Holden, Edward Singleton

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Holden, Edward Singleton

(b. St. Louis, Missouri, 5 November 1846; d. West Point, New York, 16 March 1914)


Holden designed the Lick Observatory in California and was its first director. He served as president of the University of California from 1886 to 1888 and was the principal organizer and first president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

He was the only child of Edward (originally Jeremiah Fenno) Holden and Sarah Frances Singleton. Following his mother’s death when he was three, Holden lived with relatives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he attended private school and with his cousin, the astronomer George P. Bond, made frequent visits to the Harvard College Observatory, site of the great fifteen-inch refractor.

In 1860 Holden returned to St. Louis, where he attended the Academy of Washington University, earning the B.S. from that university in 1866. During this period he lived with William Chauvenet, chancellor and professor of mathematics and astronomy at Washington University. He married Chauvenet’s daughter Mary in May 1871.

After receiving the B.S., Holden entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a cadet; he graduated third in his class in 1870. From October 1870 to August 1871 he served as second lieutenant with the 4th Artillery in garrison at Fort Johnson, North Carolina. He was then assigned to the Military Academy, first as assistant professor of natural and experimental philosophy (he taught mechanics, astronomy, acoustics, and optics) and later as assistant instructor in the department of practical military engineering.

Holden’s first publication was “The Bastion System of Fortification, Its Defects, and Their Remedies” (1872). His next two, describing his observations of the aurora and of lightning by making use of a pocket spectroscope, appeared in the same year. During his residence at West Point, Holden became a close friend of Henry Draper, who was then pioneering in astronomical spectroscopy and photography at his private observatory in Hastings-on-Hudson. It was probably through this contact that Holden became seriously interested in astronomical research.

In March 1873, Holden resigned his commission and accepted a position at the U.S. Naval Observatory, where he assisted the eminent astronomer Simon Newcomb with the new twenty-six-inch refractor, then the largest in the world. Holden’s publications while at the Naval Observatory included observations of nebulas, the surface of the sun, and the satellites of Uranus and Neptune; accounts of recent progress in astronomy; a catalogue of astronomical bibliographies in the Naval Observatory library, an “Index Catalogue of Books and Memories Relating to Nebulae and Clusters”; an astronomy text for high school and college students (written with Newcomb); and a biography of William Herschel.

In 1881 Holden became director of the Washburn Observatory of the University of Wisconsin, and while in that position he instituted the Publications of the observatory, led an eclipse expedition organized by the National Academy of Sciences, and carried out micrometer measurements of double stars and the rings of Saturn.

Holden’s connection with the Lick Observatory began in 1874, when the California philanthropist James Lick established a trust for the purpose of building the world’s greatest observatory. The chairman of the board of trustees consulted Henry Draper and Simon Newcomb, and he invited Newcomb and Holden to prepare plans for the observatory. Holden wrote a lengthy memorandum which became the basis for future planning. Holden was then recommended by Newcomb for the post of director. At this time “various difficulties” arose between Lick and his trustees concerning the sale of property. In the words of Holden, these difficulties were “finally settled by the resignation of the first Board.” A second board was appointed, and a third, within the space of one and one-half years. Lick’s death in 1876 coincided with the start of a decade of relative stability during which the observatory was constructed, with Holden acting as principal adviser. The final plan of the observatory is acknowledged to be his creation.

The observatory flourished under Holden’s direction; but W. W. Campbell, who later became director and who also served as president of the university, said of Holden’s directorship: “The last years of Professor Holden’s administration were marred by the existence of animosities in the observatory community, and by much ill-advised criticism in the newspapers.” Newcomb wrote in his Reminiscences:

To me the most singular feature [of Holden’s administration] was the constantly growing unpopularity of the director. I call it singular because, if we confine ourselves to the record, it would be difficult to assign any obvious reason for it. One fact is indisputable, and that is the wonderful success of the Director in selecting young men who were to make the institution famous by their ability and industry (pp. 192–193).

In February 1889, Holden organized the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He sought to lay a foundation broad enough so that every class of member would “find a sphere of action,” and this society remains nearly unique in its attempts to bring amateur and professional astronomers to a common meeting ground.

Following his resignation as director of Lick in 1897, Holden lived four years in New York, devoting much of his time to writing. His bibliography for this interval contains three elementary texts on astronomy; three books of stories for children; a book on heraldry; and articles on earthquakes, Omar Khayyám, Christianity in China, art criticism, and public schools. He occasionally wrote under the pseudonyms E. Singleton and Edward Atherton.

From 1901 until his death Holden was librarian of the U.S. Military Academy. During this interval 30,000 volumes were added, the library was catalogued, and complete bibliographies were prepared on a wide range of military subjects.

Holden was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1885; he was a foreign associate of the Royal Astronomical Society and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Astronomical Society of France. He was awarded four honorary doctorates by American universities and was buried at West Point with military honors.


Holden’s bibliography and biography, prepared by W. W. Campbell, appear in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,8 (1919), 358–372. See also Simon Newcomb, The Reminiscences of an Astronomer (Boston, 1903); and Eben Putnam, The Holden Genealogy, 2 vols. (Wellesley Farms, Mass., 1923). Among Holden’s books, the following are representative: Sir William Herschel, His Life and Works (New York, 1881); Mogul Emperors of Hindustan (New York, 1895); Primer of Heraldry for Americans (New York, 1898); Elementary Astronomy (New York, 1899); The Family of the Sun (New York, 1899); and Stories From the Arabian Nights (New York, 1900), written under the pseudonym E. Singleton.

Charles A. Whitney