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AUTOBIOGRAPHY

The Edward Emerson Barnard Papers contain several different sets of autobiographical notes by the noted astronomer. These vignettes are written variously in first and third person. In addition to relating incidents from his childhood and career, they also give the reader a glimpse into the working mind of a man once reputed to be "the world's greatest living observer."

Photo Studio | Milky Way | Comet House | Lick Observatory | Yerkes Observatory


Childhood

His mother had been a widow three months when he was born on December 16, 1857.  She was an educated woman and an artist, but was frail in health and very, very poor.  This extreme poverty, intensified by the dreadful privations that fell upon the South during and just following the war, made the early youth of the subject of this sketch so sad and bitter that even now he cannot look back to it without a shudder.

His mother could not send him to school but she taught him to read out of the Bible, and this good book he read through when a mere child.  The writings of Josephus, the Jewish historian, had a fascination for him equaled only by the story of Robinson Crusoe, which he also read when quite small.  The delightful and wonderful stories of the Arabian nights lent their charm to his imagination, and an old volume of Scientific Discovery and Invention which he read among his first books perhaps had some influence in turning his mind to the wonders of science.

Later an old copy of Nicholas Nickleby gave him his first taste and love of Dickens.

Photo Studio | Top

One day his mother came across a photograph bearing the name of a photographer in Nashville which recalled a young man she had befriended in her better days long ago in Ohio.  She called upon him and found that he was really the same person.  [Mr. Van Stavoren, c1866 or 1867] This photographer was in need of a small boy to run errands and to watch a big solar camera stationed upon the roof of the gallery.  This great instrument had been a source of much apprehension and annoyance.  It was necessary to keep it moving precisely with the motion of the sun.  If it deviated much from the solar motion the intense heat collected by the great condensing lens and brought to a focus would touch the wooded part of the instrument and set it and the house on fire.  The boys that had previously attended the great camera had nearly burned the house up several times by going to sleep in the warm sunshine.  “But will your boy keep awake?” asked the photographer after explaining the difficulties.  “My son will not go to sleep!” replied the mother with confidence.  And he never did go to sleep while on duty.  Through summer’s heat and winter’s cold he stood upon the roof of that house and kept the great instrument directed to the sun.  It was sleepy work and required great patience and endurance for one so young, and at this distant day he realizes that this training doubtless developed those qualities – patience, care and endurance – so necessary to an astronomer’s success and which has stood him in such good stead in all his scientific work.

There are coincidences in every person’s life some of which are ordinary and attract no attention and others that have an important bearing upon one’s future.  To those who are familiar with the astronomical work of our subject, the name that had been bestowed upon this instrument by its owner will have a peculiar significance.  The photographer was certainly not learned in astronomy.  He knew there were planets and he knew the names of some of them.  He liked to name everything that he had.  Since this great instrument’s main duty was to do obeisance to the sun, what name more appropriate than that of one of the planets?  It was a mere selection at random, and so the photographer had incidentally named it “Jupiter”!  Little thought the poor child when he was put in charge of “Jupiter” that his own name would forever be linked with that of the mighty planet which it represented!

While he worked as errand boy and solar printer, he developed his first ambition, and that was to become a sign painter.  He was constantly trying to make letters like those on the signs he saw when on his way to and from work.  In this he became quite proficient and frequently painted signs for the gallery in which he worked.  This ambition soon developed into a greater one.  He longed to become an artist and to sketch figures, etc.  He became an ardent admirer of Nast and studied his work and sketched until he thought he could do pretty well in this line.  This ambition, however, was suddenly quenched by coming into contact with a trained artist – a young Englishman who was engaged to come to work in the gallery.  In comparing his work with that of the young Englishman he came to the conclusion that he was not born to be an artist.

His faithful watch of the great solar camera on the house top had taught him several things about the motion of the sun and these set him to thinking.  The camera was mounted so that two motions were necessary to make it follow the sun – a vertical motion and a horizontal motion – two hand wheels controlled these motions.  The process whereby the sun was followed, was to move the instrument west with the one wheel and vertically with the other.  He knew that the sun attained its greatest altitude at noon.  He amused himself by determining when noon had arrived by the fact that then he ceased to raise the instrument to follow the sun.  He also established a noon mark by the aid of the shadow of a chimney.  But he was surprised soon to find that neither of these signs agreed for any length of time with the noon ringing of the bell in a Catholic church nearby – sometimes the noon, as indicated by the highest altitude of the sun or by his noon mark, was too soon and at other times too late according to the church bell – the difference sometimes amounting to a considerable fraction of an hour.  This set him to thinking and wondering, but it was many years afterwards before he found out the explanation of this singular phenomenon, which was due to the equation of time.

During his work with this great camera the total eclipse of August 7, 1869 occurred.  Though the eclipse was not total at Nashville, the sun was so nearly hidden that the spectacle presented some of the awe and sublimity of the total phase, and went far to increase his wonder at the phenomena of Nature.  Among the earliest recollections that he can recall was one of his early childhood when he was given to lying prone on his back in an old wagon bed after dark and looking up at the stars.  One of these stars, a very bright one, which during the summer months shone directly overhead in the early hours of the evening, especially attracted his attention.  He always knew this star afterwards, though it was many, many years later in life before he knew it by the name of Vega.

While employed in the gallery as an attendant and satellite to the great “Jupiter” he often noticed in his long walks homeward in the early night an ordinary yellowish star which, to his surprise, seemed to be slowly moving eastward among the other stars.  This attracted his attention because in all the time he had noticed the stars, though they came and went with the seasons, they seemed all to keep their same relative positions.  This one must be quite difference from the others though it resembled them in appearance.  He watched it night after night and saw that though it moved eastward with reference to the other stars, it also partook of their general drift westward and was finally lost with them in the rays of the sun.  In later years when he had become more familiar with astronomy it occurred to him to look up this moving star, and he found then that what had attracted his boyish attention was the wonderful ringed world of Saturn.

Milky Way | Top

The first clear night after receiving my large telescope, I sat out on the roof of a three story house all night long, surrounded by ice and snow, the night being bitterly cold.  After exploring the wonders of the moon until it sank from view beneath the western horizon, my telescope sought the Milky Way.  Here amid the splendors of that nightly zone of stars, I spent hour after hour sweeping among its marvelous fields of glittering suns, never wearying of the wonders constantly presented with each movement of the telescope, but gaining additional enthusiasm as the night drew apace.  Nor did I forget the many double stars and clusters I had learned with my smaller instrument for they were each examined and I wondered at the beautiful contrasts of color in some of the binary systems and the myriads of stars revealed in the clusters that I had but dimly seen before with the small telescope.  But from these lesser lights my telescope constantly swung back to the Milky Way, again to gaze on that “broad and ample road where dust is stars.”  So enraptured was I with these glimpses of the Creator’s works that I heeded not the cold nor the loneliness of the night.  And when the approaching dawn began to whiten the eastern skies, I sought out the great planet Jupiter, then only just emerging from the solar rays, and beheld with rapture his four bright moons and vast belt system.  But when the dawn had paled each stellar fire the coldness of the night forcibly impressed itself upon me and I retired from the field of glory.

The Comet House | Top

Times were hard in the last of the seventies and the first of the eighties, and money was scarce.  It had taken all that I could save to buy my small telescope.  Then came the blessing of taking a partner for life and the renewed struggle to save something with the addition of a cheerful helper in the matter.  I had been searching for comets for upward of a year with no success when a prize of two hundred dollars for the discovery of each new comet was offered by the founder of the Warner Observatory, through the urgency of Dr. Lewis Swift, its director.  Soon after this it befell that I found a new comet and was awarded this prize.  Then came the question, “What shall we do with this money?”  After due deliberation it was decided that we would try to get a home of our own with it.  I had always longed for such a home, where one could plant trees and watch them grow up and call them his own.  So we bought a lot with part of the money.  This small lot was on what was afterwards known as Belmont Avenue, but which was then not even a dirt road.  It was hard to find the lot after it was bought, for it was out in the open commons.  The place was in the midst of a scattering settlement of negro shanties where the negroes had “squatted” after the war, though on beautiful rising ground which I had selected in part because it gave me a clear horizon with my telescope.  After some saving and some borrowing and mainly a mortgage on the lot, we built a little frame cottage, where my mother, my wife, and I went to live.  Those were happy days, though the struggle for life was a hard one, with working from early to late for the means of a bare existence and the hope of paying off the mortgage, and sitting up all the rest of the twenty-four hours hunting for comets.

We could look forward only with dread to the meeting of the notes that must come due.  However, the hand of Providence seemed to hover over our heads; for when the first note came due a faint comet was discovered wandering along the outskirts of creation, and the money went to meet the payments.  And this continued after we had gone to other scenes.  The faithful comet, like the goose that laid the golden egg, conveniently timed its appearance to coincide with the advent of those dreadful notes.  And thus it finally came that this house was built entirely out of comets.  This fact goes to prove further the great error of those scientific men who figure that a comet is but a flimsy affair after all, infinitely more rare than the “breath of the morning;”  for here was a strong, compact house – albeit a small one – built entirely out of them.  True it took several good-sized comets to do it; but it was done nevertheless.

I have always been greatly interested in comets.  These remarkable bodies, which sometimes sweep across the heavens with their wonderful trains of light, and which in all ages have been subjects of superstition and terror, are among the most interesting in the heavens.  Little by little the mystery attached to them is being solved.  This has been done mainly through the aid of photography.  Much of the physical phenomena of the tails of comets is too faint to be seen with the eye, although it may be aided by a powerful telescope; but the photographic plate secures a permanent record of these in all their complexity and beauty.  These photographs show that the form and other peculiarities of a comet’s tail are often utterly transformed from night to night.  It is therefore highly important that a continuous series of photographs should be obtained of every active comet that can be observed, for their phenomena is as evanescent as smoke itself.

Lick Observatory | Top

In 1892, at the Lick Observatory, I was engaged in photographing a comet (Swift’s) then visible in the morning sky just before daylight.  Every morning’s picture increased the interest and importance of the work.  Unfortunately I had arranged for a lecture in the Normal School in San José for the night of May 6.  I did not want to disappoint the people, and I certainly could not let the comet go by unphotographed.  San José was nearly a mile below us in vertical height and twenty-seven miles distant by stage road.  The only possible way for me to secure the photograph and not disappoint my audience was to return to Mt. Hamilton that night after the lecture.  At ten o’clock I hired a horse and buggy in San José and drove up that lonely mountain road, the journey taking five hours, and arrived at the summit at three o’clock in the morning in time to make the photograph of the comet.  The picture that I got proved to be a very important one, as the comet was then undergoing the most remarkable changes.  I must say that there were a good many thrills passed over me during that lonely mountain ride in the dead of night – some for the chance that I might drive over into a canyon to death, and others for the possible interruption of my terrestrial existence through an encounter with some hungry, roaming mountain lion.  In the main, the journey was a most impressive one.  Alone in the mountains, with only the horse in front and my friends the stars above me, I doubt if my courage had not failed me entirely if the friendly stars had not encouraged me with their presence.

Yerkes Observatory | Top

In the great dome of the Yerkes Observatory is placed the largest refracting telescope in the world.  The tube of this instrument is about sixty-four feet long.  In the farther end of this tube is placed the great object glass, forty inches clear in aperture.  This lens alone cost $60,000.  When one is looking overhead with this giant telescope, he must be at a point some thirty feet or more lower than when the tube is pointed at the horizon.  To avoid the use of a high ladder to reach the observing end of the telescope in its various positions, the floor of the dome itself is made into a giant elevator, sixty-five feet in diameter.  The raising and lowering of this floor – which is done with electric motors – always keeps the observer in a convenient and safe position with reference to the eye end.  This floor is suspended by heavy steel cables which go over wheels at the tops of four towers attached to the inside walls of the dome.  The floor is counterpoised by heavy iron weights at the other ends of the cables. 

Within a little over a week after the completion of the instrument, and when he had only seen through it once or twice, the two south cables pulled out of their sockets and the floor fell through fifty feet to the ground and was destroyed.  It was a terrible wreck.  This was on the morning of May 29, 1897, at 6:30 o’clock.  Mr. Ellerman and I had been working all night observing with the telescope.  When we quit at daylight, we left the floor at its highest point for the convenience of some workmen who were to be at work on the tube in the morning.  When the floor fell there was not a soul in the building, and no one was injured.  A couple of hours either way and death in all probability would have come to one or the other of us.  Only a few nights before this accident the President of the University of Chicago and thirty or more trustees and prominent men of the university had seen through the telescope, and the floor had been up and down with them on it.  If it had fallen then, a heavy loss of life would have been almost certain.  A few days before that Mr. Clark, who made the great glass, had unpacked the forty-inch disks on the floor at its highest point, and had put them in the cell which he finally bolted to the end of the telescope.  If the floor had fallen then, the great lens would have been destroyed, with the probability that no one would be able to make another, for Mr. Clark died within a few days after he returned to Cambridge.  It was providential, then, that the floor fell when it did; for the fault in the attachment of the cables made it certain that it must soon have fallen.

But this is not the end of the story.  When the floor fell it lurched against the great iron pier of the telescope, and must have given it a violent blow.  There was some fear that the great glass might have been injured by the shock.  It was nearly a hundred feet up in the air, and could not be gotten at to see if it was safe.  By climbing up on the dome (which is one hundred and ten feet high) and looking down at the glass, it was seen to be apparently uninjured.  Still the test could only be made by examining the stars through it, which was not possible until the floor was replaced by a new one.  Four months were occupied in taking out the wreck and putting in a new floor.  There was great anxiety to see the sky through the glass, and the first night available it was turned to the stars.  To our consternation there was a great, long flare of light running through every bright star we examined.  This was so strong and conspicuous that it would make the instrument utterly useless.  It looked as if the lens had been injured by the shock of the floor [striking] against the pier.  We examined it in all positions of the instrument, but we could not get rid of this glaring defect.  As I had used the glass more than anyone else before the accident, my statement that the defect did not then exist made the matter all the more serious. 

It was with heavy hearts that we waited for day to again critically examine the lens.  The next day we all examined the great glass very carefully, but could not see anything wrong with it.  Then Professor Hale noticed that just back of the glass in the tube was a thick mass of spider webs, stretched across the tube, all running in the same direction.  Upon comparing notes we found that the direction of the spider webs coincided with that of the flare of light seen the night before.  It seemed that a spider had evidently got in the tube before the object glass was put on by Clark, and had been unable to get out; for there was no opening in the tube.  During the time the tube remained at rest, while the new floor was being put in, he had climbed up to the great glass in the direction of the light; and when he found his egress barred by the great window and as the days went by and he slowly starved to death, he spun his web, perhaps as a signal of distress, or maybe in hope that some unlucky fly might get in through the glass that he could not get out of – anyway with the result that he caused several astronomers the most uneasy time of their lives; for when those webs were swept out by one of the astronomers climbing up in the tube with a feather duster, it was found that night, when the stars were examined, that the flare had vanished and the mighty glass was uninjured.