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Barnard, Edward Emerson

Barnard, Edward Emerson

(b. Nashville, Tennessee, 16 December 1857; d. Williams Bay, wisconsin, 6 February 1923)


The second son of Reuben and Elizabeth Jane Haywood Barnard, Edward was born after the death of his father. He had only two months of formal schooling. In 1866, when not quite nine years old, he was sent to work in a portrait studio to help support his impoverished family. During the seventeen years he worked in this studio, Barnard became familiar with photography, which was gradually replacing painting as a portrait medium and which he was to exploit fully in later astronomical activity. Quite independently he developed a strong interest in astronomy during these years and made a name for himself as a comet seeker of extraordinary zeal and skill. In 1881 he married Rhoda Calvert, a sister of two English artists employed in the same portrait studio.

From 1883 to 1887 Barnard was associated with Vanderbilt University as both student and instructor. There he benefited from formal training, in a somewhat irregular curriculum dictated by the peculiar combination of his lack of previous schooling and the special requirements necessary for him to develop his astronomical potential. Since this training did not constitute a regular course of studies, he received no degree, although six years after leaving the university, he was given the D. Sc. in recognition of his many scientific contributions—particularly his brilliant discovery of Jupiter’s fifth satellite—and his earlier studies. Bernard’s personal life was marked by great modesty, unselfishness, and tolerance, no doubt engendered by his own struggle with distress and adversity. He was universally respected and loved, for he formed warm and enduring friendships. In his scientific writings he demonstrated the same tolerance and understanding, giving due credit to the work of others, even when he did not agree with them.

It can safely be said in retrospect that Barnard was the for most observational astronomer of his time. ranking with Sir William Herschel in the range of his contributions and in the peculiar intuitive genius and native instinct that formal training may discipline and supplement, but never supplant. Hardly a branch of astronomy was not enriched by his attention, and his accomplishments in any one field would have sufficed for wide recognition. Barnard was primarily an observer, making use of his insatiable curiosity, keen perception, and sound judgment; his vision and his intimate familiarity with the sky are legendary. Ever impatient to catch any moment of clear sky and irate when clouds interfered, he was infinitely patient at the most demanding, tedious, or uncomfortable observational tasks. He was not a theorist, but his discoveries and subsequent studies of them were marked by original and imaginative interpretation.

Throughout his scientific career, Barnard was honored by learned societies and was the recipient of numerous awards and medals, including the Lalande gold medal of the French academy of Sciences (1892), the Arago gold medal of the French Academy of Sciences (1893), the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronmical Society (1897), the Janssen gold medal of the French academy of Sciences (1900), the Janssen Prize of the French Astronomical Society (1906), and the Bruce gold medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1917). He was vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1898), a foreign associate of the Royal Astronomical Society, a member of the Americdan Academy of Arts and Sciences, director of the B. A. Gould Fund of the National Academy of Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society. In addition. Barnard was thrice awarded the Donohoe comet medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1901 and 1902. Previously he had been awarded this medal for a comet discovery in 1889, but he declined it, pointing out that the comet was a rediscovery of a known comet, d’Arrest’s comet. On five occasions he received a $200 prize given by H. H. Warner, of Rochester, New York (a manufacturer of patent medicine who endowed the Warner Observatory in Rochester) for each discovery of a new comet by an American observer. These cash prizes, coming at a crucial stage in his very early career, did much to encourage Barnard.

Barnard’s scientific career may be conveniently broken it no four periods: before 1883, and enthusiastic amateur working with his own five-inch telescope; 1883 to 1887, at Vanderbilt University, using the six-inch telescoope; 1888 to 1895, at the Lick Observatory; and 1895 to 1923, at the Yerkes Observatory.

It is impossible to fix any date for Barnard’s first astronomical experience, but it is clear that even as a child he was aware of and fascinated by the sky. His earliest recollections were recorded in an article he wrote for the Christian Advocate (Nashville, Tennessee, 5 July 1907. pp. 23–28), in which he described his childhood familiarity with the stars, their patterns in the sky, and their seasonal disappearance and reappearance. It is of interest, although of no scientific importance, that as a child barnard unknowingly discovered the equation of time (the difference between the position of the actual sun and of a fictitious sun moving uniformly across the sky). His account of this discovery is to be found in the same Christian Advocate article referred to above.

In 1876, as Barnard’s attention was increasingly focused on astronomy, he purchased a five-inch telescope for $380, which was about two-thirds of his annual income. He spent much of his time between 1876 and 1880 acquainting and amusing himself with the heavens, observing Jupiter’s satellites and other planetary phenomena, keeping meticulous notes, and developing his ability to draw telescopic images. His first published notes concern the transit of Mercury of 6 May 1878, for which he set up his five-inch telescope at the state capitol, not far from the portrait studio where he worked.

Of considerable significance were his drawings of Jupiter, for Barnard carried out a systematic study of its surface features an their ever-changing forms in late 1879 and 1880. An excellent summary of this early work, together with forty-five of his drawings, appeared later in an article in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1889). in these studies he observed the Great Red Spot, hitherto unknown to him, the equatorial white spot, and the belt features, and noted a wealth of detail and change.

It is reported that he planned a small book on Mars around 1880, but it is doubtful that the book ever materialized. by 1883 he was a regular contributor to the local biweekly, Artisan, conducting a column devoted to astronomical events.

In 1877, upon being advised rather brusquely by Simon Newcomb that he could not expect to contribute much to astronomy without a knowledge of mathematics, unless it were the discovery of comets, Barnard directed himself toward both goals. He hired tutors and he sought comets. His search was rewarded by two comet discoveries: 1881 VI on 17 September 1881, and 1882 III on 13 September 1882. Actually, he discovered one on 12 May 1881 (verified again the following night), but since he was not then acquainted with the formal means of announcing comet discoveries, this comet was never officially named or recognized. Although it was not observed by any others, no comet authority has ever doubted the validity of the discovery. Another officially unrecognized discovery occurred on 14 October 1882, when Barnard found a group of about a dozen comets, probably fragments of the great comet of 1882 (1882 II). He secured positions of about sevenor eight of these before dawn interfered with his work, and he communicated them, as before, to the Warner Observatory. But they were not officially announced by that office, probably on the assumption that the recipient of two recent Warner prizes had suddenly gone demented an wished to acquire a fortune, to paraphrase Barnard’s own words.

After entering Vanderbilt University, Barnard continued his intensive observing with both the university’s six-inch and his own five-inch telescopers, for his studies evidently constituted no greater handicap to this activity than had his previous full-time, employment. Seven new comet discoveries during this period are credited to him:

Discovery DateComet
16 July 18841884 II
7 July 18851885 II
3 December 18851886 II
4 October 18861886 IX
23 January 18871886 VIII
15 February 18871887 III
12 May 18871887 IV

For the first three discoveries he received Warner prizes, after which the award was discontinued. He also discovered, one day too late but quite independently, comet 1885 V, on 27 December 1885; W.R. Brooks, another famous comet observer, had discovered it the previous night.

Comet seekers frequently discover nebulae and, indeed, pay attention to them because they look very like comets in the telescope. Barnard discovered his share of new nebulae at this time. In later years his work with nebulae was made more effective by photography.

Barnard was an independent discoverer of the Gegenschin in late 1883, and from observations of this difficult phenomenon, carried on over ensuing years, he was able to identify its true character and position (1918).

On the night of 5 November 1883 Barnard discovered the duplicity of the star β′ Capricorni in a remarkable and unprecedented fashion. In an occultation of this star by the moon, the disappearance of the starlight, which as a rule is virtually instantaneous, occurred in an interrupted fashion: “First about nine-tenths of the light instantly disappeared, and for a space of one second there remained in its place a minute point of light, estimated of the tenth magnitude. This also instantly disappeared” (Astronomische Nachtrichten, 108 [1884], 369–372). The noninstantaneous occultation was witnessed by at least one other astronomer, but Barnard alone gave the correct interpretation: the star was a close and very unequal double. This interpretation was ultimately confirmed by S. W. Burnham, who was able to measure the pair, nearly a year later, with the 18 1/2-inch dearborn refractor.

By 1887, Barnard’s work with the Vanderbilt sixinch telescope and his own five-inch telescope became so widely known through his numerous contributions to the principal astronomical journals that he was invited to join a group of gifted and distinguished astronomers in staffing the new Licks Observatory being erected on Mount Hamilton, near San Jose, California.

In September 1887 Barnard went to California to take up the position offered him at the Lick Observatory. Since the observatory was not completed until the following summer, Barnard found himself stranded without work or income. He served as a clerk in a San Francisco lawyer’s office and spent many frustrating months unable to observe. In June 1888 the operations of the Lick Observatory were begun, and after only a year’s work Barnard had several significant accomplishments: four new comets—1888 V, 1889 I, 1889 II, and 1889 III—setting a record for rapidity of discovery; several new nebulae; the first photographs of the Milky Way; and further planetary observations. among the latter was the observation of an eclipse of one of saturn’s moons, lapetus, by Saturn’s ring, during which he noticed that the illumination of Iapetus continued, thus demonstrating the discontinuous and particulate nature of the ring. Curiously he was the sole astronomer to observe or pay attention to this event.

Of great importance was the beginning Barnard made in photographing the Milky Way. It can fairly be said that, although photography had been used in astronomy to a limited and somewhat experimental extent, it was not until Barnard’s wholesale use of it that the technique became a vital and spectacular part of regular astronomical observing.

His initial labors in this area were not easy, because funds for equipment were scarce, and he was the junior member under a somewhat crusty and autocratic director, E. S. Holden. Barnard was obliged to use a small telescopic camera, contrived from a 21/2-inch portrait lens with a focal length of thirty-one inches, initially strapped to the side of a 6 1/2-inch telescope for want of a suitable mounting and guiding arrangement. With so small a telescope, exposures were necessarily very long; moreover, photographic materials were still rather primitive and insensitive. Nevertheless, Barnard’s Milky Way photographs revealed a wealth of both bright and dark nebulae, and star-clouds hitherto unknown. The long exposures (up to six hours) were made with extreme difficulty and required great patience, for the guiding telescopes were without illuminated reticles. He was obliged to use fine iron wires for cross hairs, and to throw the image of a bright star out of focus, maintaining equal intensity in all four quadrants separated by the wires’ silhouette. Many of these remarkable photographs of the Milky Way and clusters, as well as of comets, were later assembled into Volume 11 of the Publications of the Lick Observatory.

Before leaving the Lick Observatory, Barnard discovered three more comet—1891 I, 1891 IV, and 1892 V—the latter being the first to be discovered photographically. Barnard also observed innumerable other comets, both recent discoveries by other observers and returns of previously known objects. He turned his attention more and more to detailed photographic studies of comets, and after 1892 he spent little time in actual comet seeking. His collection of thousands of expertly guided photographs constitutes a vast store of information on comet behavior and tail structure, a collection still used and referred to bycometary scholars.

By far his most sensational discovery at the Lick Observatory was that of Jupiter’s fifth satellite, which is closer to the parent planet than the Galilean satellites and is very much fainter. Barnard, the junior astronomer, had never been given regular use of the thirty-six-inch great refractor until the summer of 1892, when he prevailed upon the director to permit him to use it one night per week. Before many weeks had passed, he noticed, while examining the vicinity of Jupiter, an object exceedingly difficult to see, and recognized from its motion with the planet that it could not be a star. This occurred on 9 September 1892. While he was trying to measure its position relative to the third satellite and the planet, it became lost in the glare of the planet. Barnard suspected that it was an unrecognized satellite but felt he should verify his discovery before making any announcement. He was given the use of the great refractor on the following night, through the kindness of his colleague Schaeberle, when he secured further measures of the new satellite’s position. A telegram announcing the fifth satellite was sent out by the director the following morning, electrifying the scientific world. (The wording of the original telegram is not completely clear. A. A. Common, president of the Royal Astronomical society, reports that Barnard’s name was not mentioned in the first telegram received there; E.S. Holden has published what he claims to be the correct wording, in which Barnard’s name figures twice.)

Barnard’s extraordinary vision was responsible for other important, if less spectacular, discoveries. Once he was shown an extremely faint star within the trapezium in Orion by his colleague S. W. Burnham, another observer of remarkable vision, who asserted that no telescope smaller than the thirty-six-inch great refractor could show it. Thereupon Barnard pointed out an even fainter star near it, as well as a still fainter double star. Likewise, he was able to discover, visually, faint nebulae close to bright stars, such as the very close planetary nebula near Merope and the new expanding nebula that surrounded Nova Aurigae a few months after its outburst. His micrometric measures of the diameters and dimensions of planets, satellites, and asteroids were highly reliable, and later verification of them has often taxed the most refined techniques.

Although Barnard found his first fully professional experience at the Lick Observatory stimulating and rewarding, it is no secret that he felt unduly constrained by Holden’s autocratic policies, and he was easily attracted away from the Lick Observatory to join Hale’s promising group at the University of Chicago, then erecting the Yerkes Observatory in nearby Wisconsin. He joined the University of Chicago in October 1895 as professor of practical astronomy, with complete freedom from teaching, administrative, and editorial duties. For almost two years, during which there were various delays in completing the new observatory, his observing activity was distinctly curtailed, although he had the use of the modest Kenwood Observatory in Chicago.

His subsequent work at the Yerkes Observatory, although extensive, was less spectacular than that of disappointment, brought about, oddly enough, by his failure to take full advantage of photography in the study of stellar motions. He invested immense labor in micrometric measures of parallax and of stellar positions in clusters, anticipating that stellar motions would soon reveal themselves through systematic repetition of measures of this type. His colleagues were unable to persuade him that comparison of photographic plates, made at long intervals, could achieve more accurate results with far greater economy of effort. He did, however, draw the correct inference from the failure of his measures, made at ten-year and even twenty-year intervals, to reveal internal motions: evidently the clusters were much farther away and were much larger than had been hitherto assumed.

Much of Barnard’s other work at Yerkes was more fruitful: studies and discovery (often visually) of variable stars, novae, double stars, and faint satellites; observations of Eros to determine the basic astronomical distance, the astronomical unit; continuation of his monumental studies of the forms of comet tails; extension of his Milky Way photography with the Bruce telescope, which was far superior to the equipment he employed earlier; ultimate recognition of dark nebulae as obscuring matter rather than voids in stellar distribution; planetary photography and drawing; aurorae; cometary positions; and solar and lunar eclipses.

Barnard was particularly mindful of his duty to carry out studies on the fainter objects, beyond the grasp of smaller telescopes, and to secure comet positions at very great distances. It is worth noting that he never agreed with Lowell’s views about Mars. Barnard, with his extraordinary vision and skill, and with superior equipment at his command, never did see the surface markings commonly referred to as canals.

Among the unusual things Barnard did was to note gross spectral changes in novae, which were too faint to observe with a spectroscope, but which he detected through the change in focus of their light. He discovered a star having (until 1968) the largest known proper motion, 10 seconds of arc per year; it is now known as Barnard’s star.

Barnard never had any students or protégés to whom he could pass on his enormous store of experience. Having missed the teacher-pupil and father-son relationships in his own youth, he could not see why everyone should not be self-made. He was, in fact, quite impatient with students and young assistants. His colleague E. B. Frost, director of Yerkes Observatory for many years, stated: “Mr. Barnard could not bring himself to lose time at the telescope in having a pupil take part in measurements, which he could himself make so much better, and he begrudged the possible loss, in quality, of a photograph if someone less skilled than himself took some part in the guiding” (Astrophysical Journal, 58 [1923], 33). Nevertheless, Barnard took much time in advising students and writing to schoolboys who expressed interest in becoming astronomers. His sympathetic encouragement brought several into professional astronomy.

In 1914 Barnard was stricken with diabetes and for a year was obliged to curtail his heavy schedule of observing. Upon regaining his strength, he resumed observing as vigorously as ever. It is recorded that he observed during virtually every clear hour, and when one telescope was in use by another observer, he would be busy at another.

Barnard had no children, and after his wife died in 1921, he became depressed and lonely, and lost some of his former drive. He was taken ill in late December 1922 and, although his colleagues and doctors expected recovery, he died on 6 February 1923. His last telescopic observations were made on 16 and 22 December 1922, but even from his deathbed he observed visually the 13 January 1923 occultation of Venus by the moon.

Barnard left a substantial amount of unpublished material. The more significant works were completed by his assistant and niece, Mary Calvert, and his associates E. B. Frost and G. Van Biesebroeck. A manuscript, almost complete, for a treatise on Mars was not published, and remains in the Barnard collection at Vanderbilt University.


I. Original Works. The most complete bibliography of Barnard’s publications, compiled by Mary Calvert, is appended to E. B. Forst’s biographical sketch of him (see below). Among his publications referred to in this article are “Observations of Jupiter With a five-inch Refractor, During the Years 1879–1886,” in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1 (1889), 89–111; “The Gegenschein and Its Possible Origin,” in Popular Astronomy, 27 (1918), 109–112; “Recollections of an Astronomer,” in Christianb Advocate (5 July 1907), pp. 23–28; “Duplicity of β’ Capricorni,” in Astronomische Nachtrichten, 108 (1884), 369–372; “Photographs of the Milky Way and of Comets,” in Publications of the Lick Observatory, 11 (1913), 1–560.

II. Secondary Literature. While Barnard was still at the Lick Observatory, his close friend and colleague S.W. Burnham wrote three articles describing his life and career; they appeared in Popular Astronomy, 1 (1894), 193–195, 341–345, 441–447. Toward the close of Barnard’s career, J. T. McGill published an account of Barnard’s work in three issues of the Vanderbilt Alumnus, 7 (1922), 70–73, 101–103, 183–186; these articles were approved and corrected by Barnard himself. Later they were assembled and reprinted, with a supplementary note, in Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science, 3 , no.1 (1928), 32–56, which is the “Edward Emerson Barnard Memorial Number” and is devoted entirely to reminiscences of and tributes to Barnard by many of his friends and colleagues. After Barnard’s death a number of his colleagues wrote biographical sketches and reviews of his remarkable career; the most comprehensive is that by E. B. Frost, “Biographical Memoir on Edward Emerson Barnard,” in Memoirs of the National Academy, 21 , no. 14 (1926), 1–23. Forst’s article is also published, without bibliography, in Astrophysical Journal, 58 (1923), 1–35. Others are by Philip Fox, in Popular Astronomy, 31 (1923), 195–200; R. G. Aitken, in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 35 (1923), 87–94; J. A. Parkhurst, in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 17 (1923), 97–103; and W. F. Denning, in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 84 (1924), 221–225. A brief account of Barnard’s early life in Nashville is in an article by Robert Hardie, in Leaflets of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, nos. 415 and 416 (1964). A well-known astronomical hoax was perpetrated on Barnard and is described by H. D. Curtis in Popular Astronomy, 46 (1938), 71–75; and by A. H. Joy, in Leaflets of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, no. 311 (1955). A. A. Commonsʾ account of the announcement of the discovery of Jupiter’s fifth satellite is in Popular Astronomy, 5 (1887), 2; E. S. Holden’s is in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 4 (1892), 199.

Robert H. Hardie

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Edward Emerson Barnard

Edward Emerson Barnard

The American astronomer and astronomical photographer Edward Emerson Barnard (1857-1923) received the Lalande Medal from the French Academy of Sciences for his discovery of the fifth satellite of Jupiter.

Edward Barnard was born on Dec. 16, 1857, in Nashville, Tenn. His early education came mostly from his mother; he was employed at the age of nine in the studio of a Nashville photographer, where he remained for 16 years. His training in photographic processes and his knowledge of lenses were later of great value in his pioneer work in astronomical photography.

Barnard's interest in astronomy dated from 1876, when he read a stray copy of a popular book on astronomy and constructed his first telescope with a one-inch lens from a broken spyglass. Meeting Simon Newcomb the following year persuaded him that to do work in astronomy he must be well grounded in mathematics, so he worked in his spare time to educate himself.

During the next few years Barnard continued to work in the photography studio, pursuing his astronomical studies in the evenings. His discovery of a number of unexpected comets led to a fellowship at Vanderbilt University, where he received a bachelor of science degree in 1887. He was then appointed junior astronomer at the recently established Lick Observatory, which had a new 36-inch telescope, then the largest in the world. There he discovered the fifth satellite of Jupiter, followed by the faint and distant sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth. He also began his photography of the Milky Way, securing the first of the beautiful photographs of its intricate structure for which he became famous.

Barnard accepted a position at the Yerkes Observatory in 1895, and in 1897 he began observing with the great 40-inch photographic telescope (still the largest refractor in the world) that had been secured through the efforts of President William Harper of the University of Chicago and Edward Everett Hale, the greatest astronomical entrepreneur of the period. Barnard next began the micrometric triangulation of some of the globular clusters, which he continued for nearly 25 years, hoping to detect motions of the individual stars.

The observatory's acquisition in 1904 of the 10-inch Bruce photographic telescope gave added impetus to Barnard's photography of comets and his mapping of the Milky Way. In all, Barnard collected 1400 negatives of comets and nearly 4000 plates of the Milky Way and other star fields. His published papers number more than 900.

Barnard was married in 1881 to Rhoda Calvert of Yorkshire, England. He died in Wisconsin on Feb. 6, 1923, surviving his wife by two years.

Further Reading

The only account of Barnard's life, written with a firsthand knowledge of his work, is Edwin Brant Frost's biographical memoir in Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 21 (1926). Robert S. Richardson, The Star Lovers (1967), includes a chapter on Barnard. See also Frank Schlesinger's article, "Historical Notes on Astro-Photography of Precision, " in Harlow Shapley, ed., Source Book in Astronomy, 1900-1950 (1960); Otto Struve and Velta Zebergs, Astronomy of the 20th Century (1962); and Willie Ley, Watchers of the Skies: An Informal History of Astronomy from Babylon to the Space Age (1963). □

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Barnard, Edward Emerson

Edward Emerson Barnard, 1857–1923, American astronomer, b. Nashville, Tenn., grad. Vanderbilt Univ., 1887. From 1887 to 1895 he was astronomer at Lick Observatory in California, and from 1895 he was professor of practical astronomy at the Univ. of Chicago and astronomer at Yerkes Observatory. The discoverer of 16 comets, Jupiter's fifth satellite (1892), and Barnard's star (1916), he was given distinguished recognition by the Academy of Sciences of France and the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain. His photographs of comets, planets, nebulae, and the Milky Way are notable contributions to astronomy.

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"Barnard, Edward Emerson." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 25 May. 2017 <>.

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