Monday, October 1, 2012


BENJAMIN V. MARSH             

                                                         Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi

Born: 3 September 1818, Rahway, New Jersey
Died: 30 October 1882, Burlington, New Jersey
Benjamin Vail Marsh sent his meteor findings to professional astronomers during the mid-1800s, when they were still making an inventory of the sky’s meteor showers.  He began meteor reporting in 1849 and continued until 1872. A twenty-three year career watching meteors at inconvenient hours and on cold nights is noteworthy enough, but like most amateur astronomers, Marsh had to earn a living too.  He did this by wholesale merchandising of dry goods.  Simultaneously with the two foregoing pursuits, he was on the staff of Haverford College almost continuously from the date of his graduation in 1837.  Marsh’s life was dedicated to supporting science, his family, and his alma mater.
Benjamin Marsh was born to Abel and Christiana (nee Vail) Marsh.  Benjamin’s vital dates are contained in the records of the Society of Friends, which show that Marsh was a life-long practicing Quaker. 
Haverford College was founded by the Quakers in 1833 and Marsh entered it in his junior year in 1836.  As soon as he earned his degree, he taught mathematics and became an assistant Superintendent at the four-year-old institution.  He held the administrative position until 1844 and again from 1860 until about the time of his death in 1882.  The versatile Marsh also acted as president of the alumni association in 1857, a role he was to repeat in 1873. 
Marsh married Frances Gummere (1825-1875) and they had a son, John Gummere, in 1862.  Frances was the daughter of one of Haverford’s founding faculty members, John Gummere III (1784-1845).  John taught mathematics and wrote an astronomy text that was used in instruction at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Frances’s brother, Samuel J. Gummere (1811-1874) was an astronomer and was president of the college 1864-1874.  He and Marsh often explored the sky using the college’s telescope.
Observational Career
Benjamin Marsh’s name appears for the first time in the American Journal of Science and Arts (AJS) in its volume for November 1861.  The AJS was edited by a Yale College professor, Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864), who took the entirety of science as the journal’s subject matter.  Its pages contained Denison Olmsted’s analysis of the November 1833 Leonid meteor outburst and could be said to have begun the study of meteoric phenomena.  The AJS’s unofficial editor, Edward Claudius Herrick (1811-1862) was an amateur astronomer who inaugurated the role of meteor science chronicler in the United States.  His twice-yearly summary notes about amateur and academic astronomers’ meteor observations and theory form a crucial history documenting American meteor work from about 1830 to 1860. Afterwards, Yale professors Alexander Twining (1801-1884) and Hubert Anson Newton (1830-1896) alternated in summarizing meteor studies. 

Marsh’s meteor results appeared in AJS continuously from 1861 until 1867 and briefly again in 1870 and 1872.  He, like other astronomers, made careful watches of what were called then the “August” and “November” meteors.  We now call these annual showers the Perseids and Leonids, respectively, because they emanate from the constellations of Perseus and Leo, facts that were unclear in the 1830-1850 time period.  The newer names were adopted late in the 19th century.
Marsh’s first meteor report was made as a result of watching the 1861 August meteors with Samuel Gummere.  Marsh saw an extremely bright meteor at 11:23 p.m. on the night of 10 August and during the 20-second visibility of the meteor’s train he carefully memorized its position among the stars.  He described the train’s sky position to Professor Newton and this allowed for comparison with the position as seen by Herrick and Twining at New Haven, Connecticut.  Using trigonometry, Herrick computed the meteor’s visible path length, about 33 miles, and its height at the beginning and end of visibility, 70 and 54 miles, respectively, above the ground.  These measurements were helpful in confirming others' measures in an era when astronomers were still consolidating their understanding about meteor showers.
The Geminid meteor shower
As useful to astronomers as the meteor train report was, Marsh’s report of a bright meteor shower in 1862 led to a place in meteor history for him.  Until then no recurring meteor shower was known to occur in mid-December.  But Marsh suspected that an acquaintance’s sighting of 25 brilliant meteors on 12 December 1861 was likely to be a yearly event.  He made the crucial follow-up observation and his report earned him co-discoverer status with Professor Twining and Robert Philips Greg in 1862.  The Geminid meteors’ origin in the sky, its ‘radiant’, was confirmed by Alexander Herschel in 1863. 

A member of the meteor research community 

Marsh frequently corresponded with other meteor observers in the United States and England.  Hubert Newton’s correspondence file in Yale University’s archives contains 31 letters from Marsh during the interval 1860-1869.  In addition to meteor shower reports that were printed in AJS, Marsh’s letters demonstrate that he was a student of the aurora borealis, also called the Northern Lights.  His letters reveal that a friendly relationship existed between the Marshes and the Newtons in which they exchanged family photographs and invitations to visit.  In an 1869 letter, Marsh praised Newton’s meteorite collection for its quality.  The men discussed advances in understanding meteoric phenomena and Marsh congratulated Newton about his correct prediction that the Leonids would storm again in 1866.  Marsh was apparently aware of Giovanni Schiaparelli’s (1835-1910) theory that meteors were cometary debris because he wrote Newton that the Italian’s theory was “a very plausible solution to sundry mysteries.” Schiaparelli was the first to understand and describe how meteors were debris from comets and that they were strewn behind a comet, in its orbit.  Schiaparelli was able to link a comet discovered in 1862 with the August (Perseid) meteors because he noted their orbits’ similarity. 

Marsh’s letters revealed that he frequently corresponded with prominent English meteor astronomers, members of the Luminous Meteor Committee (LMC), a committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS).  Robert Philips Greg (1826-1906) a wealthy amateur astronomer was a LMC member who sent Marsh a star map with meteor path plots on it for Marsh’s examination.  Marsh received annual BAAS reports which contained a yearly meteor summary by the LMC.  Marsh donated an 1863 report to the Library of Congress and it is currently in the Library’s collection.  It was autographed by its author, Alexander Herschel (1836-1907), an English astronomer who studied meteors’ chemical composition as well as their radiants.   In an 1867 letter Marsh wrote Newton that he had been exchanging meteor plots with Herschel for 18 years and that his work was included in the British Association Catalog of meteors.   

Richard Taibi             

Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi                                             


Garrett, Phillip C., Editor. (1892) History of Haverford College for the First 60 Years of its Existence. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, especially pp. 463-4.   

Glaisher, James, (1869)  Report on Observations of Luminous Meteors 1867-1868.  Report of the 38th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; held at Norwich in August 1868.  London: John Murray.  Pp. 314-428, especially p. 400. 

Herrick, Edward Claudius. (1861) Meteoric Observations, August 10, 1861.  American Journal of Science, Second series, vol. 32, November, pp. 294-5. 

Herrick, Edward Claudius. (1862) Meteoric observations in December, 1861.  American Journal of Science, Second series, vol. 33, May, pp.148-9. 

Kronk, Gary W. (1988)  Meteor Showers, A Descriptive Catalog. Hillside, NJ and Aldershot, Hants, UK.  p. 246. 

Marsh, Benjamin Vail. Correspondence to Hubert Anson Newton in Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives, P.O. Box 208240, 128 Wall St., New Haven, CT.  06520-8240. Newton’s correspondence from Marsh, reported above, is contained in Record Unit 274, Series I, Box I, folders 1, 2, and 7.  Dates of referenced letters are: 7 November 1864, 10 March 1866, 28 November 1866, 10 January 1867, and 13 May 1867. 

Newton, Hubert Anson. (1861) Grand Meteor of August, 1861-The August ring of Meteors.  American Journal of Science, Second series, vol. 32, November, pp. 448-9. 

Rahway & Plainfield Monthly Meeting Religious Society of Friends, Record of Births, 1185 Births from 1706 – 1888. http://plainfieldfriends/
Accessed September 12, 2012 

Copyright 2012 Richard Taibi