Bond, William Cranch

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Bond, William Cranch

(b. Falmouth [now Portland], Maine, 9 September 1789; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 29 January 1959)


His father, William Bond, a fiery Cornishman, and his strict, forceful mother, Hannah Cranch, emigrated to Massachusetts in 1786; soon after William Cranch Bond’s birth, their lumber export business failed and the family moved to Boston, where they opened a clock making shop. Bond’s youth was spent in the hardship of poverty, and he was obliged to leave school at an early age. His rare mechanical ability proved invaluable in the shop, where he constructed a chronometer at the age of fifteen.

A total solar eclipse in 1806 fixed Bond’s attention on astronomy, and at the age of twenty-one he independently found the Comet of 1811. The parlor of the first house he owned, in Dorchester, was converted into an observatory complete with granite pier and, in the ceiling, a meridian opening. As an expert clockmaker, he rated the chronometers for numerous expeditions to determine longitudes in the eastern United States. Bond married his cousin Selina Cranch in 1819; she bore him four sons and two daughters. After her death in 1831, Bond married her elder sister, Mary Roope Crunch.

In 1815, when Bond traveled to Europe, he was commissioned by Harvard to examine instruments and observatories in England. Proposals for a meteorological and astronomical observatory at Harvard came to naught, however, until 1839, when Bond was invited to transfer his own equipment to Dana House in Cambridge and to serve (without salary) as astronomical observer to Harvard University.

The great sun-grazing comet of 1843 aroused an immense latent interest in astronomy, and some ninety societies and individuals subscribed $25,730 for the building of a large telescope at Harvard. A 15-inch refractor, equal in size to the largest in the world, was ordered from Munich and mounted in Cambridge in June 1847. Bond’s mechanical ingenuity manifested itself in the construction of the dome, in the remarkable observing chair, and in the regulating device that made the chronograph a precision instrument.

With the 15-inch telescope Bond undertook elaborate studies of the Orion Nebula and of the planet Saturn, and during his administration the daguerreotype process was first used to photograph stars. Bond was a modest, retiring, and deeply religious man. An accurate evaluation of his abilities was given by Benjamin Pierce: “In his original investigations he naturally restrained himself to those forms of observation which were fully within reach of his own resources… He consequently availed himself less of the remarkable capacity of his instrument for delicate and refined measurement than of its exquisite optical qualities”.


Bond’s writings include “History and Description of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College”, in Harvard College Observatory Annals, 1 pt. 1 (1856); “Observations on the Planet Saturn”, ibid., 2 pt. 1 (1857); and “Diary of the Two bonds: 1846–1849,”, Bessie Z. Jones, ed. in Harvard Library Bulletin, 15 (1967), 368–386, and 16 (1968), 49–71, 178–207, An extensive bibliography and much original material are given in Edward S. Holden, Memorials of William Crunch Bond and George Phillips Bond (San Francisco, 1897). An early photographic portrait appears as the frontispiece of Harvard College observatory Annals, 7 (1871).

Owen Gingerich