being deemed priceless among the valuable books of the library.


The telescope is here shown east of the pier, but in the Double Star work of Dr. See usually
was reversed, so as to be on the other side.


observatory was in Mexico city, however, only during the winter
months of 1896-7; the observations at that southernmost point
being all included within the months of January, February and
March, 1897. And hence by far the larger part of the double
star work was done at Flagstaff. Yet while at Mexico, the ex-
tremely favorable location, within nineteen degrees of the equator,
enabled Dr. See to reach all the stars of the Southern hemisphere
except those in the small cap within twenty-five degrees of the
South Pole; and it is needless to say that every moment of the
time available during the three months was utilized to the utmost.

At Flagstaff the double-star work often would begin at sun-
set, and extend till about eleven o'clock, when the Mars work
would have preference; and then, when several hours had been
devoted to Mars, the double-star work might be resumed again
towards daylight. This breaking of the double-star work into
two parts made it hard on Dr. See and Mr. Cogshall, but it was
not felt so severely except at the City of Mexico, where nearly every
night was clear, and no time could be lost, owing to the shortness
of the stay in that southern location. Accordingly, at Mexico
double stars had to be taken both morning and evening, of every
available night, and the observers always went home just as the
Southern Cross was fading away on the southern horizon, where

Online LibraryW. L. (William Larkin) WebbBrief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. → online text (page 6 of 28)