Reference Work Entry

Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

pp 521-522


Davis, Charles Henry

Born Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 16 January 1807

Died Washington, District of Columbia, USA, 18 February 1877

Davis, Charles. Courtesy of United States Naval Observatory

In producing the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, Charles Davis successfully argued that basic research on planetary motions was a necessity.

Davis was educated at Boston Latin School, and graduated from Harvard University in 1825. He had left college in 1823, however, to enter the United States Navy, and was made lieutenant in 1827. After about 17 years of sea duty, he was assigned to the United States Coast Survey in April 1842, and undertook hydrographic work. Davis is best known as the first superintendent of the American Nautical Almanac Office, 1849–1855. Although his role as the founder of the office has been exaggerated at the expense of Matthew Maury , Davis certainly played a key role as the first superintendent, and again from 1859 to 1861.

Davis was also the third superintendent of the Naval Observatory (1865–1867), and again from 1874 until his death in 1877. In this capacity, he revived astronomy at the observatory in the post-Civil-War years, and became involved in preparations for the American expeditions for the transit of Venus, among much other administrative and scientific work. Davis also served with Joseph Henry and Alexander Bache on the permanent Commission that led to the founding of the National Academy of Sciences [NAS] in 1863. He achieved the rank of commander in 1854, commodore in 1862, and rear admiral in 1863; the latter two ranks were granted while he was actively engaged in the Civil War.

Davis’s son, Captain Charles H. Davis II, also served as superintendent of the Naval Observatory at the turn of the century. The biography of his father, which he wrote, is informative, but must be read keeping in mind that it is a family-written biography. Davis’s papers relating to the American Nautical Almanac Office may be found in the records of the United States Naval Observatory, Record Group 78, National Archives, Washington, DC, and in the Naval Historical Foundation Collections of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

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