An international campaign of the 19th century to determine the solar parallax
The US Naval expedition to the southern hemisphere 1849–1852
Fachbereich Physik, Renthof
Received in final form: 20 December 2013
Published online: 4 February 2014
In 1847 Christian Ludwig Gerling, Marburg (Germany), suggested the solar parallax to be determined by measuring the position of Venus close to its inferior conjunction, especially at the stationary points, from observatories on nearly the same meridian but widely differing in latitude. James M. Gilliss, astronomer at the newly founded U.S. Naval Observatory, enthusiastically adopted this idea and procured a grant for the young astronomical community of the United States for an expedition to Chile. There they were to observe several conjunctions of Venus and oppositions of Mars, while the accompanying measurements were to be taken at the US Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. and the Harvard College Observatory at Cambridge, USA. This expedition was supported by A.V. Humboldt, C.F. Gauß, J.F. Encke, S.C. Walker, A.D. Bache, B. Peirce and others. From 1849 to 1852 not only were astronomical, but also meteorological and magnetic observations and measurements recorded, mainly in Santa Lucia close to Santiago, Chile. By comparing these measurements with those taken simultaneously at other observatories around the world the solar parallax could be calculated, although incomplete data from the corresponding northern observatories threatened the project’s success. In retrospect this expedition can be recognized as the foundation of the Chilean astronomy. The first director of the new National Astronomical Observatory of Chile was Dr. C.W. Moesta, a Hessian student of Christian Ludwig Gerling’s. The exchange of data between German, American and other astronomers during this expedition was well mediated by J.G. Flügel, consul of the United States of America and representative of the Smithsonian Institution in Europe, who altogether played a major role in nurturing the relationship between the growing scientific community in the U.S. and the well established one in Europe at that time.
© EDP Sciences, Springer-Verlag 2014