George Phillips Bond

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Bond, George Phillips

(b. Dorchester, Massachusetts, 20 May 1825; Cambridge Massachusetts, 17 February 1865)


The third son of William Cranch Bond and Selina Cranch, George Bond grew up in an environment focused on Havared observatory, where his father was the first director. The scientific collaboration with his father began so early that it is often difficult to separate their contributions. At the age of twenty three he assisted in the observations of Saturn that led to his discovery of the satellite hyper ion. Two years later, he found Saturn’s crepe ring. Hence bond was the natural choice for director of Harvard Observatory when his father died in 1859.

The selection was not unchallenged, however for Benjamin Peirce, the top mathematical astronomer in the country also aspired to the directorship. The resulting antagonism with Peirce and his scientific clique hampered Bond in many ways and embittered his career. A serious and uncompromising man. Bond believed that this rivalry cost him a place when the National Acdeamy of Sciences was incorporated in 1863.

Bond’s principal observations were carried out with the observatory’ 15-inch refractor, which until it was surpassed in 1862, ranked with the Pulkovo instrument as the largest refractor in the world. His comprehensive and handsomely illustrated monograph on Donati’s Comet of 1858, in Annals of the Harvard College Observatory (1862), won widespread accliam and in 1865 brought him the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first ever awarded to an American.

George Bond directed the observatory a scant six years—he died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty nine. He had undertaken an intense investigation of the Orion Nebula, but his health broke before he could complete it. The memoir was published posthumously. His remarkable drawing of the nebula can be favorably compared with modern photographs. In 1860 Bond reported on the comparative brightness of the sun, moon, and Jupiter, a fundamental research that has placed “Bond albedo” in the contemporary astronomical vocabulary.

Bond’s most enduring fame, however, rests on his enthusiastic experimentation with stellar photography and his perceptive anticipation of its potential; in 1857 he wrote, “There is nothing, then, so extravagant in predicting a future application of photography on a most magnificent scale… What more admirable method can be imagined for the study of the orbits of the fixed stars and for resolving the problem of their annual parallax?” His pioneering daguerreotype work, undertaken from 1847 to 1851 in cooperation with his father, resulted in the first photograph of a star, Vega. Bond’s 1857 experiments with wet collodion photography achieved still greater success. With considerable justification Edward S. Holden called him “the father of celestial photography.”.


I. Original Works. Among his writings are “Account of the Great Comet of 1858,”in Annals of the Harvard College Observatory, 3 (1862); “Observations upon the Great Nebula of Orion”, ibid., 5 (1867). Selections from Bond’s diaries during his trips abroad in 1851 and 1863, and from his correspondence, as well as an extensive bibliography, appear in Edward S. Holden, Memorials of William Crunch Bond and George Phillips Bond (San Francisco, 1897); bound copies of the Bond correspondence used by Holden are in the Lick Observatory Library. See also “Diary of the Two Bonds: 1846–1849,” Bessie Z. Jones, ed., in Harvard Library Bulletin, 15 (1967), 368–386, and 16 (1986), 49–71, 178–207,

II. Secondary Literature. An extensive evaluation of Bond’s scientific work is given in the Royal Astronomical Society presidential address by Warren De La Rue, in the Society’s Monthly Notices, 35 (1865), 125–137. See also Dorrit Hoffleit, Some Firsts in Astronomical Photography (Cambridge, Mass., 1950).

Owen Gingerich

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George Phillips Bond, 1825–65, American astronomer, b. near Boston, grad. Harvard, 1845. He became the assistant of his father, William Cranch Bond, and in 1859 succeeded him as director of the Harvard College Observatory. Much of his work was done in cooperation with his father. While they were studying Saturn together, George, in 1848, discovered its eighth satellite, Hyperion (which was independently discovered in that same year by the English astronomer William Lassell). His observations led him to reject the previously held theory that the rings of Saturn were of solid structure, though his hypothesis of their being in fluid state was in turn soon discarded. His memoir on the Donati comet of 1858 in the Annals of the Harvard College Observatory, Vol. III, remains one of the most complete descriptions of a great comet that has been written. His revision of his father's work on the Orion nebula was published posthumously. His photographs of the moon created a sensation among astronomers in Europe when taken there in 1851. He was a pioneer in the use of photography in mapping the sky, determining stellar parallax, and measuring double stars. He also used photographs for determining the comparative brightness of the planets.

See E. S. Holden, Memorials of William Cranch Bond and of His Son George Phillips Bond (1897).