The Bondís: Pioneers of American Astronomy

"I am honored to recognize George Phillips Bond (1825-1865), second director of Harvard College Observatory, whose dedication to unlocking the visual mysteries of the Orion nebula with the Harvard Observatory's 15-inch refractor led ultimately to his premature death. Reading his diaries two decades ago kept me enchanted on many cloudy night, and taught me how to be a patient and persistent and observer."

I sat reading these lines by Stephen James O'Meara in the Acknowledgments section of his fine book, The Messier Objects, and I wondered who George Phillips Bond was, and why one of the best known visual observers of today would mention him so prominently in his book. Although I had heard of George Phillips Bond, I did not know much about him, nor of his work at the Harvard College Observatory.

After receiving some suggestions from Stephen James OíMeara on initial reference materials to look at I began to do research on George Phillips Bond, and his father William Cranch Bond. Their lives spanned the beginning of the United States, when George Washington became president, through the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln was president. From this research I gained insight into why the Bonds were considered the leading experts on Saturn during the middle of the nineteenth century in America, and why some people consider them to be the fathers of American astronomy. Also why George Phillips Bond is thought of as the father of astrophotography.

Although William Cranch Bond grew up in poverty and left school at an early age to support the family his interest in astronomy and personal traits lead him to be selected as the first Director of the Harvard College Observatory. George Phillips Bond was at first reluctant to join his father in astronomy as he was very interested in nature and the study of birds. However, due to his accomplishments he became the first astronomer in America to be awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal. The award arrived several days after he passed away.

William Cranch Bond. Courtesy Harvard College Observatory

Early Family Life

On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States in New York City. Less then five months later, William Cranch Bond was born in Portland, Maine, on September 9, 1789, the son of William Bond and Hannah Cranch. Unfortunately, the family had a long hard struggle with poverty, and William Cranch Bond left the public school at the age of 10 to support the family. His interest in astronomy began when he was 17 years old in 1806 when he observed total solar eclipse from Boston that had a duration of five minutes. The memory of the grandeur and beauty of watching the eclipse stayed with him the rest of his life, and from that day forward his passion was to become an astronomer.

However, since money was scarce he could not afford books or instruments. Some important traits he had however were a strong sense of duty, integrity, courage, perseverance and ingenuity. So although he lacked funds to buy astronomical instruments, he made what instruments he could and spent time training his eye to see as much detail as possible. Hence, he discovered the Great Comet of 1811 and observed it for several months before anyone else in America.

Eventually two professors learned of his observations, and in 1815 when the decision was made to investigate astronomical observatories in Europe in preparation for building an observatory in Cambridge William Cranch Bond was chosen to go due to his ingenuity and observing skills. He traveled to Greenwich and other important observatories, including Sir William Herschelís observatory at Slough. Sir William Herschel was not there that day, but his sister, Caroline Lucretia Herschel, showed him about the observatory, the telescopes, and the methods of observing. The personal and scientific relationship between the Herschel family and the directors of the Harvard College Observatory, which began with William Cranch Bondís visit in 1815, continued for over a century.

Also while in England he met his cousin, Selina Cranch, and fell in love with her. They were married her in July 1819, and over the course of the next eleven years had six children. The eldest son, William Cranch Bond Jr. showed a natural gift for mathematics, and was a promising astronomer. However, due to his untimely death in November 1841 at the age of 20, George Phillips Bond became his fatherís assistant.

George Phillips Bond was born on May 20, 1825. He took the death of his eldest brother very hard, and at first was reluctant to join his father in astronomy, as he was very interested in the study of nature and birds. When his older brother died however he felt he had no choice but to take his brotherís place. George Phillips Bond enjoyed nature, particularly mountain climbing, and surveyed the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In 1853 published the first carefully prepared map of this area, in which he named a number of the mountains. Mount Bond, West Bond, and the BondCliff were all named for him. These mountains are among the most remote, yet dramatic summits in all of the White Mountains.

William Cranch Bond Becomes the First Director of the Harvard College Observatory

Harvard College Observatory. Courtesy Harvard College Observatory

Efforts to establish an observatory at Harvard began as early as 1805. However, it was not until 1839 that the first decisive move was made to establish an observatory. In August 1842 William Cranch Bondís brother in law, George Cranch, was commissioned as Harvardís agent in the selection and negotiations for a large refracting telescope. The telescope chosen was to be a twin of the 15" Merz & Mahler refractor at the Polkova Observatory, Russia. To house the new telescope, called the "Great Refractor", a tract of land was purchased on the outskirts of Cambridge and the building and dome were erected by 1846, and the Great Refractor was mounted in June 1847.

Once the Great Refractor was mounted the Bonds set out on a systematic observing program. This included detailed observations of the planets, including Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, and sunspots; deep-sky objects, including, as they were called at the time, The Great Nebula of Orion (Messier 42), The Great Cluster of Hercules (Messier 13), and The Andromeda Nebula (Messier 31), as well as the measurement of stellar positions; observations of comets; and celestial photography (now called astrophotography) and photometry.

The Great Refractor as it appeared shortly after it was put into service in 1847. Note the observing chair on the left that was designed by William Cranch Bond. Courtesy Harvard College Observatory

Planetary Observations

One of the first objects studied was Saturn. During each opposition of the planet from 1847 to 1857, detailed observations were made, which included drawings and measurements. Up until that time there had not been such thorough and ongoing study of Saturn. During this time a number of discoveries were made, including a new satellite of Saturn which was named Hyperion, as well as the C-Ring or Crepe Ring, which were independently discovered in England at the same time by William Lassell and William Dawes respectively.

One of the observers at the Harvard College Observatory who contributed to the study of Saturn during this time was Phillip Sidney Coolidge, whose father was friends with the Bonds. He was born on August 22nd 1830 in Boston and the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson. He spent most of his youth in Europe where he received his education in well known schools in Geneva, Switzerland, and later the Royal Military College in Dresden, Germany, where his interest in becoming a soldier was born.

Phillip Sidney Coolidge worked as a volunteer assistant at the observatory and his relationship with George Phillips Bond became one of the greatest pleasures of his life. He showed an exceptional aptitude and skill for observing. It was during one of his observations in December 1854 and January 1855 that he became the first astronomer in America to report seeing the feature in Saturnís A-Ring that is now referred to as the Encke Division.

Drawing by Phillip Sidney Coolidge on January 9th, 1855 of several rings divisions visible within Saturn's A-Ring, including the Encke Minima near the middle of the A-Ring, and the Encke Division near the edge of the A-Ring. Note that the inner portion of the B-Ring appears to be composed of very fine lines or spokes which is similar to what I observed on Saturn in 1997 some 142 years later. Courtesy Harvard College Observatory

On February 14th 1857 while observing Saturn's B-Ring Sidney Coolidge noted that "The inner two thirds have the same streaky appearance noticed before." In the 1970's Stephen James O'Meara saw this curious annotation and in the course of his own observations at the Harvard Observatory using the 15" and 9" refractors discovered spokes in Saturn's B-Ring. He followed them for four years and presented a talk to a professional Saturn conference on the variability of the spokes before the Voyager spacecraft imaged and confirmed them.

In addition to his observing skills Sidney Coolidge was a very accomplished at sketching. For example he could write the name of the object he was observing, such as Saturn in normal handwriting, then be able to write it exactly the same backwards, or mirror reversed. In another case on a sketch of Saturn he added a number of characters and animals to it: a polar bear in Saturnís polar region; a bridge connecting Saturnís B-Ring with A-Ring, with a small house with chimney and a flag on the A-Ring; a wild boar chasing a man across the rings; Native Americans; a dinosaur, and other animals.

Observations of Comets

For a number of years George Bond spent many hours diligently searching for comets, and independently discovered eleven of them. It was work on The Great Comet of 1858, also know as Donatiís Comet that he is best remembered for. At its peak, the comet reached between 0 to 1st magnitude, with a tail of between 50 to 60 degrees long.

The comet was studied by astronomersí world wide, and in his memoir of the comet George Phillips Bond complied and analyzed these observations and published the results. It was the most complete study ever done of any comet, and included many detailed sketches of the comet. When looking at drawings that George Phillips Bond had made of Donatiís Comet in 1858, I noted that the detail he recorded was similar to what I saw and recorded in sketches I made of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, some 139 years later. These included jets coming off of the pseudonucleus that connected to and feed an inner parabolic hood, and several outer parabolic hoods.

Drawing of Comet Donati by George Phillips Bond on October 10, 1858. The drawing shows four jets coming off of the pseudonucleus that are connected to and feeding two parabolic hoods, or envelopes as he referred to them, as well as two outer parabolic hoods. Courtesy Harvard College Observatory

Astrophotography and Photometry

Astrophotography, or celestial photography as it was called back then, was initially started at the Harvard College Observatory by William Cranch Bond, but it was George Phillips Bond who made it a success.

The Bondís were not the first to use the daguerreotype photographic process to photograph celestial objects. However, George Phillips Bond was the first to truly understand celestial photography, and how it could be applied astronomy. He felt astrophotography would become an important branch of astronomy, and suggested that it could be used as an aid of, or even a substitute for, the eye.

George Phillips Bond and the two photographers he directed had to deal with some of the problems that later generations of astrophotographers have had to deal with as well: accurate clock drives and finding sensitive enough film to record celestial objects. It was found that by using the principle of the chronograph (which the Bonds perfected) to regulate the clock drive of the telescope much more uniform tracking was obtained, so they could extend their exposures to record more detail. He hoped that a telescope designed for astrophotography could be built, as the focal ratio of the 15" Great Refractor was f/18, but no money was available. He had begun to understand the importance of faster focal ratio in recording faint detail, and understood and foresaw also how a combination of more sensitive plates and a larger aperture telescope used at a higher elevation such as a mountaintop could result in accurately recording stars to a much fainter magnitude than he was able to. He seemed to predict and foresee the great mountain top observatories that astronomers use today to explore the universe.

In addition, George Phillips Bond performed early experiments in photometry, which laid the foundation for future advances in this important branch of astronomy.

Deep-Sky Observations

The Bonds and the assistants who worked at the observatory observed a number of deep-sky objects, including Messier and NGC objects. In the course of his observations George Phillips Bond discovered a half dozen NGC galaxies, including NGC 219, NGC 223, NGC 391, NGC 5366, NGC 7692, and NGC 7793. Of particular interest to the Bonds was The Great Nebula of Orion. They spent many nights observing and studying the nebula, and his father published a drawing and part of his detailed observations he had made of the nebula during 1847 and 1848. However, one European astronomer expressed rather severe criticisms on the catalogue of the stars in the nebula of Orion, and these criticisms were widely republished and circulated in the American newspapers. George Phillips Bond felt this was not only a reflection on the work of his father, but also of the observatory, so he decided to review the matter from the beginning.

Unfortunately for George Phillips Bond, there were significant changes that took place in his life and in the country before he was able to return to study the nebula in detail. As we shall see, it was the combination of these factors ultimately lead to his premature death.

George Phillips Bond Becomes Second Director of the Observatory and the Civil War Years

In January 1859 William Cranch Bond died of heart trouble. He was 69 years old, and was remembered in his later years as being very frail in health and as a kindly old man, serene, placid, and deeply religious. Although he is remembered today as the first director of the Harvard College Observatory, it was a combination of factors including his interest in astronomy and his abilities that earned him this position. These include courage, perseverance, ingenuity, duty, justice and integrity. Even though he had no formal training in astronomy, and could not afford books or instruments, he used whatever tools he could and trained his eyes as best he could to observe astronomical objects.

Unfortunately this was a very difficult time for his son George Phillips Bond. Not only did he lose his father, but also a few weeks before in December 1858 he lost his wife, Harriet Gardner Harris, whom he had married in January 1853. Together they had three daughters, the youngest who died in infancy in 1858. So within eleven months George lost his youngest daughter, his wife, and his father. Also, it was during this period that he became ill with tuberculosis. He was only 34 years old. During his entire tenure as director of the observatory, he was slowly dying from this disease.

Also, regrettably, there was some friction between the small group of astronomers in Cambridge. One professor who was not chosen as the second director of the observatory, along with his friends, made George Phillips Bondís life more difficult, and often criticized the work and publications of the observatory. Credit for some of his inventions, such as the laying the foundations of astrophotography, were given to other people rather then the Bonds.

It was only after the death of his father that George Phillips Bond realized that there were insufficient funds to run the observatory. William Cranch Bond, whose business had prospered, had been able to draw on his own funds to help meet any financial deficits of the observatory. His son however had no private resources at his disposal.

The financial situation became more acute after the Civil War broke out in April 1861, as most outside funding for the observatory dried up. This affected not just the observatory but his household as well, where as a single parent he was trying to raise two young children. All comforts and many necessities were given up as luxury items, to cut down personal expenses to the minimum, which included buying the morning newspaper, and even his morning cup of coffee.

When the Civil War broke out Phillip Sidney Coolidge enlisted in the Union army, receiving the commission of Major in the 16th infantry. In March of 1863 he joined the army of the Cumberland under General William Rosecrans on its advance through Tennessee. On Saturday morning, September 19th, 1863, on the banks of the Chickamauga Creek, Major Coolidge was in command of the 16th infantry brigade in front of and supporting a battery of the 5th artillery.

Major Phillip Sidney Coolidge. Courtesy US Army Military History Institute

When the Confederates attacked, Union troops were forced back and an officer was sent with orders to withdrawal was unable to reach Major Coolidge. He was seen nearly surrounded by Confederate soldiers and fighting desperately with his sword. He was either shot or dragged off of his horse. Eventually Union troops recaptured the battery, but they could not find Major Coolidge. He was at first reported as killed in action, then later listed as a prisoner of war, finally as missing in action. In his report on the observatory in the fall of 1863 George Phillips Bond mentioned the concern that the fate of Major Coolidge was still unknown. After months of worry, the family and friends of Sidney Coolidge finally resigned themselves to the fact that he had been killed during the battle. He had just turned 33 years old.

Two days after Major Phillip Sidney Coolidge was killed at the battle of Chickamauga Creek, another friend of the Bonds, Edward Everett, celebrated orator, diplomat, clergyman, and educator, was chosen as the principal speaker at the dedication at Gettsburg. President Abraham Lincoln had been invited almost as an afterthought to offer a "few appropriate remarks". The dedication ceremony had planned for October 23rd, but was later postponed until November 19th as Edward Everett requested more time to prepare. His speech over was 14,000 words, and he spoke for some two hours, in which he reviewed in detail the history of those who fought at Gettysburg as well as to chastise the South.

Lincoln's speech was only 272 words, and spoke for a little over 2 minutes. When he finished, there was just a sprinkling of applause, so Lincoln felt that his speech had been a failure, a poor speech that was too brief. The press only briefly mentioned it. Yet Lincoln's The Gettysburg Address is considered to be one of his best speeches and one of the most memorable of all time.

Back at the observatory in Cambridge, George Phillips Bond, despite the fact that funding for the observatory was scare, felt honor bound to keep the work at the same level it had been before the war, and so worked very long and hard, even with his declining health. Were it not for his willingness to do this, as well as the donations from a few friends, it is likely that the observatory would have closed.

At the same time he continued to make donations to the church, and attended church service whenever his health permitted. He was a deeply religious and spiritual person, and also a devoted father, and passed on his love of nature and wildlife to his children. He taught his children to observe and care for wildlife, to appreciate the wonders of a starry night, the grandeur of a summer thunderstorm, and to see the deeper meaning of the world around them. In addition he had an intense love of color. On clear summer evenings he would take his children outside to watch the sunset and the gathering twilight. He was sure that one-day color would be permanently photographed, and had some theories on how this would be accomplished.

It was during this period that he returned in earnest to his observations of the Orion Nebula. Although he had started to make detailed observations of the nebula in 1857, his work was interrupted by the work on Comet Donati, and was not resumed for some years. During the winter months of 1861-1862 through 1863-1864 he pushed himself hard to observe the nebula as often as possible, sometimes when the temperatures were at or below 0 degrees. His eagerness to complete his work on the Orion Nebula lead him to observe in conditions at the observatory that were incompatible with the state of his declining health from tuberculosis. There was no money for heat for the observatory, and the rooms he worked in were often bitterly cold and draughty. Only a few months before his death the committee of overseers was informed that the dome leaked so badly and was so damp that it was unsafe for him to work there. However, funds to repair the dome could not be raised.

The Orion Nebula is a complex object to accurately sketch. George Phillips Bond described the area around the Trapezium as composed of "wreaths or streaks of nebulosity", and that "in many instances the wreaths, like smoke from wet weeds, grass, or hay thrown on coals, seem to intertwine in a way that is quite difficult to draw". To make as accurate and detailed sketch as possible, George Phillips Bond made many drawings, some using white pencil on black paper, others with lead pencil on white paper, or others using watercolor. Each of these sketches were revised or re-revised many times. His drawing on the nebula is considered to be the most accurate and complete ever made. In addition he also accurately catalogued over 1100 stars in terms of their brightness and position within the nebula.

Drawing of The Orion Nebula by George Phillips Bond. Courtesy Harvard College Observatory

He died before the text of the memoir was complete, though he worked on it until a few hours before his death, dictating to an assistant when he was too weak to hold a pen. Still, even in its unfinished form, it was the most complete one ever done for many years.

In a letter dated January 7th, 1865 to Asaph Hall, another assistant who had worked at the observatory, he wrote, "My disease makes progress, and leaves me little hope of putting materials of my work on Orion to which I have devoted so much of my labor into condition such that another could prepare them for press. In truth, I am becoming resigned to the idea that most of it is destined to oblivion. I had planned to accomplish something considerable, and this is the end. ĎIt is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.í "

At the February 1865 meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London it was decided to award George Bond its gold medal for fine work he did on the Great Comet of 1858 or Donatiís Comet, as well as his other works. The official notification of the award arrived a few days after he passed away on February 17th, 1865 at the age of 39. However his friends in London informed him some weeks before that he was to receive the award.

Perhaps because he died so young and during the economically depressed time of the Civil War, there are no known portraits of George Bond. He was described as having deep blue eyes, wavy dark hair, tall, a little under six feet, and slender, painfully thin in later years as his disease advanced.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Like his father, George Phillips Bond had a number of important traits, including courage, perseverance, ingenuity, duty, and integrity that allowed him to succeed in astronomy. During most of his time as director of the observatory, he was slowly dying from tuberculosis. Due to the economic hardships of the Civil War, he faced poverty as he struggled to raise a family alone, and yet still worked hard as he tried to keep the observatory open and productive. Were it not for these traits, the Harvard Observatory probably would have closed, and many of the important contributions he made to astronomy during these years would be lost.

William Cranch Bond and his son George Phillips Bond were pioneers in American astronomy. The foundation they laid in astrophotography that became an important research tool in astronomy, leading to discoveries even they could not have dreamt about. They made also important contributions to the study of Saturn, comets, and deep-sky objects such as the Orion Nebula. Their work has been recognized by the Royal Astronomical Society, as William Cranch Bond was chosen as the first American to be elected one of the fifty Foreign Associates of this body in 1849, while George Phillips Bond was chosen in 1863. George Phillips Bond received also the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1865. Other notable astronomers who also received this award were Asaph Hall in 1879, Edward C. Pickering in 1886, and Edward E. Barnard in 1897.

Recently when looking at a map of the Moon I noted that both William Cranch Bond and George Phillips Bond have craters named after them, while on a map of Mars I found that George Phillips Bond has a crater named after him. So their names will live on in the annals of astronomy for future generations. I now have an appreciation of why Stephan James OíMeara acknowledged George Phillips Bond so prominently in his book, and the Bond's important astronomical legacy.


The author would like to thank the following people for their assistance in the preparation of this article: Stephen James OíMeara for providing suggestions on initial reference material to look at; the staff at the Harvard College Observatory for obtaining the reference materials; Wolfgang Steinicke of the NGC/IC Project for the NGC objects that George Phillips Bond discovered; John Gerber and James Heller for providing information on the White Mountains where George Phillips Bond enjoyed hiking; and most importantly to my family for their patience, understanding, love and support during the hours I worked on researching and writing this article - they are the center of my universe.

Like Stephen James OíMeara, William Cranch Bond and George Philips Bond, Sidney Coolidge, William Dawes, and William Lassel the author enjoys making sketches at the eyepiece.

Article © 2000 - 2017, Eric Jamison, All rights reserved. May not be used without written permission of the author.