Grateful American® Foundation

Who established the US observatory today?

December 6th

U.S._Naval_Observatory-sealDecember 6, 1825 — President John Quincy Adams signed the bill for the creation of a national US observatory today.

The observatory’s primary mission was to care for the United States Navy’s marine chronometers, charts, and other navigational equipment. It calibrated ships’ chronometers by timing the transit of stars across the meridian. Initially located downtown at 38.89510°N 77.05145°W in Foggy Bottom (near the Lincoln Memorial), the observatory moved in 1893 to its present location on a 2000-foot circle of land atop Observatory Hill overlooking Massachusetts Avenue.

Placed under the command of Lieutenant Louis M. Goldsborough, with an annual budget of $330, its primary function was the restoration, repair, and rating of navigational instruments. It was made into a national observatory in 1842 via a federal law and a Congressional appropriation of $25,000.

Lieutenant James Melville Gilliss was put in charge of “obtaining the instruments needed and books.” He visited the principal observatories of Europe with the mission to purchase telescopes and scientific devices and books.

The first superintendent was Navy Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, who created the world’s first vulcanized time ball. Its specifications, by Charles Goodyear, was the first time ball was placed into service in 1845 so Maury could keep accurate time by the stars and planets.

Words of Wisdom

It is with no feeling of pride, as an American, that the remark be made, that, on the comparatively small territorial surface of Europe, there are existing upward of one
hundred and thirty of these lighthouses of the skies; while throughout the whole
American hemispphere, there is not one.

— In his 1825 first annual address to Congress, President John Quincy Adams challenged Congress to build the country’s first national observatory. The “Old Man Eloquent” argued the duty and right of government to promote learning, and he emphasized that a significant component of this duty was to erect an astronomical observatory

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