A Man of Orbital Precision

by Kathleen Franks for Porch Stories™ Summer Tour 2008, Hudson, Ohio

Since none of you knew my grandfather, Elias Loomis, I have been plucked from the year 1890, to be here with you today, on this porch, in your town, to tell my grandfather’s story. He left a piece of history here in Hudson that was of great significance in its day and continues to give testimony to the great educators that formed this town. I understand that Hudson still maintains an excellent reputation for the quality of its schools, both private and public. My grandfather’s influence steered your community onto this course.

The Porch of Hayden Hall, Western Reserve Academy, Hudson, Ohio

When I am finished with his story, you will have made the acquaintance of a most unusual man. A man, as some would say, ahead of his time. His early life gives credence to that fact. His very entry into this world was ahead of schedule for he was born nearly a month before the due date for my grandmother’s pregnancy!

He was the oldest of six, which also lends to his habit of being first and foremost in all that he did. I’ll get to the details to support that statement in a moment, but first, I want to say something about the observatory that my grandfather built in this lovely little town of yours. That it is still standing gives me a great feeling of pride and awe in the enduring qualities of my grandfather’s work. By the way, thank you for keeping up on its maintenance. As I look across the lush campus here at Western Reserve Academy (which was called Western Reserve College in my grandfather’s day), I can see what a tribute it is to your town fathers! Everything looks just as pristine as when I used to toddle around here with my grandfather. As a small child, of course, I had no idea of the importance of the work that my grandfather was doing, let alone, the significance of this observatory. It’s amazing to me that it is the second-oldest observatory in America! A fact that I was not aware of until returning to this year of 2008. I died not knowing how important my grandfather’s work would be to the generations to come even more than a hundred years into the future!

Entrance to the Loomis Observatory, Hudson, Ohio

Did you know that my grandfather’s father was named Hubbel Loomis? I found out from talking with some of you at lunch today, that the name Hubbel is rather interesting in relation to the astronomical fame of my dear old Gramps. Even though the spelling is different, the Hubble Telescope is something my Gramps would have been very interested in. I still can’t quite grasp the idea that there is a telescope circling miles above the earth, traveling at the speed of 5 miles every second! That means that it completes one journey around our planet in an hour and a half. Gramps would have been very impressed! He would have loved to have been a part of that project, not to mention that he most likely would have wanted to be an actual passenger. Just think of the observations that he would be recording. You know, he had a reputation for being extremely precise in everything he did. His records were impeccable. He once spent an entire year making hourly observations of the declination of a compass needle in order to measure the earth’s magnetic field. I once asked him if he actually did this twenty-four hours a day seven days a week and he looked at me with those calm steady eyes of his and replied, “Darla, my dear, the scientific method as discovered by Francis Bacon dictates not only precision, but a thoroughness in each and every procedure.”

Years later, many years after Gramps had passed away, I finally got around to reading some of his books and scientific papers, and in, “The Recent Progress of Astronomy, Especially in the United States”, that he wrote in 1851, I at last got an answer to my question. It was for seventeen hours each day from November of 1834 till November of 1835 that he made these hourly notations. My childish conclusions were diminished with that knowledge, but still, I think seventeen hourly observations every day for one whole year is quite a feat!

I will never forget what one of his students said at Gramps’ funeral service at Yale: Gramps was so undeviating in his march around the campus – referring to this very campus at the academy here in Hudson – that he was never half an inch off his path from one trip to another! That always left me with a picture in my mind of Gramps actually creating a path on the campus that looked like an orbital trail.

Let me get back to Gramps. I promised that I would tell you how it was that he had the habit of being first and excelling in all that he did. Well, as I said, he was the firstborn. His father, Hubbel, whom I just told you about – affectionally known as “Hubbie” – was a Baptist minister and a well-educated man, receiving an honorary degree from Yale in addition to his earlier academic achievements. Hubbie’s love of knowledge prompted him to teach all of his children at home as adjunct to their studies at school. Gramps learned Greek and higher mathematics from his daily studies with Hubbie. When he was only ten years old, Gramps could read the entire New Testament in its original Greek! Gramps did so well in school as a result of the extra tutoring from Hubbie, that he was admitted to Yale University when he was only 14 years of age! I’m not sure, but family folklore has it that Gramps was the youngest to enter Yale up to that time. In 1830 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He was a mere nineteen years old!

Yale hired him to teach mathematics, Latin and natural philosophy. He worked with Denison Olmstead an eminent science professor at Yale who encouraged Gramps to study astronomy. Yale had a fine telescope for its day, but it was housed in a steeple on campus where the view of the night sky was hampered by low windows. Nevertheless, Gramps and Professor Olmstead spent many an evening mesmerized by the constellations. One night, they must have had their socks knocked right off when they discovered the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. They were the first Americans to observe this celestial surprise!

Shortly after that, Gramps was asked by the trustees at Western Reserve College to teach mathematics and natural philosophy. The president of the college, George Pierce, a Yale graduate himself and a man of formidable character, wanted his college to establish itself among the educational institutions of the day as a leader in the sciences, as this was a field of special interest to him. President Pierce’s strong competitive nature pushed forward his agenda and with great foresight, the trustees voted to apportion $4,000 for the purchase of scientific equipment for the study of astronomy. That was a princely sum in those days!

Having heard about the scientific projects that Gramps worked on at Yale, the trustees were eager to hire him. Most of the original trustees at the college were Yale graduates. In fact, your beloved academy was known as the “Yale of the West”. The campus and buildings are patterned after Yale’s campus in Connecticut.

Before Gramps could begin his teaching duties, the college entrusted him with the task of traveling to Europe with the $4,000 to procure the very finest in astronomical equipment. Now mind you, traveling abroad in those days was virtually unheard of, a privilege only for the wealthy. For a small college that had only been founded a mere ten years before and located in a town that had only been settled less than forty years earlier, this was quite a bold move.

You might think that this request to embark on such a journey was quite a tall order to ask of a young man in his mid-twenties – and it was – but Gramps didn’t even give it a second thought. However, the townspeople were besides themselves with excitement at the prospect of Gramps’ travels. They all came out for quite a bon voyage when he set sail in July of 1836.

During his year-long journey, Gramps wrote thirty-six letters to the Ohio Observer, a newspaper that was published in Hudson. Readers were enthralled to hear about the sights of London and Paris. True to Gramps’ love of details, his writings painted pictures of every street, every building, every cafe, every person he came across. He attended many lectures by noted scientists of the day, such as Franfois Arago and Jean-Baptiste Biot. What a rare opportunity it was for the people of Ohio to hear firsthand accounts of these distinguished scholars. Gramps visited several observatories, noting all facets of their operation. He purchased the finest of telescopic equipment made by Simms of London. He also bought a clock made by Molyneux of London. It’s in the physics building right over there. A chill shot up my spine when I stood there looking at it this morning, thinking how my grandfather purchased that very clock of such good quality that it is still running today.

Gramps returned from Europe in September of 1837. That November, he proposed to the college trustees a plan to build an observatory “moderate in dimensions, of brick, 36 feet long by 14 feet wide, or a little larger if found expedient”. The little knoll on the southwest corner of the campus was chosen, not because it happened to be convenient for a building location, but, of course, because my grandfather had carefully calculated that an observatory positioned at a precise angle to the south at that corner would gain the best advantage for celestial viewing. In my grandfather’s proposal he wrote that “the transit commands an unobstructed meridian from ninety degrees zenith distance on the south, to eighty-nine degrees on the north. The openings for the transit are fifteen inches wide, the side openings being closed by solid wooden shutters, and a single trap door cover the entire top. This covering is such as effectually to exclude the most violent rain.” I am proud to say that his design stood the test of time.

My grandfather’s inaugural address on August 21, 1838 noted, “it is believed the one erecting in this place will be among the most efficient. It will be a European observatory in miniature, and as auxiliary to the instruction of a class will serve nearly the same purpose as a large observatory.”

The only other college observatory built prior was at Williams College in Massachusetts, completed less than a year before my grandfather’s. Wait a minute, there was one other, at the University of North Carolina, built in 1831, but not really anything to speak of, basically it was a shack erected to house astronomical equipment, deemed an observatory, but far from it. About eight years later it burned to the ground and was never replaced.

Some have asked and probably continue to wonder, why, a small, young college far from the Ivy League, would have the audacity to build such a fine observatory. Harvard, Yale and William & Mary, the oldest American colleges at the time, had not even thought of such a plan. Astronomy was merely a hobby on campus, only discussed in clubs, as if it was a subject on the level of importance like some sort of sport, like rock climbing or boating.

An answer to why this observatory was built in this place at that time, is found in the sort of people that were living here, the early settlers of this town. Most were Connecticut Yankees of strong stock, persons who considered education and the pursuit of higher knowledge, as a tradition to be upheld, carried forth with all earnestness. Scientific matters were at the top of their priorities. They knew that science was the key to their progress and prosperity.

In that same inaugural address that I mentioned before, my grandfather made some interesting observations about education in America that I think you will find applicable to your time, as I have heard that the quality of education in America has suffered in these past decades. The zeal and enthusiasm for education that this country laid in its bedrock, has become buried in your modern way of life. I think my grandfather’s comments will give you cause for consideration.

“In no country in the world is it so rare a phenomenon to find an individual who can neither read nor write as it is in some of the States of this Union. But the fact is notorious that we have hitherto done very little to extend the boundaries of science.”

He felt that the fields of scientific studies in longitude and latitude, magnetic observations, observations of tides and of meteorological conditions, and studies in types of soils were grossly neglected.

I’d like to interject a note of history here: my grandfather wasn’t one to point out a problem and not be part of the solution. He contributed much in his later years to each one of those sciences that he made mention of in his speech. I’ll have more to tell you on that in a minute. First I want to share with you what Gramps said at the conclusion of his address that day.

“Enough, I trust, has been said to show that those who are disposed to devote themselves to the cultivation of science in this country need not remain idle for want of employment; and if my remarks shall have the effect of stimulating a single individual to this work, they will not have been made in vain.”

Now, about those specific sciences that Gramps mentioned in need of intense study, some say his most significant concentration was in meteorology. He encouraged the new technology of his day with the telegraph system as a means to record weather conditions. He collected data from observers all over the country and complied charts connecting places with equal barometric pressure. He concluded that atmospheric pressure passed “like a wave over the entire country, from west to east.”

What Gramps could only picture in his mind and transfer to charts, your modern technology has created onto a moving screen that you call television. I watched the weather station yesterday, fascinated by the weather patterns traveling west to east. If only I could tell my Gramps that his original observations are now placed in every household worldwide by means of a little box with colorful charts that move and flash across a screen. I know he would get the concept immediately because he knew of signals and energy waves from all his studies in terrestrial magnetism.

I should say something here about my grandfather’s personal life, lest you think that he lacked in family or social connections. It was here in your town, while Gramps was teaching at Reserve, that he found a wife, my grandmother, Julia Elmore Upson of Tallmadge. They were married in 1840 and raised two sons, Francis and Henry. The Records of the Trustees at the college confirms that my grandparents had “the use of the Clark place after Esquire Hudson’s year expires for $100 per annum.”

Gramps and Grammie saw to it that Uncle Francis and my dad had the finest of education as you can imagine. My dad graduated from Yale with a degree in law and enjoyed a long and successful career. Uncle Francis took after Gramps and became a noted astronomer in his own right armed with his degree from Harvard.

I’ve probably gone on too long about my grandfather, boasting about his accomplishments, but what was said at his funeral address by the president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, is something I think you’ll want to hear before I finish.

“The peculiar constitution of his mind disposed him to quiet reflection, and to solitary searching after truth. He had a calm joy in the accurate and steady and even working of his powers. He was not a lonely man. He was ready to teach others, and to work and write for their benefit. He was kindly and generous and glad to talk with his friends. Among all the lectures whom I have ever heard, I know of no one who surpassed him in this respect. His words were excellently chosen. There were just enough to express his idea, and no more.”

One of his students, Arthur Bostwick, remarked at the time, “Mr. Loomis was an eccentric man, very short and brief in what he had to say. He was sometimes so amusing, without meaning to be so, that being still very young and not having our emotions in good control it was all we could do to keep from laughing out loud.”

There you have it. My Gramps was a man of great accomplishment. I might add that he wrote many, many books and papers on astronomy, natural philosophy, meteorology, analytical geometry and calculus. He translated these textbooks into Arabic and Chinese, thus being instrumental in bringing western math concepts to Asia. I was told by my host here in Hudson, that if Gramps were alive today, his translating skills could certainly be used as this is a time when those very languages are of the utmost importance for global communication.

Elias Loomis truly was a man ahead of his time!


About Kathleen Franks

Kathleen Franks is a writer, artist, storyteller, and community volunteer based in Berkeley, CA
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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