Monday, June 4, 2012


This is an update of a previously unpublished article I wrote eight years ago.  It is no coincidence that I chose a father and son theme for a June posting because this month is when Father's Day is celebrated in the United States and Canada.  The small blue Roman numerals in brackets are those of the reference Endnotes at the end of the article.


                     Copyright 2012 RICHARD TAIBI 

    Many astronomy enthusiasts know of Lewis Swift (1820-1913) solely because of his comet discoveries during the late nineteenth century.  However, he was equally successful in finding hundreds of nebulas, the term used then for objects that we now know to be immense gas clouds in our galaxy, and also for entire galaxies beyond our own.  In fact, Swift discovered more of these deep-sky objects than anyone else, except for William and John Herschel[i]. 

    Scattered through Swift’s many publications are brief references to his son Edward.  Lewis revealed that Edward made his own discoveries while assisting his father at the telescope.  This article is the history of the Swift father-and-son celestial discovery team during the years 1884-1895. 

The Family’s Background

    Edward Doane Swift (1870-1935) was Lewis’ youngest son, born during Lewis’ second marriage to Caroline Doane Topping.  Edward was almost two-years-old when the family moved to Rochester, New York in 1872.  Lewis hoped that the hardware business he opened in Marathon, New York, would improve in the larger city near the shore of Lake Ontario.  For the next seven years, 1873-1879, Lewis continued his searches for comets and found three of them using his four-and-a-half-inch comet-seeker telescope.  Lewis’ successes brought him world-wide fame and honors from learned institutions and astronomical societies alike.  In 1879 he was awarded a gold medal from the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna; he was named a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by the University of Rochester.   

    Swift gave frequent public astronomy lectures and encouraged the people of Rochester to view the heavenly bodies through his telescope.  Eventually, Swift’s local and international reputation attracted the attention of Hulburt Harrington Warner (1842-1923), a local patent medicine millionaire.  Warner wanted to add to his social stature by endowing a public observatory.  He asked Swift to join him in this venture by raising money for a sixteen-inch refracting telescope.  When Lewis succeeded in raising donations totaling $12,500 from Rochesterians, Warner offered to house the telescope in a grand, $100,000 limestone observatory that was to be attached to a large residence for the Swifts[ii]. The telescope, observatory and house were all built in 1882. To appreciate the construction costs, $12,500 in 1882 was worth about $275,000 in 2010 United States Dollars, and $100,000 was approximately equal to $2,200,000 in 2010[iii].

    The observatory with its sixteen-inch Clark refracting telescope was operational in early 1883, and by July 9, 1883, Swift had decided to dedicate his research hours to hunting nebulas[iv].  Lewis and Edward’s teamwork began with the inauguration of the observatory.  It is only because Lewis Swift was such an excellent self-chronicler that we know about Edward’s accomplishments.  The tale of the two working together at night during the next twelve years is an appealing account of mutual support and achievement.

Rochester Nights

    In 1884 Lewis Swift informed Sidereal Messenger magazine readers that he had discovered 197 new nebulas.  He added, “seven … were found by my son, a lad of thirteen years of age[v]."  In this way, a proud father informed the world that Edward was his partner in celestial exploration.  All 197 were additions to the nebulas already found by William and John Herschel and other European astronomers.

    Three years later,  Swift reported that the two were still collaborating. “In this work, occasional assistance has been received from my son Edward, now a lad of fifteen years, who has discovered twenty-one” of 540 nebulae found at Warner Observatory as of February 1, 1887[vi].  Actually, Swift had begun publishing lists of nebular discoveries in 1885, in Astronomische Nachrichten, a journal in which professional astronomers posted their observations[vii].  In each list, he identified every nebula his son found by adding the notation, “Edward,” at the end of its description[viii].

    H.H. Warner awarded $200 prizes to American comet discoverers.  But he also bestowed gold medals on astronomers “for scientific investigation and discovery.”  Warner relied on Lewis Swift’s judgment in making these awards.  Paternal pride undoubtedly had a role in the award of a gold medal to Edward “for discovery of nebula” before he was seventeen-years-old[ix].

    Edward’s credits appeared in most of his father’s Astronomische Nachrichten catalogues. Edward discovered his first nebula on August 8, 1884[x], and his last find was made October 17, 1891, when he was twenty-years-old[xi].  In all, Edward found forty-seven new nebulas, almost four percent of the Swifts’ total of 1240 discoveries[xii].

    We can get a sense of the Swifts’ close collaboration in one account Lewis Swift provided to Sidereal Messenger readers in 1888.   

Edward, the director’s seventeen year old son and his only assistant had discovered another (nebula)…near (the star) Vega…But stranger than these, the young tyro … found one and his father, a second (near) Epsilon Lyrae, that wonderful double-double (star) which has been a target for all the great telescopes of the world, and which astronomers have scanned without suspicion that two undiscovered nebulas were near.  (The one) seen by the younger observer was the fainter of the two, he overlooking the brighter one subsequently captured by his father[xiii].

California Comets

     In 1893 Warner’s financial empire collapsed and he could not support the observatory and its astronomer.  However, Lewis Swift found a new benefactor in Thaddeus Lowe (1832-1913), who had made fortunes from industrial production methods for artificial ice and coke, a derivative of coal. During 1893-1894, Lowe was in the process of developing a mountain resort on 3,700-foot Echo Mountain in California.  He was interested in building an observatory as one of several attractions on the mountain.  Swift and Lowe struck an agreement and by 1894, Lewis, Caroline and Edward were in residence on Echo Mountain with the sixteen-inch refractor housed in a new observatory one-quarter-mile away[xiv].

    Lowe Observatory had a level roof area on which Swift’s comet-seeker could be used, just outside and adjacent to the sixteen-inch's dome.  Two anecdotes suggest that Swift and his son searched the skies together, often with one man at the eyepiece of the large Clark refractor and the other using the comet-seeker nearby.  The first is an account of how Edward found a comet on November 20, 1894.

One evening during the first year of our joint work on Echo Mountain, my son was at the great glass searching the west for nebulas, while I was outside the Observatory engaged in comet-seeking.  Finding a suspect in the southwest, I repaired to the large telescope for better examination of the object found, but, as it was only a nebula, went again to my quest while he, leaving the telescope very nearly where I had used it, resumed his work and a few minutes later whistled for me and together we watched an undoubted comet which soon showed motion, not only, but also revealed a faint, short tail.  This proved to be the long lost DeVico comet of 1844, lost for fifty-one years…[xv]

     Just a few months later, in 1895, Lewis and Edward were again engaged in sky sweeping.

On every available occasion I have made a prolonged and desperate effort to detect this exceedingly faint comet (Barnard’s comet of 1884) which has eluded observation ever since its discovery in 1844…On the morning of June 30, I observed, not far from the ephemeritic place of the comet, a faint, fairly large, nebulous object so cometary in appearance that I called in my son Edward, who was engaged in comet-seeking on  the roof  of the dark room just at hand, who instantly exclaimed, as he placed his eye to the telescope, ‘It is a beauty’…

(However, after) watching it for a half hour no motion was observed…Upon mature reflection it seemed that this body might, after all, be a comet, and, if so, undoubtedly Barnard’s.  The morning of July 3rd found both my son and myself on hand and eager to know if the suspect still held its former place, but ere that region rose above the mountain a dense fog had enveloped us.  The next morning, that of July 4th, the sky was beautifully clear, however, and the sixteen-inch telescope showed the triangle and the double star as we had previously seen them but the object was gone[xvi].

The Partnership Ends

     Just two months after the above episode, on August 21, 1895, Lewis Swift was again at the eyepiece of the sixteen-inch refractor.  He hoped to find the last nebula he discovered while in Rochester, so that he could determine its sky coordinates more accurately and estimate its brightness.  So, he set the telescope on the rough coordinates he had secured when in New York, hoping to recover the nebula. 

…I saw to my astonishment a beautiful comet instead of the expected nebula.  A single glance assured me of its cometary character which its motion after a time confirmed. 

    But then a discordant note occurred in Swift’s account.  Whereas all of the previous mentions about Edward had revealed the young man to be near his father’s side, this occasion was different. 

(The comet’s) announcement was delayed for several hours because of the absence of my son, Edward D., the assistant astronomer, and the only telegrapher on the mountain, who had gone on his annual vacation.  No telegram was possible until the electric car could convey me to Altadena, the nearest telegraph office, at 8 a.m.[xvii]

     We also find that Edward made no nebula discoveries in Catalogue No. 11 or in a list of forty-five discoveries that Lewis Swift published for the years 1898 and 1899[xviii].  And, Lewis’s writings from those years do not mention Edward being with him. A question suggests itself about whether Edward assisted his father after 1895?  It is to be expected that a young man of Edward’s age would begin to follow his own interests, and respond to the imperatives of seeking independence from his parents. Edward may have been busy living his own life after 1895.

    Regardless of this speculation, father and son were forced by circumstances to face the changes that life brings.  A sad one was Caroline’s death in March 1897.  For another, Lewis’ vision began to fail at age 80, in 1900. Even if Lewis’ “good eye” had not failed him, Lowe’s financial collapse sealed the observatory’s fate.  Swift’s astronomical career was at an end[xix].  Lewis’ only major material asset was the Clark telescope and he needed to sell it to finance his retirement.  The sale of the telescope meant that Edward needed to find other means to continue astronomical pursuits or find another career.

    In 1901, the astronomical world was notified that Lewis had “…disposed of his astronomical equipment to the Pasadena and Mt. Lowe Railway[xx]."  He retired to Marathon, New York to live with his daughter Mary and her husband.  Edward wrote a complimentary biography of Lewis for a volume of Marathon’s history.  It contained a complete list of Lewis’ astronomical honors.  It served as curriculum vitae for his father and served to update Marathoners about his father’s accomplishments.  Edward wrote that his father, “… has left behind him a starry, imperishable monument which will shine for untold ages to come[xxi]."  After seeing Halley’s Comet for the second time in his life  in 1910, Lewis Swift died in 1913.

    Edward’s participation in astronomy appears to have ended in 1895. Despite the fact that Lewis entrusted his observation log to Edward[xxii], there is no evidence that it prompted Edward to resume astronomical work even as a hobby.  After the California years, he moved to Buffalo, New York, which was then a thriving commercial center.  Local historical records indicate that he began a career with the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York.  Edward began as a cashier and ultimately became assistant manager of the company’s Buffalo office.  He married in 1903[xxiii] and died three months after his wife’s death in 1935[xxiv].        
Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi


[i] Peter T. Wlasuk, “‘So much for fame!’: The story of Lewis Swift”, Quarterly journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, xxxvii (1996), 683-707, p. 683.
[ii] Ralph Bates and Blake McKelvey, “Lewis Swift, the Rochester astronomer”, Rochester History, ix (1947), 1-20, pp. 11-14.
[iii] Source: Economic History Association’s calculator feature: How Much is that? /Measuring worth:  The cited equivalence is from the ‘Commodity’ calculator for ‘real price.’ defines ‘real price’ as a measure using the relative cost of a (fixed over time) bundle of goods and services such as food, shelter, clothing, etc., that an average household would buy.  This bundle does not change over time.  It uses the Consumer Price Index.”.  The URL was accessed June 4, 2012.
[iv] Lewis Swift, History and work of the Warner Observatory (Rochester, New York, 1887), 5.
[v] Lewis Swift, “The nebulae”, Sidereal Messenger, iv (1884), 1-4, p. 3.  Note that 'nebulae' has the same meaning as 'nebulas.'
[vi] Swift, op.cit. (ref.iv), Addenda and p. 5.
[vii] Lewis Swift, “Catalogue No. 1 of nebulae discovered at Warner observatory”, Astronomische Nachrichten, cxii (1885), 2683.
[viii]Ibid.,and  Swift, op.cit. (ref. iv), 5.
[ix] Swift, op.cit. (ref. iv), Addenda.
[x] Swift, op.cit. (ref. iv).
[xi] Lewis Swift, “Catalogue No. 10 of nebulae discovered at Warner Observatory”, Astronomische Nachrichten, cxxix (1892), 3094.
[xii] Lewis Swift, “Ups and downs, and here and there of an astronomer”, Popular Astronomy, ix (1901), 476-9, pp. 478-9.
[xiii] Lewis Swift, “New nebulae at the Warner Observatory”, Sidereal Messenger, vii (1888), 38-40, pp. 39-40.
[xiv] Wlasuk, op.cit. (ref. i), pp. 699-700.
[xv] Lewis Swift, “Accident comets”, Popular Astronomy, iv (1896-7), 138-141, p. 140.
[xvi] Lewis Swift, “Probable observation of Barnard’s comet of 1844”, Popular Astronomy, iii (1895-6), 17-19, pp.17-18.
[xvii] Lewis Swift, “How I found the comet”, Popular Astronomy, iii (1895-6), 96.
[xviii] Lewis Swift, “Catalogue no. 11 of nebulae”, Astronomische Nachrichten, cxlvii (1898), 3517; and Lewis Swift, “List No. 12 of nebulae discovered at Lowe Observatory, Echo Mountain, California, for 1900.0”, Popular Astronomy, viii (1899), 568-9.
[xix] Swift, op.cit., (ref. xi), 479.
[xx] William W. Payne, editor, Popular Astronomy, ix (1901), 224.
[xxi] Edward D. Swift, “Lewis Swift, Ph.D., F.R.A.S.”, “Grip’s” historical souvenir of Marathon (Syracuse, New York, 1901), 38-40.
[xxii] Lewis Swift, “Remarkable nebulae”, Popular Astronomy, x (1902), 160.
[xxiii] 1910 Census of the United States, New York, Erie County, Series T624, Roll 948, Book I, p. 94.
[xxiv] Irene Marks Rupp to Richard Taibi, 1 September 2000 and 19 March 2001, a letter in the author’s archives.  Ms. Rupp is a genealogical researcher living in a suburb of Buffalo, New York.

Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi
June 4, 2012

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