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Gould, Benjamin Apthorp

Gould, Benjamin Apthorp

(b. Boston, Massachusetts, 27 September 1824; d Cambridge. Massachusetts, 26 November 1896)


The eldest of the four children born to Benjamin Apthorp Gould and Lucretia Dana Goddard, Gould was educated at Boston Latin School (of which his father had been the principal) and Harvard College. Originally intending to take up classical languages, he came under the influence of Benjamin Peirce and his interests shifted to physics and mathematics. After graduation (1844) he taught for a while at Boston Latin School and then sailed to Europe for further study in astronomy; this included a year at Berlin and then work under Gauss at Göttingen, where he received his doctorate (1848).

On returning home, Gould was very depressed by the primitive level of scientific research in his country; but rather than accept a professorship at Göttingen. He vowed to dedicate his efforts to raising the reputation of American astronomy. He did much toward this by founding the Astronomical Journal in 1849; although at times forced to operate under extreme difficulties, financial and otherwise, Gould edited the Journal for a dozen years, until publication was suspended because of the Civil War.

From 1852 to 1867 Gould was head of the longitude department of the U.S. Coast Survey. He quickly appreciated the utility of the telegraph in determining longitudes and measured the longitude difference between Greenwich and Washington over the first transatlantic cable.

In 1852 Gould was approached concerning the directorship of the Dudley Observatory, recently established by the citizens of Albany, New York. Declining the directorship, he agreed in 1855 to serve, without Compensation, as executive officer of the observatory’s scientific council, the other members of which were Peirce, Joseph Henry, and A. D. Bache. These scientists, members of the Lazzaroni, were all aware of the poor state of American science and had long been trying to found national institutions for scientific research. Bache, as superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, provided the Dudley Observatory with instruments and observers; Gould in particular devoted much effort to converting the observatory into a worthy scientific institution and traveled to Europe to order equipment. The trustees of the observatory agreed to bear financial responsibility for the publication of the Astronomical Journal, and in 1857 the Journal’s headquarters were transferred there. Gould eventually accepted the directorship and moved to Albany early in 1858. The trustees felt that the observatory should serve the public and had all along been annoyed by delays and unforeseen expenses. Matters came to a head in a vicious newspaper campaign, in which Gould was charged with being incompetent, disloyal, and arrogant. The trustees resolved to remove him from the directorship and to dissolve the scientific council. But the director and the council had much invested in the observatory and refused to abandon it. Finally, on 3 January 1859, Gould was forcibly driven from his home by a band of toughs hired by the trustees, several of his papers being destroyed in the process. He then returned to Cambridge.

During Gould’s early associations with the Dudley Observatory he attempted to determine the solar parallax from the Chilean observations of Mars and Venus made by James M. Gilliss, a1though this material was not entirely adequate for the purpose. After leaving Albany he prepared his “Standard Mean Right Ascensions of Circumpolar and Time Stars” (1862), the first attempt to combine into one catalog stellar positions determined at a number of observatories. In 1861 he undertook the discussion of the observations made at the U.S. Naval Observatory during the preceding decade, and he subsequently reduced an important series of observations made by Joseph Dagelet at Paris between 1783 and 1785.

Meanwhile, from 1859 to 1864, Gould was greatly involved with his late father’s mercantile business. He also became an actuary for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, in which capacity he accumulated extensive data on the vital statistics of military and naval personnel.

In 1861 Gould married Mary Apthorp Quincy, and his subsequent astronomical career owed much to her aid. She helped provide an observatory near Cambridge, and between 1864 and 1867 Gould made meridian observations of faint stars near the north celestial pole. In collaboration with Lewis Rutherfurd he investigated the application of photography to astrometry (1866), specifically to the stars in the Pleiades and Praesepe clusters.

About 1865 Gould resolved to travel to the southern hemisphere for the purpose of charting the southern stars with the detail achieved for the northern stars. With the cooperation of President Domingo Sarmiento he arrived in Córdoba, Argentina, in 1870 to found the Argentine National Observatory. Both the instruments and the accessory supplies had to be obtained from North America or Europe, and there was considerable delay before these materials reached Cordoba. Meanwhile, Gould and his four assistants were not idle; with nothing more than binoculars they determined the magnitudes and positions of all the naked-eye stars in the southern heavens. This was no easy task, and the results were published (1879) in the first volume of the Resultados del Observatorio national argentino en Córdoba, under the title “Uranometria argentina.” This work clearly established “Gould’s belt” of bright stars, spread in a broad band inclined at some 20 degrees to the galactic equator.

The observatory slowly took shape, and late in 1872 the first zone observations of the southern stars were made. Most of these observations were completed by 1877, but the onerous task of reduction took several years more; and the “Catálogo de las zonas estelares,” comprising positions of 73,160 stars between 23 and 80 degrees south declination, was published as volumes 7 and 8 of the Resultados (1884). Parallel with this immense project the “Catàlogo General” was prepared, giving more accurate positions, determined as the result of repeated measurements, of 32,448 stars (Resultados, 14 [1886]).

Gould returned to Massachusetts in 1885 with some 1,400 photographs of southern star clusters, which he spent much of his remaining years measuring and reducing. After a lapse of a quarter of a century he was also able to resume publication of the Astronomical Journal, which he continued to edit until his death.


There is a complete bibliography of Gould’s works following Comstock’s memoir (see below), pp. 171–180.

On Gould or his work, see G. C. Comstock, “Biographical Memoir. Benjamin Apthorp Gould,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences. 17 (1924), l53–170; A. Hall, “Benjamin Apthorp Gould,” in Popular Astronomy, 4 (1897), 337–340; and S.C. Chandler, “The Life and Work of Dr. Gould,” ibid., 341–347.

Brian G. Marsden

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