Scientific Papers.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Simon Newcomb

Introductory Note

IN spite of the fertility of America in mechanical invention and applied science, there are few branches of pure science in which she can be regarded as among the leading nations. Her nearest approach to preeminence has probably been in astronomy; and in this field Simon Newcomb was, at his death, the most distinguished figure.

Newcomb was born in the village of Wallace, Nova Scotia, March 12, 1835. His father, who was a teacher, gave him his elementary education; and at the age of eighteen we find him teaching a country school in Maryland. Two years later, a position as computer on the “Nautical Almanac” brought him to Cambridge, Mass., where he studied in Harvard University till 1861, when he was appointed professor of mathematics in the United States Navy. He remained in the government service till he was retired as a rear admiral in 1897, having served besides as professor of mathematics and astronomy in Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, from 1884.

Newcomb’s chief labors were in the department of mathematical astronomy, and were directed toward the explanation of the observed movements of the heavenly bodies. The difficulty and complexity of the calculations involved are beyond the conception of the layman; and the achievements which brought Newcomb honors from the learned of almost all civilized countries have to be taken on trust by the general. He had, nevertheless, an admirable power of clear exposition of those parts of his subject which were capable of popularization; and the accompanying paper is a good example of the simple treatment of a large subject.

Newcomb’s interests extended beyond his special field, and he wrote with vigor and originality on finance and economics, and played a leading part in the general intellectual life of his time. When he died in the midst of his labors on July 11, 1909, he left a place at the head of American science that will not easily be filled.