Moments in Academy History

William Wallace Campbell

1931-1935 NAS President

The next president was the astronomer William Wallace Campbell (1862–1938), who held office between 1931 and 1935. He entered the University of Michigan as an undergraduate with the intention of majoring in some form of engineering but shifted his interest to astronomy as a result of attending some very inspiring lectures on the subject. He obtained a bachelor's degree in 1886. He had much mathematical ability and spent the following two years at the University of Colorado as an instructor in mathematics.

In the meantime, the Lick Observatory in California had become operable (1888). It had been built with funds provided by James Lick (1796–1876), the wealthy California pioneer. Campbell began spending summers at the Observatory, joining its fulltime staff in 1891. He had several specialties. He made a practice of photographing the position of stars during total eclipses and used deviations to confirm the predictions of the general theory of relativity. He spent some thirty years measuring the radial velocity of some 1,000 stars, a tedious process, thereby establishing the spatial drift of the solar system.

Campbell was made president of the University of California at Berkeley in 1923 and was elected president of the Academy in 1931 at a time he began experiencing bad health that affected his eyesight. To simplify his work with the Academy, he gave up the presidency of the University of California. He and his wife moved to Washington where he remained until 1935. Being severely depressed by his ever-failing eyesight, he decided to take his life in 1938.

The relationship between the government and the Academy had reached sufficiently low ebb in the mid-l930s that Campbell had established an Academy committee carrying the designation Government Relations and Science Advisory Committee that attempted to stimulate activities of mutual interest. Unfortunately it was not very successful, in keeping with the dismal temper of the times.

James Lick
James Lick (pictured right) deserves mention. He was a Pennsylvania Dutchman who apprenticed in a factory in Baltimore that manufactured pianos. His family name was Lueck, which he simplified for practical reasons. In the course of events, he noted that not infrequently a dray would carry a number of pianos to the loading docks. On inquiring about the destination of the shipments, he learned that it was South America, which lacked a manufacturer. As soon as he had mastered the trade, he set off for South America and created several factories. It was a very dangerous time of revolution and crime, but he rapidly learned to deal with the turbulence by creating a small private army of his own to protect him and his properties.

He was in Lima, Peru, when the United States acquired California in 1848. He sold all his factories for gold and arrived in San Francisco with about $30,000 in hand, just before the discovery of gold in California. In the process he persuaded a local manufacturer of chocolate candy in Lima named Ghirardelli, a very good friend, to join him in going to California. On arriving there Lick promptly purchased all the real estate his money could buy, presumably much from fleeing Mexican landowners. His experience in South America had taught him how to fend off squatters and thieves so he was soon one of the wealthiest individuals in California. Along the way he became known as “the generous miser” since his public-oriented charities were numerous and well appreciated by the community. Most survive to the present time.

Toward the end of his life Lick wondered what to do with the remainder of his substantial wealth after taking care of his existing charities and the security of special relatives who had joined him. There is a legend that he considered erecting a pyramid rivaling those in Egypt, but this seems out of keeping with his rock-bottom practical nature, as well as the potentiality of even his riches. Finally, he decided to use his remaining fortune to support the construction of the largest refracting telescope in the world at the time, twice the diameter of any existing one, and place it on Mount Hamilton, near San Jose, California. He also planned to be buried under it. And that is what happened. An announcement of the decision was made in 1873.

Lick had been only very marginally interested in science during his lifetime so there has been a reasonable amount of speculation about the factors that finally influenced him to create what became the Lick Observatory, now attached to the University of California. The historical records show that Joseph Henry first made the proposal. It is also possible that Benjamin Gould added stimulus during a visit the latter made to California after returning from his great research program in Argentina, to be discussed below. There is no doubt, however that a major factor in the process was his close friendship with Professor George Davidson, mentioned earlier, another quite remarkable member of the Academy who used astronomical telescopes both for pleasurable star gazing and as a working tool.

George Davidson
George Davidson (1825–1911) was born in England into a seafaring family of Scots. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was seven years old, and his formal basic education occurred there, partly in the  hands of his family. He did, however, enter the Central High School of Philadelphia where he graduated at the head of his class in 1845. Alexander Bache, who was principal of the school for a portion of the period, noted this exceptionally capable youth and employed him part time to observe meteors and record their arrival. When Davidson graduated, Bache took him on as a junior member of the staff of the Coastal Survey to continue observational work.

In 1849, Davidson was transferred to the California Hydrological Survey in the newly acquired western lands then under naval command. They studied and surveyed San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River and issued a report useful for navigation in 1850. They then continued a survey of the foggy northern coast and, along with the production of useful basic maps of hazardous areas, gave recommendations for the positioning of lighthouses. They were faced with hostile Indian tribes in the course of this work and, while dealing with their normal physical problems, were required to employ arms on occasion. In 1854, after completing the activity along the northern coast and extending it to Monterey and the South, they returned East to prepare a very useful directory of the Pacific Coast that became available in 1857. About this time, the possibility that the Southern States might start a civil war loomed on the horizon. Davidson, who had become a close confident of Bache, was shifted to secret work involving the planning of matters such as the defense of Philadelphia and the Delaware River and the security of Florida.

In 1867, following the Civil War, Davidson was sent to Panama to explore the feasibility of constructing a canal there. He did not encourage immediate action. Soon thereafter the possibility of purchasing  Alaska from Russia arose, and he was asked to lead a group to appraise the situation, a task for which he was ideally suited. He had learned over the years that it was generally useful to cultivate the  friendship of local Indians in the course of such explorations. In this case, that practice proved to be especially beneficial because he soon succeeded in forming a friendship with a Chief who knew many essential details about Alaska and provided him with valuable information not otherwise available, even from the Russians. Davidson supported the purchase.

In 1868, Davidson was forty-three years old. A decision was made to place him permanently in charge of the Coastal Survey in California, a position he retained until his retirement in 1895. He rapidly became the most prominent scientist in the state. He received an honorary appointment as professor of astronomy and geodesy at the University of California and lectured there regularly. He soon was a much-admired celebrity in San Francisco. The highest hill in that hilly city was named after him (Mount Davidson). Beyond this and receiving many honorary awards, both national and international, he  represented our country on a number of international commissions in his areas of expertise. Seamen revered him for what he had done to make voyages along the coast safer. His general popularity was further enhanced when he set up a 6.4 inch refracting telescope for public viewing in a local park and supported it with accompanying lectures in astronomy. He formed a warm friendship with James Lick who left the issue of the planning and construction of the Lick Observatory in his hands. Lick particularly admired him as an individual who would devote his life to public service and did not focus on the accumulation of wealth.

It is important to add that Davidson developed two major baselines for mapping California with the use of triangulation. One was placed in Yolo County northeast of San Francisco. It was about 175 kilometers long and estimated to be accurate to within less than a centimeter. The other, of comparable accuracy, was situated in the vicinity of Los Angeles. Among many other things, he used the first to locate a point on the top of nearby Mount Tamalpais. About ten years later, an individual who had made an independent measurement of the location of the point on the mountain claimed that the asserted accuracy of Davidson's baseline was faulty. When Davidson was asked about the counter claim, he said: “My statements about the accuracy of my baseline are right. Mount Tamalpais has just managed to move a bit.” The great earthquake of 1906 made it clear that the Coast Range is measurably mobile.

Benjamin Gould
Benjamin Gould (1824–1896), mentioned above, was a New Englander, the leading American astronomer of his day and a founding member of the Academy. He had started his career by using telegraph signals to determine values of longitude at various positions on earth while employed by the Coastal Survey. He also pioneered the use of photography in the positioning of stars. His greatest work was to develop a stellar catalogue in South America using Cordoba in Argentina as a base. He had spent time at Goettingen University where he was offered the chair that had been occupied by Gauss, but he
turned it down.

Continue reading next chapter: Frank Rattray Lillie

Return to: A Selection of Highlights from the History of the National Academy of Sciences, 1863 - 2005

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