Lighthouses of—and in—the Sky

Robert A. Brown,

What U. S. politician most passionately promoted astronomy? The answer must be John Quincy Adams (JQA). As historian Samuel Flagg Bemis writes of our sixth president (1825–1830):

A scholar in the White House is a pleasing image, if not too frequent a fact of American history….  During the nineteenth century, after the passing of the talents of the Revolution, there was only one American President who was a notable sponsor of learning:  that was John Quincy Adams. He continued the role even more strongly during his public service after he left the White House….

The long winter nights of four years at the Court of St. Petersburg sharpened an interest in the mysteries of the firmament that sparkled so mightily over the vast realm of Russia, and he began to study astronomy. His curiosity about the movements of the heavenly bodies continued during the peaceful years of his London mission in the idyllic residence at Ealing, hard by the Meridian of Greenwich. He made himself familiar with the works of Newton, Schubert, Lalande, Biol, and Lacroix and other standard treatises of the day. Astronomy and mathematics appeared to him as the keys that would somehow unlock illimitable reaches of science and its application to human welfare….

President John Quincy Adams, with his developing interest in science, tried to take the lead in his program for …the physical and moral improvement of mankind, including advancement of knowledge and learning. For such a program a national university and a national observatory seemed like noble and shining instruments….1

In 1823, John Quincy Adams (JQA) pledged $1000 to Harvard University to fund a professorship of astronomy and an observatory, which opened at last in 1839 with JQA serving on the committee of the Board of Overseers that supervised it.2 The 15-inch “Grand Refractor” of Harvard College Observatory would see first light 1847.

In 1825, in his first annual address to the Congress, JQA proposed a national observatory:

Connected with the establishment of a university, or separate from it, might be undertaken the erection of an astronomical observatory, with provision for the support of an astronomer, to be in constant attendance of observation upon the phenomena of the heavens; and for the periodical publication of his observations. It is with no feeling of pride, as an American, that the remark may be made that, on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe, there are existing upward of one hundred and thirty of these lighthouses of the skies; while throughout the whole American hemisphere there is not one. If we reflect a moment upon the discoveries which, in the last four centuries, have been made in the physical constitution of the universe by the means of these buildings, and of observers stationed in them, shall we doubt of their usefulness to every nation? And while scarcely a year passes over our heads without bringing some new astronomical discovery to light, which we must fain receive at second-hand from Europe, are we not cutting ourselves off from the means of returning light for light, while we have neither observatory nor observer upon our half of the globe, and the earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes?3