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Portrait of Simon Newcomb wearing a black suit.

Simon Newcomb (1835-1909)

Astronomer & Mathematician

Simon Newcomb's father was a school master in Canada who moved around the country to various teaching positions. Simon therefore received formal education only from his father, but it was a good foundation. He then apprenticed as an herbalist for a few years but was disappointed with his mentor's unscientific approach and left the position. Afterward he taught in Maryland for two years, studying political economy, religion, math, and astronomy on the side.


Simon became a private tutor in 1856 in Washington, DC, but moved on to a position at the American Nautical Almanac Office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was tasked with creating new astronomical tables to be used for navigating at sea. He divided his time between that work and studying at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University.


In 1861, he was appointed as professor of mathematics and astronomer at the Naval Observatory in Washington. For ten years, he determined the positions of celestial objects using various telescopes, including the largest (26") refractor telescope in the United States at the time, which had been built under his supervision.


Simon was particularly interested in the orbits of the planets and moon, and wanted to improve the predicted positions by calculating the perturbations in their orbits caused by the gravitational attraction of other bodies. He used records compiled by Hansen dating back to 1750, as well as records from Paris, France dating as far back as 1672. He discovered that Hansen's tables were wrong for this earlier period. Simon's work on the moon's motion and the positions of Uranus and Neptune during this period merited him the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1874. He was thus offered the position of Director of the Harvard College Observatory, but Simon declined due to his love of mathematical theories and computation.

In 1877, Simon became the director of the American Nautical Almanac Office in Washington, DC. From 1884 to 1893, he worked as the professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. He edited the Americal Journal of Mathematics from 1885-1900, and was a founding member and first president of the American Astronomical Society. He was also president of the American Mathematical Society from 1897-1898.

Newcomb computed values for the astronomical constants which were all major improvements on the previous accepted values. In 1896, it was decided that the ephemerides of every country in the world should use Newcomb's values for these constants. This gave Simon the task of cataloging the positions and motions of the bright stars and computing a new value for precession, which was supported financially by the Carnegie Institute.

Newcomb was awarded too many honours to list, but a few stand out as exceptional. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1877, and received its Copley Medal in 1890. He was made an honourary member of most of the major scientific societies of the world, and received the Huygens Medal from the Haarlem Academy of Sciences in 1878. France made him chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1893, and the Astronomy Society of the Pacific awarded him the Bruce Medal in 1898. The citation for that award reads, coincidentally: "...the undoubted fact, that he has done more than any other American since [Benjamin] Franklin to make American science respected and honoured throughout the entire world." You'll be interested to know that the Benjamin Franklin referred to above was the same man who organized the relocation of the eight settler families to Moncton. It is indeed a quirk of fate that a Steeves descendant came to be compared with equivalent respect and accorded the same stature as the man who started the wheels of history to grind 132 years previous.

Could that be all? Hardly. In addition to the above, Newcomb was also an accomplished author. He published: 

  • Popular Astronomy (1878)

  • Astronomy for Schools and Colleges (1880)

  • Principles of Political Economy (1885)

  • The ABC of Finance (1887)

  • Elements of Astronomy (1890)

  • His Wisdom The Defender (1900) (science fiction novel)

  • The Stars (1901)

  • Astronomy for Everybody (1903)

  • The Reminiscences of an Astronomer (1903, reissued 2010)

  • Compendium of Spherical Astronomy (1906)

  • Side-Lights on Astronomy and Kindred Fields of Popular Science: Essays and Addresses (1906)
    [e-book here]

Simon spoke French and German fluently, and had a working vocabulary in Italian and Swedish. He loved long walks, poetry, and chess. Newcomb succumbed to cancer of the bladder in 1909, but not before completing his last work, The Motion of the Moon. He was buried with military honours (Rear Admiral, U.S.N.) in Arlington National Cemetery with President William Howard Taft in attendance.

[Emily Prince (4), Miriam (3), Lewis (2), Heinrich (1)]

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