Reference Work Entry

Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

pp 833-836


Gould, Benjamin Apthorp

  • Trudy E. BellAffiliated withHigh-Performance AstroComputing Center, University of California Email author 

Born Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 27 September 1824

Died Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 26 November 1896

Benjamin Apthorp Gould founded the Astronomical Journal, copioneered with Lewis Rutherfurd the application of photography to astrometry (the determination of the positions of the stars and planets), headed the effort to use the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable to determine the longitude difference between Boston and Liverpool, and created the first comprehensive catalogs of Southern Hemisphere stars. Along the way, Gould was the first director of the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York, one of the original members of the National Academy of Sciences established by the US Congress in 1863, and a founder and first director of the National Observatory at Córdoba, Argentina.

The eldest of four children born to Benjamin Apthorp Gould, Sr. and Lucretia Dana Goddard, Gould was precocious, reading aloud by age 3, composing Latin odes by age 5, and giving lectures on electricity by age 10. After primary schooling, he attended the Boston Latin School, graduating at age 16 and entering Harvard College. While studying the classics, Gould became interested in biology and astronomy, taking courses from astronomer Benjamin Peirce .

In 1844, Gould graduated from Harvard college at age 19 with a distinction in mathematics and physics, along with membership in Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching classical languages for a year at the Roxbury Latin School, he decided to pursue a career in science. Upon the advice of Sears Walker , a family friend and mathematical astronomer, Gould decided to spend time in Europe mastering modern languages and European scientific methods.

His 3-year trip from 1845 to 1848 became the defining event of Gould’s life. Family connections provided him with letters of introduction to eminent scholars, with whom he established lifelong correspondence. He worked at the Royal Greenwich Observatory with Astronomer Royal George Airy , and at the Paris Observatory with Dominique Arago and Jean Biot . But Gould found his true intellectual home in Germany, where he worked with Johann Encke at the Berlin Observatory and studied mathematics at the University of Göttingen under the supervision of Carl Gauss . In 1848, armed with a new doctorate in astronomy and fluent in Spanish, French, and German, Gould meandered home via the observatory in Altona. There, he spent 4 months with Heinrich Schumacher , founder and editor of the Astronomische Nachrichten, then the foremost international astronomical research journal. It is still being published, though no longer so important.

Upon his return, Gould became depressed with the United States’ lack of adequate research libraries and interest in learning foreign languages. He vowed to improve the state of astronomy at home. In 1849, with his own funds, Gould founded the Astronomical Journal, the first scholarly United States research journal of astronomy in the spirit of the Astronomische Nachrichten and in deliberate contrast to the short-lived popular monthly Sidereal Messenger (1846–1848) published by Ormsby Mitchel of the Cincinnati Observatory. So committed was Gould to his mission of improving American astronomy that in 1851, despite the struggling finances of the Astronomical Journal, he turned down an offer from Gauss of a professorship at Göttingen and its promise of becoming director of the Göttingen Observatory.

Meanwhile, through his former Harvard college mentor Benjamin Peirce , Gould had become part of the scientific Lazzaroni, a small group of American scientists who shared similar visions for improving the international standing of American scientific research. Among them was Alexander Bache , head of the United States Coast Survey. In 1852, Bache hired Gould to head the Coast Survey’s telegraphic determination of longitudes, succeeding Walker who was terminally ill.

Gould remained with the Coast Survey for 15 years, while continuing to publish the Astronomical Journal and pursuing other astronomical work. Following his German mentors, his work focused on the positions and motions of heavenly bodies, emphasizing mathematical rigor and quantification of sources of error. In 1856, he analyzed the determination of the solar parallax made by four temporary observatories south of the Equator. In 1862, he collated a century of observations of the positions of 176 stars from different observatories into a single catalog, which became widely adopted. In 1866, Gould led the Coast Survey’s effort to determine the longitude difference between the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory using the first successful transatlantic telegraph cables. He also quantified observers’ personal equations and extended Walker’s work in measuring the velocity of telegraph signals.

In 1861, Gould married the former Mary Apthorp Quincy, fathering five children. She helped finance a private observatory near Cambridge, from which he made meridian observations of faint stars near the North Celestial Pole between 1864 and 1867. In 1866, Gould experimented with Rutherfurd in applying the new technology of photography to astrometry and using a micrometer to measure stellar positions on a photographic plate instead of at the telescope’s eyepiece.

Gould also suffered notable failures. In 1855, he became an advisor to the fledgling Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York; his Coast Survey connection was helpful in providing the observatory with instruments and observers. The trustees agreed to bear the financial costs of the Astronomical Journal, so its headquarters were moved from Cambridge to Albany in 1857, followed by Gould himself in 1858 after he became the Observatory’s first director. Pursuing his vision to establish a world-class German-style research Observatory, Gould traveled to Europe to order equipment. The trustees felt the observatory and its telescopes should be opened to the general public, however, which Gould refused. Annoyed by delays in the equipment and unforeseen expenses, the trustees accused Gould of arrogance and incompetence. The standoff degenerated into a vicious newspaper campaign, at the end of which Gould was forcibly ejected from the director’s house in 1859.

This highly public controversy polarized the American astronomical community. Moreover, Gould failed both in 1859 and in 1866 to become director of the Harvard College Observatory. He alienated his former mentor Peirce, who became director of the Coast Survey after Bache’s death, a circumstance that compelled Gould to quit his job of 15 years. Gould’s unyielding and antagonistic behavior and his emotional peaks and valleys have led recent historians to speculate that Gould might have suffered from bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.

The 43-year-old Gould’s astronomical career thus seemed over in 1867, but a saving circumstance intervened. Gould had long been aware that there was no comprehensive precision catalog of Southern Hemisphere stars. In 1865, he had approached the Argentine government through its minister in Washington, to explore the possibility of founding a private observatory in Córdoba, a location free from both coastal hurricanes and earthquakes. Luckily for Gould, the minister was Domingo Fautino Sarmiento, a man zealous to improve his nation’s intellectual attainment. Sarmiento offered to cover much of the expense if Gould would establish a national observatory for Argentina. By 1868, Sarmiento himself had become Argentina’s president, and funds for a national observatory had been approved by the Argentine Congress.

In 1870, Gould left for Argentina with his wife and children. What he originally envisioned as a 3-year stint eventually stretched out to 15. Before the observatory’s main instruments arrived, Gould and his assistants cataloged all of the naked-eye stars visible in the Southern Hemisphere. In so doing, they established the existence of Gould’s belt of bright stars that intersected the plane of the Milky Way at an angle of 20°, leading Gould to conclude that our solar system was removed from the principal plane of the Milky Way. After the observatory’s main instruments were installed, Gould and his staff measured the positions of 73,160 stars between −23° and −80° declination in his zone catalogs, and 32,448 in the more precise general catalog. These results were published as the Resultados del Observatorio Nacional Argentino in Córdoba, 15 volumes of which appeared between 1877 and Gould’s death. This massive effort laid the groundwork for the authoritative Córdoba Durchmusterung catalog of southern stars, compiled by Gould’s successors, John Thome and Charles Perrine .

Gould also acquired 1,099 photographic plates, which he measured after returning to the United States; those results were published posthumously. Gould participated in other observations, including the transit of Venus in 1882. Moreover, he organized the Argentine National Meteorological Office, establishing a nationwide system of 25 weather stations extending from the Andes to the Atlantic, and from the tropics to Tierra del Fuego.

Gould’s life in Argentina was also marked with tragedy. His two eldest daughters drowned at a family birthday picnic, and his wife died in 1883 during a brief visit to the United States. Gould never fully recovered.

About a month after he returned to the United States for good in 1885, Gould was formally greeted by a banquet at the Hotel Vendôme in Boston that included scores of distinguished scientists, some of whom had formerly shunned him after the Dudley Observatory debacle. In 1886, Gould resumed publication of the Astronomical Journal (suspended since 1861 by the Civil War and Gould’s time in Argentina). He died 2 h after falling down the stairs of his home.

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