Joel H. Metcalf Biography (Part 2)

Joel Hastings Metcalf

Part 2: The Cultivation of a Passion

Metcalf’s fascination with astronomy would prove to be much more than a youthful pursuit forgotten with age, though it would not be center of his professional life either. That role was left to his work as a preacher, a calling for which Metcalf undertook an extensive education. Metcalf graduated from Meadville Theological School in 1890 at the age of 24 and soon after attended Harvard Divinity School, before finally earning his Ph. D. from Allegheny College in 1892[1]. Ever multifaceted in his energies, ministerial studies were not the only subject of Metcalf’s attention during these years. It was during this time that he began his family by marrying Elizabeth S. Lockman, of Cambridge, Massachusetts in September of 1891, with whom he would have two children, Herbert and Rachel[2]. Metcalf would then go on to serve his first posting as a Unitarian Minister in Burlington, Vermont from 1893 to 1903.

Having settled into his ministry in Vermont with his new family, Metcalf found time to further cultivate his interest in astronomy. According to scholar and Taunton, Massachusetts, resident Richard R. Didick’s extensive account of Metcalf’s life, it was in Burlington that Metcalf’s fascination with lens crafting began[3]. It was also during this time, according to Didick, that Metcalf corresponded with one J. M. Schaeberle of Ann Arbor, Michigan[4]. Schaeberle was himself a like-minded amateur astronomer and later professor at the University of Michigan. Metcalf’s desire to reach out to other enthusiasts and experts in the astronomical field demonstrated the depth of his passion for the subject and would continue to serve him well in later years.

One other major development which occurred during his time in Vermont was the acquisition of a 7-inch Clark refractor telescope, complete with a dome and housing structure, in 1901. The tremendous cost of acquiring this instrument, both fiscally financially and logistically, was a testimony to Metcalf’s extraordinary love for astronomy. Clark instruments were widely regarded as the premier instruments of their time, second to none in the United States or even the world. For a so-called amateur like Metcalf to purchase one would be akin to an aspiring violinist purchasing a Stradivarius for their first practice instrument, or a passionate motorist buying a Ferrari in order to lean to race. In fact, Clark telescopes have played a seminal role in Harvard’s history of astronomical study. Clark created a 24-inch “Bruce” refractor for the Harvard Observatory in 1902, and additionally reworked the lenses of certain Harvard telescopes including the 8 inch Bache, Voigtlander, and the 8 inch Draper Doublet, Voigtlander[5]. In an article for Popular Astronomy in 1906, Metcalf explains that the instrument was acquired from an estate sale in Keesville, New York, and that “the telescope had been little used and was practically as good as new with all the excellence which one expects from the Clark glasses.[6]”. The price Metcalf paid for this “excellence” was quite substantial, especially for a man of his income who had a family to support. As stated by Bortle, and corroborated by Bailey, Metcalf “bid $500…[c]onsidering his small salary, it must have been quite a sacrifice for the family.[7]”. To put that statement in perspective, Metcalf’s payment of $500 would be worth over $14,000 today, according to one estimate provided by the Handbook of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor[8]. Even if the estimate is high, there’s no denying the tremendous financial cost he was willing to bear in order to secure what must have seemed a great prize to a man with such a fascination with astronomy. He would have to use horse-drawn sled in the dead of winter to transport the telescope across Lake Champlain from New York. This process would prove to be a tremendous and time-consuming challenge that very nearly resulted in disaster when ice under the sled gave way. According to Metcalf “the large sled having the dome and the cut granite pier fell into a crack, and would have gone to the bottom but for the projecting sides of the dome which reached out to the solid ice!”[9]. They would be forced to leave the telescopic apparatus where it lay until it could be safely moved. Eventually, thanks to laying large wooden timbers on the ice and using rigging derricks they managed to haul the telescope to the safety of land[10]

The price coupled with the laborious and precarious task of getting the telescope across, and out of, Lake Champlain certainly reinforces the point of Metcalf’s astronomical interests going beyond the label of “casual”. This was evident to his family, who were often privy to his energy and keenness for the subject on, quite literally, a daily basis. Stoneham herself says as much, citing that “[r]eligion came in large doses to us youngsters on Sundays and often during the week, but astronomy came with almost every meal and we took it with the same matter-of-factness as we took our bread and butter.[11]

After 10 years at his position in Vermont and apparently on the verge of a nervous breakdown from overextending himself, Metcalf would take a hiatus from his ministry work and spend a year of study at Oxford University in 1902. During this period Metcalf remained intellectually engaged in both his study of religion and astronomy. Bailey notes how “in addition to attending some twenty-five lectures weekly on philosophy and religion, he was given a key to the astronomical observatory by Professor Tuner and gave much time to astronomical problems.[12]” Perhaps it would even be fair to say that a year away from the demands of his professional life gave Metcalf license to explore his astronomical interests in a more unimpaired way. Though, as noted by his continued religious studies that constituted the core of his time spent at Oxford, Metcalf never abandoned his dedication to his ministerial pursuits. Rather, those pursuits appear to have simply taken on a less stressful shape. Multiple sources cite how this time away from a rigorous ministerial life benefited Metcalf greatly. After his time at Oxford and a period of further rest, Metcalf would return to the United States, to Taunton, Massachusetts, and set up his own observatory with a telescope of his own making. It was this instrument, and those that followed, that Metcalf would use to make discoveries that would finally Edward Pickering. This connection would elevate him from aspiring amateur to a renowned expert whose talents for lens-crafting and comet seeking would affect the course of Harvard’s astronomic ventures for years, and decades, to come.

 

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

[2] Didick, Richard R., Joel Hastings Metcalf: Minister, Humanitarian, Astronomer”, The Comet’s Tale: Newsletter of the Comet Section of the British Astronomical Association, Volume 9, No. 1 (Issue 17), 2002 April, pg. 9

[3] Didick, Richard R., Joel Hastings Metcalf: Minister, Humanitarian, Astronomer”, The Comet’s Tale: Newsletter of the Comet Section of the British Astronomical Association, Volume 9, No. 1 (Issue 17), 2002 April, pg. 9

[4] Didick, Richard R., Joel Hastings Metcalf: Minister, Humanitarian, Astronomer”, The Comet’s Tale: Newsletter of the Comet Section of the British Astronomical Association, Volume 9, No. 1 (Issue 17), 2002 April, pg. 9

[5] DASCH: Digital Access to a Sky Century @ Harvard, http://dasch.rc.fas.harvard.edu/telescopes.php

[6] Metcalf, Joel H., “An Amateur’s Obervatory”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 14, 1906, pg. 213

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

[8]The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “Consumer Price Index (Estimate) 1800-“, www.minneapolisfed.org/community_education/teacher/calc/hist1800.cfm

[9] Metcalf, Joel H., “An Amateur’s Obervatory”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 14, 1906, pg. 213

[10] Metcalf, Joel H., “An Amateur’s Obervatory”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 14, 1906, pg. 213

[11] Stoneham, Rachel Metcalf, “Joel H. Metcalf, Clergyman-Astronomer”, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 47, January 1939, Courtesy Maria Mitchell Observatory, pg. 22

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

 

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