President Lincoln Goes To The Observatory

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Many urban stargazers enjoy chance meetings with curious passersby who take an interest in looking through a telescope. But none of us will likely receive the caliber of visitor who twice knocked on the observatory door of a lone astronomer in Washington, D.C. on a warm August night in 1863.

The lone astronomer was Asaph Hall, a self-taught professor of mathematics at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Hall was an amateur stargazer who lacked funds for formal study, taught mathematics for a time, quit teaching to assist at Harvard College Observatory for a meager $3 a week, then leveraged his skill and tenacity to gain a position at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Hall was promoted to full professor of mathematics at the Observatory by order of president Abraham Lincoln in May 1863.

So imagine Hall’s surprise when he heard a knock at the trap door that separated the observatory floor from the office below and saw the striking figure of Lincoln himself emerging and walking towards him in the feeble light.  The president was accompanied by his personal secretary John Hay (or according to some versions of this story, his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton). Both had made the 2.5 mile trip from the White House through the dark streets of Washington to look through the observatory’s telescope.  The astonished Hall treated the president and his secretary to a look at the Moon and the bright star Arcturus through the 9.6-inch refractor.

Asaph Hall in his later years at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Asaph Hall in his later years at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Even during the American Civil War, Lincoln was a common sight in the streets of Washington.  He shunned formality and security and often greeted casual visitors at the White House or at his small residence in Washington.  Said Lincoln: “It would never do for a president to have guards with drawn sabers at his door, as if he fancied he were, or were trying to be, or were assuming to be, an emperor.”

The president would occasionally relieve the crushing pressures of the Civil War by indulging his interest in technology and science. Lincoln was a tinkerer with a curious mind and remains the only U.S. president to hold a patent (two actually). But something bothered him after his first visit to the Naval Observatory. So he returned a few nights later—alone—to question Asaph Hall about what he had seen. Lincoln was perplexed by his view of the Moon through the big telescope on his previous visit because it was clearly upside-down compared to the view through his own terrestrial spyglass. Hall explained to the president that astronomical telescopes lacked the extra optics to display right-side-up images. Satisfied with the answer, the president bade the professor farewell and wandered back to the burdens of his office. It’s unclear whether they met again.

In 1877, Asaph Hall cemented his fame by using the observatory’s 26-inch refractor to discover the two tiny moons of Mars. The names of these moons were chosen from Homer’s Iliad in which, to stir up trouble, Ares (the Greek name for Mars, the god of war) summoned the gods Phobos (Fear)and  Deimos (Dread).

Lincoln met his untimely end less than two years later when, shortly after winning a second term and seeing to the end of the Civil War, he sat with his wife, unprotected, and was shot at point blank range by confederate spy John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865.  He died the next morning.  Fear and dread indeed.

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