Newton, Hubert Anson

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(b. Sherburne, New York, 19 March 1830; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 12 August 1896)

astronomy, mathematics.

Hubert was one of eleven children of William and Lois Butler Newton, both of whom were descendants of the first Puritan settlers in New England. After attending public schools in Sherburne, Newton entered Yale at age sixteen. He was an outstanding student; he won election to the Phi Beta Kappa Society and first prize for the solution of mathematics problems.

Following his graduation in 1850, Newton studied mathematics for two and a half years at his home and in New Haven. He became tutor at Yale in 1853, and almost immediately thereafter, on the death of A. D. Stanley, he was asked to chair the mathematics department. Two years later Newton was elected professor and at age twenty-five was one of the youngest persons ever to have reached that rank at Yale.

The professorship included a year’s leave of absence, which he took at the Sorbonne with the geometer Chasles. That experience clearly influenced Newton, who subsequently published several important papers on mathematics.

Even though mathematics constituted his education and vocation, his principal efforts began to shift to astronomy and meteorology. His interest in those subjects was sparked by the spectacular meteor shower of 13 November 1833. Although Newton was too young to remember it, others in New Haven, like Edward C. Herrick, Alexander C. Twining, and Denison Olmsted (his undergraduate teacher in astronomy), had written about the event and had checked the records of earlier showers. Thus by 1860 rudimentary data on meteors existed and tentative hypotheses about their orbits were being proffered.

Newton’s first papers on the subject (1860–1862) dealt primarily with the orbits and velocities of fireballs. In 1861 the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences established a committee to obtain systematic sightings from diverse observers of the meteor showers of August and November. As one of the leaders of that group, Newton soon accumulated vast amounts of information.

From a careful study of all extant records of the shower of November 1861 Newton in 1864 published his important finding that the shower had occurred thirteen times since A.D. 902, in a cycle of 33.25 years. He reasoned that the phenomenon was caused by a swarm of meteoroids orbiting the sun and concluded that the number of revolutions they must make in one year would be 2 ± 1/33.25 or 1 ± 1/33.25 or 1/33.25. These frequencies correspond to periods of 180.0, 185.4, 354.6, and 375.5 days and 33.25 years. Using these five values, the position of the radiant point, and the knowledge that the meteoroids’ heliocentric motion is retrograde, Newton calculated five possible orbits.

He noted that the real orbit could be distinguished from the others by calculating the secular motion of the node that was due to planetary perturbations for each of the hypothetical orbits. J. C. Adams, who undertook those calculations, found that the four short periods were not compatible with the observations; the period of 33.25 years, however, corresponds to an elliptical orbit, which extends past Uranus and is subject to perturbations by Uranus and Saturn. Since Adams’ determination of the effect of perturbations agreed with Newton’s data for the Leonids, these meteoroids were proved to be in such an orbit with a period of 33.25 years.

The Leonids’ dramatic reappearance in 1866 spurred meteoroid research and added credence to Newton’s calculations; moreover, the reappearance led to the positive identification of the swarm with a comet. By 1865 Newton in the United States and Schiaparelli in Italy had independently concluded that the mean velocities of meteoroids are nearly parabolic and resemble those of comets. When it was found in 1866 that a comet and the Leonids had virtually identical orbits, their relationship was firmly established.

From about 1863 to 1866 Newton amassed and published extensive statistics from observations of sporadic meteors. From this information, he derived the paths and the numbers of meteors, plus the spatial density of meteoroids near the earth’s orbit and their velocity about the sun.

Newton’s next major contribution to meteor studies came in the mid-1870’s when he compared the statistical distribution of known cometary orbits with the hypothetical distributions that would result from two currently leading theories for the origin of the solar system—those of Kant and Laplace. According to Kant, comets formed as part of the primeval solar nebula, while according to Laplace they originated independently from the solar system. Newton found that the distribution of comets’ aphelia and inclinations agrees better with the latter theory, although he noted that the problem was unsettled.

These calculations included considerations of the effect of large planetary perturbations on the distribution of cometary orbits; such studies culminated in 1891 in his most famous paper on perturbations. During the 1870’s and 1880’s Newton accumulated statistical data that indicated that long period comets could be captured by Jupiter, shortening their periods.

Newton devoted the last decade of his research to Biela’s comet and meteor shower, to fireballs, and to meteorites. At his death he was probably the foremost American pioneer in the study of meteors.

Besides his scientific research, Newton was active in teaching and educational reform, especially about the metric system. He was a founder of the American Metrological Society, and he persuaded many manufacturers of scientific instruments and publishers of school arithmetic texts to adopt the system.

In 1868 the University of Michigan awarded Newton an honorary LL.D. After joining the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1850, he served as the vice-president of its Section A in 1875, and as president of the Association in 1885. He was a president of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and one of the original members of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1888 the National Academy awarded him its J. Lawrence Smith Gold Medal in recognition of his research on meteoroids. At his death he was the vice-president of the American Mathematical Society and an associate editor of the American Journal of Science.

Aside from societies in the United States, he was elected in 1860 corresponding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1872 associate of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, in 1886 foreign honorary fellow of the Royal Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, and in 1892 foreign member of the Royal Society of London.

Newton’s association with Yale and New Haven was long and rich. He directed the Yale mathematics department and also the observatory, which he helped organize in 1882, and he helped build the extensive collection of meteorites in the Peabody Museum. He also provided considerable assistance to poor students who wanted to attend Yale. For a time he was the only Democrat on the Yale faculty and became alderman in the strongly Republican first ward of New Haven.


I. Original Works. Newton published approximately seventy papers, an extensive bibliography of which is included in the memoir by Gibbs that is cited below. Newton’s most significant writings included the following: “Explanation of the Motion of the Gyroscope,” in American Journal of Sceince, 24 (1857), 253–254; “On the Geometrical Construction of Certain Curves by Points,” in Mathematics Monthly, 3 (1861), 235–244, 268–279; “On November Star-Showers,” in American Journal of Science, 37 (1864), 377–389; 38 (1864), 53–61; “On Shooting Stars,” in Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 (1866), 291–312; The Metric System of Weights and Measures (Washington, 1868); “On the Transcendental Curves Whose Equation Is sin y sin my = a sin x sin nx + b, “ in Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 3 (1875), 97–107, written with A. W. Phillips; “On the Origin of Comets,” in American Journal of Science, 16 (1878), 165–179; “The Story of Biela’s Comet,” ibid., 31 (1886), 81–94; and “On the Capture of Comets by Planets, Especially Their Capture by Jupiter,” in Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 6 (1891), 7–23.

II. Secondary Literature. An article on meteors that gives a critique of Newton’s work is M. Faye, in Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des seances de l’Academie des sciences, 64 (1867), 550. Biographical sketches, which were written about the time of Newton’s becoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are in Science, 6 (1885), 161–162; in Popular Science Monthly, 27 (1885), 840–843; and in James Grant Wilson and John Fisk, eds., Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, IV (New York, 1888), 506–507.

Obituaries on Newton are William L. Elkin, in Astronomische Nachrichten, 141 (1896), 407; unsigned writers, in Popular Astronomy, 4 (1896), 236–240; in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 57 (1897), 227–231; and in New York Times (13 Aug. 1896), 5. Biographical articles that were written after his death were J. Willard Gibbs, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 4 (1902), 99–124, which includes a bibliography; Anson Phelps Stokes, in Memorials of Eminent Yale Men (New Haven, 1914), 48–54; and David Eugene Smith, in Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, XIII (New York, 1934), 470–471.

Richard Berendzen