Joel H. Metcalf Biography (Part 1)

 Joel Hastings Metcalf

Part 1: From An Early Age

Popular Astronomy No. 328, Courtesy of the Maria Mitchell Observatory

Joel Hastings Metcalf

The Reverend Joel Hastings Metcalf was a passionate figure who made many important and fascinating contributions to the field of astronomy at Harvard during the early part of the 20th century. Being trained and educated as a minister, astronomy was not Metcalf’s profession, but it was his passion, and he proved this repeatedly over the course of his life. The discoveries he made as an “amateur” astronomer, including numerous comets and asteroids, were in and of themselves impressive to the astronomical community. The fact that Metcalf made such discoveries with telescopes and lenses which he himself crafted or modified is what truly distinguishes his work and ensures his legacy as one of the greatest amateur astronomers and lens crafters in the history of US astronomy. The lenses he created, by hand, for himself and Harvard University, would provide important tools that would help shape the study of astronomy at Harvard throughout the ensuing decades.

Metcalf was born in 1866 in Meadville, Pennsylvania. His passion for astronomy was evident from a young age. The beginnings of Metcalf’s fascination with the stars and planets began when Metcalf was an adolescent, as mentioned in a biographical account written by his daughter, Rachel Metcalf Stoneham. Stoneham recounts how “[w]hen he was fourteen years old, he took from the Sunday School library a book called ‘Other Worlds Than Ours’ by Richard Proctor…[t]his book became an open door through which he had visions of the Universe beyond[1]” Stoneham also describes how, around this same time, Metcalf was inspired by the book to observe the conjunction of Mars and Jupiter from his backyard, and that this incident cemented his fascination with astronomy for years to come[2].

Solon I. Bailey, who was acting director of the Harvard Observatory from 1919 to 1921 following the death of director Edward Pickering[3], wrote his own account of Metcalf’s life, which was subsequently published in Popular Astronomy in 1925, following Metcalf’s untimely death. Bailey also notes Metcalf’s passion for astronomy early in his life, and recounts how, as a young man, he came into possession of a lens found in an abandoned house, of all places, and worked for his mother doing odd jobs as a means to raise the money he would use to mount it[4]. This particular anecdote about Metcalf’s first telescope is further explained by both Stoneham and John Bortle, who authored an account of Metcalf’s astronomical career for Sky and Telescope in October 1989. Bortle recounts that it was actually a classmate of Metcalf’s who discovered the lens, and that Metcalf traded marbles and a jackknife with this schoolmate in order to acquire it[5]. Stoneham corroborates this and fondly mentions how hard Metcalf had to work to earn the money for the lens’s mounting, saying “young Joel had to plead long and carry many an extra armful of wood before she[his mother] could be persuaded to give him the six dollars necessary to mount it.[6]”. His determination in the procurement of this telescope is impressive, and would prove indicative of his later forays into the astronomical field. For the present, however, Metcalf seems glad to have had the instrument and put it to good use investigating the night sky. He would use soapboxes and wood from his barn to mount the telescope, and was, according to Stoneham’s recollections, suspected of sneaking out his window on several nights after being sent to bed in order to use it [7]. It is curious to imagine whether he had any notion how far his interests in this subject would take him, though it is hard to imagine he had any idea of the impact those interests would make. Metcalf’s passion for astronomy would blossom in his adult life and through it he would create critical instruments that would enable both him and others to make discoveries that would profoundly affect not only his studies, but also the field of astronomy as a whole.

 

Acknowledgments: I would like to acknowledge David Sliski, former Plate Stacks assistant, Louise Rubin,of the John G. Wolbach Library, and especially Maria McEachern, also of the John G. Wolbach Library, for providing tremendous research assistance, editing support, and guidance throughout this project.

[1] Stoneham, Rachel Metcalf, “Joel H. Metcalf, Clergyman-Astronomer”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 47, January 1939, Courtesy Maria Mitchell Observatory, pg. 23

[2] Stoneham, Rachel Metcalf, “Joel H. Metcalf, Clergyman-Astronomer”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 47, January 1939, pg. 23

[3] King, E.S., “Solon Irving Bailey (1854-1931)”, Popular Astronomy: Volume 39, 1931, Courtesy Maria Mitchell Observatory, pg. 456

[4] Bailey, Solon I., “Joel Hastings Metcalf”, Popular Astronomy: Volume 33 No. 8, October 1925, pg. 492

[5] Bortle, John, “A Remarkable New England Amateur”, Sky and Telescope: October 1989, pg. 435

[6] Stoneham, Rachel Metcalf, “Joel H. Metcalf, Clergyman-Astronomer”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 47, January 1939, Courtesy Maria Mitchell Observatory, pg. 23

[7] Stoneham, Rachel Metcalf, “Joel H. Metcalf, Clergyman-Astronomer”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 47, January 1939, Courtesy Maria Mitchell Observatory, pg. 23

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