(b. Badonviller, Lorraine, France, 26 June 1730; d. Paris, France, 11 or 12 April 1817)
Messier was the tenth of twelve children; his father died when the boy was eleven years old. In October 1751 he arrived in Paris, where (according to J. B. Delambre, virtually the sole biographical source) he had only a neat, legible hand and some practice in drawing to recommend him. The astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle hired him to record observations and to copy maps of Peking and of the great wall of China. In 1755 Delisle, by trading his large collection of books and maps to the French government, received for himself an annuity and for Messier an appointment as clerk with a salary of 500 francs plus room and board at the observatory in the Hôtel de Cluny. There Messier undertook the series of observations that gradually secured his fame.
In 1759 the comet predicted by Halley reached perihelion, and in anticipation of the return Delisle set Messier on a systematic search for the object. Unfortunately the perturbations from Jupiter were underestimated and Messier surveyed too restricted an area. Finally he recovered the comet on 21 January 1759, but Delisle demanded strict secrecy. Unknown to French astronomers, Halley’s comet had already been observed in Saxony; and only after this news reached Paris did Delisle reveal Messier’s discovery. The incorrigible Delisle followed the same procedure with a comet that Messier discovered on 21 January 1760.
Soon thereafter Delisle, who was in his seventies, retired and left Messier to carry out comet searches. For the next fifteen years Messier claimed a virtual monopoly on comet discoveries. According to Lalande, Messier observed a total of forty-one comets, claiming twenty-one as his own (Bibliographie astronomique [Paris, 1803], 796). By stricter modern standards twelve or thirteen initial discoveries from Comet 1759 III to Comet 1798 I, and three additional independent ones, can be attributed to him. J.-F. La Harpe records that Messier’s having to tend his wife on her deathbed cost him the discovery of yet another comet, which was identified instead by a certain Montagne of Limoges. When friends consoled him for the loss he had suffered, he wept for the comet and barely remembered to sigh, “Ah, cette pauvre femme.”
As a result of these discoveries Messier became a member of the Royal Society of London in 1764 and of the academies at Berlin and St. Petersburg, and his title was changed from clerk to astronome. The French savants were reluctant to admit a mere observer to their academy, but finally in 1770, two years after Delisle’s death, he gained entry. Ultimately he also became a member of several academies in Sweden, of the Netherlands Society of Sciences, and of the Institute of Bologna; and in 1806 he received the cross of the Legion of Honor.
Immediately after his election to the Academy, Messier began publication of a long series of memoirs, invariablv devoted to observations and often accompanied by elegant maps of his own design. His first memoir, “Catalogue des nébuleuses et des amas d’étoiles, que l’on découvre parmi les étoiles fixes” (Mémoires de mathématiques et physique de l’ Acaémie des sciences for 1771 , 435–461), remains his most enduring contribution. In it he describes forty-five of what are today the most celebrated nebulae and clusters, including M1, the Crab Nebula: M13, the globular star cluster in Hercules; and M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.
In 1780 Messier added twenty-three new objects, publishing a list of sixty-eight objects in the Connoissance des temps for 1783. A year later he again augmented his list, to a total of 103, for the Connoissauce des temps for 1784; many of the new nebulae were first found by his colleague P. F. A. Méchain. The two supplements revealed for the first time the remarkable abundance of faint nebulae in the constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices, now recognized as the Virgo cluster of galaxies.
At various times Messier used over a dozen telescopes for his observations, but none larger than his favorite 7.5-inch Gregorian. His contemporary Jean-Sylvain Bailly carried out some experimental comparisons showing that the inefficient speculum metal surfaces of the reflector gave it a light-gathering power equivalent to a 3.5-inch refractor. Messier also undertook observations with one of the new Dollond achromatic refractors, which had an aperture of 3.5 inches and a magnification of 120. These small telescopes stand in marked contrast to the giant reflectors constructed by William Herschel during Messier’s lifetime. Herschel quickly outstripped Messier’s brief list, finding literally thousands of faint nebulae. Looking back on his work, Messier wrote in the Connaissance des temps for 1800/1801:
What caused me to undertake the catalog was the nebula I discovered above the southern horn of Taurus on September 12, 1758, while observing the comet of that year…. This nebula had such a resemblance to a comet, in its form and brightness, that I endeavored to find others, so that astronomers would not confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to shine. I observed further with the proper refractors for the search of comets, and this is the purpose I had in forming the catalog. After me, the celebrated Herschel published a catalog of 2,000 that he had observed. This unveiling of the sky, made with instruments of great aperture, does not help in a perusal of the sky for faint comets. Thus my object is different from his, as I only need nebulae visible in a telescope of two feet [length].
Besides the comets and nebulae Messier observed eclipses, occultations, sunspots, the new planet Uranus, and the transits of Mercury and Venus. In 1767 he sailed aboard the Aurore for nearly four months, testing instruments for longitude determinations at the request of the Academy. A man of single-minded purpose, he pressed his observational abilities to the utmost but, unskilled in mathematics, left the calculations to others.
On 6 November 1781 a severe accident interrupted Messiefs observing for an entire year. Walking in a park with his friend Bochart de Saron, a presiding judge of the Parlement of Paris, Messier entered what he assumed to be a grotto. Instead it was an icehouse; and he fell nearly twenty-five feet onto the ice, breaking an arm, thigh, wrist, and two ribs. Although he was attended by the leading Academy surgeons, Messier sustained a permanent limp.
In 1802, when Messier was seventy-two, Herschel visited Paris and wrote in his diary:
A few days ago I saw Mr. Messier at his lodgings. He complained of having suffered much from his accident of falling into an ice cellar. He is still very assiduous in observing, and regretted that he had not interest enough to get the windows mended in a kind of tower where his instruments are; but keeps up his spirits. Heappeared to be a very sensible man in conversation. Merit is not always rewarded as it ought to be.
As Harlow Shapley wrote in Star Clusters (New York, 1930), “… the systematic listing by Messier in 1784 marked an epoch in the recording of observations.… He is remembered for his catalogue; forgotten as the applause-seeking discoverer of comets.”
I. Original Works. Messier’s bibliography is found in J. M. Quérard, La France littéraire, V (Paris, 1830), 90–91. Messier published detailed accounts of his lifetime of observations, with incidental biographical material, in Connaissance des tems for 1798–1799, 1799–1800, 1800–1801, 1807–1808, 1809, and 1810. His catalog of nebulae and clusters, cited in the text, found its final form in Connoissance des temps for 1784 (Paris, 1781), 227–269. For an English trans, of this paper, see Kenneth Glyn Jones, “The Search for the Nebulae—VIII,” in Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 79 (1969), 357–370.
II. Secondary Literature. The principal sources are J. B. Delambre’s “Notice,” in Histoire de l’ Académie royale des sciences de l’Institut de France for 1817 (1819), 83–92; and his somewhat rewritten biography in Histoire de l’astronomie au dix-huitième siècle (Paris, 1827), 767–774; see also J.-F. La Harpe, Correspondance littéraire, 6 vols. in 5 (Paris, 1801–1807), I, 97–98.
Recent material includes Owen Gingerich, “Messier and His Catalogue,” in Sky and Telescope, 12 (1953), 255–258, 288–291; and Kenneth Glyn Jones, Messier’s Nebulae and Star Clusters (London, 1968), 376–410. See also C. Flammarion. “Nébuleuse et amas d’étoiles de Messier,” in Bulletin de la Société astronomique de France, 31 (1917), 385–400.