Lyman, Chester Smith

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Lyman, Chester Smith

(b. Manchester, Connecticut, 13 January 1814; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 29 January 1890)

astronomy, geology.

Lyman is credited with being the first person to obtain reliable evidence for an atmosphere surrounding the planet Venus: when the dark side of Venus was toward the earth in 1866, and again in 1874, he saw it surrounded by a complete bright circle, which he correctly attributed to refraction of sunlight in the Cytherean atmosphere.

The son of a miller, Chester Lyman, and his wife Mary Smith, Lyman gave evidence of an interest in astronomy while still quite young. But the career he chose for himself was the ministry, and so, after an elementary education in public schools, he taught school for several years to finance a college education. At age nineteen he entered Yale College; here he helped found the Yale Literary Magazine and had access to the astronomical observatory as a perquisite of his job as assistant to the professor of natural philosophy. He graduated B.A. in 1837.

After two years as superintendent of the Ellington Academy, Lyman entered the Union Theological Seminary in 1839, but transferred after a year to the theological school at Yale, from which he graduated B.D.

His first pastorate, that of the First Congregational Church in New Britain, Connecticut, was also his last: in 1845 he resigned, for reasons of health, and set off for the South Seas. He went around Cape Horn to Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), where he worked sporadically as a missionary, schoolteacher, and surveyor. He also visited the volcano of Kilauea and recorded geological details of the surrounding region.

In 1847 Lyman moved on to California, arriving shortly before it was ceded to the United States by Mexico, and just in time to have his surveying activities interrupted by the Gold Rush. In 1850 he returned to Connecticut, married Delia Williams Wood, and settled down in New Haven for the rest of his life.

Lyman was appointed professor of industrial mechanics and physics in the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale College in 1859. It was during this tenure that he made his observations of the planet Venus. His professorship was altered in 1871 to include only astronomy and physics, and again in 1884 to cover only astronomy. He served as president of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences from 1859 to 1877, and was granted an M.A. degree by Beloit College in 1864.


I. Original Works. Lyman published almost exclusively in Silliman’s American Journal of Science and the Arts: letters from him describing California and gold mining—said to have been the first reliable accounts received on the East Coast of this bonanza—appeared in 2nd ser., 6 (1848), 270–271 (includes mention of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River); 2nd ser., 7 (1849), 290–292 (his first visit to the gold fields); ibid., 305–309 (how he himself dug for gold, and a description of conditions in the mining camps); 2nd ser., 8 (1849), 415–419 (describes the geology of placers); and 2nd ser., 9 (1850), 126–127 (the discovery of gold-bearing veins).

Lyman’s description of the volcano Kilauea also appeared in Silliman’s Journal, 2nd ser, 12 (1851), 75–82; as did his observations of Venus, 2nd ser, 43 (1867), 129–130, and 3rd ser., 9 (1875), 47–48.

The journal that Lyman kept during his travels, Around the Horn to the Sandwich Islands and California, 1845–50 (New Haven, 1924), was prepared for publication by Frederick John Teggert; it includes a portrait and an introduction by Lyman’s daughter, Delia Lyman Porter.

Thirteen articles by Lyman are listed in the Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, 4 (London, 1870), 141; 8 (London, 1879), 285; and 10 (London, 1894), 665.

II. Secondary Literature. Facts about Lyman’s early life can be found in the annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students in Yale College, for the years 1833–1834 through 1842–1843, and in Historical Register of Yale University (New Haven, 1939), p. 367.

For contemporary evaluations, see “Sketch of Chester S, Lyman,” in Popular Science Monthly, 32 (1887–1888), 116–121, with portrait facing p. 1, and an obituary notice in Silliman’s American Journal of Science and the Arts, 3rd sen, 39 (1890), 245–246. Both are unsigned.

Sally H. Dieke