Dozens of astronomical observatories began popping up across the states in the 1830s and 1840s. The funding largely came not from the government, but from private individuals and communities seeking to signal their ambitions for exploring the heavens. These days, the investments in space exploration by billionaires seems like a departure from a long record dominated by NASA and government funding. In reality, it’s a revival of 19th-century dynamics.
I spoke with MacDonald about this extended history of space exploration in America and the role of private individuals in making it happen. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Marina Koren: So, I had no idea that John Quincy Adams was so into space exploration.
MacDonald: Yeah, neither did I. John Quincy Adams was this fascinating character. He grew up with his father, the second U.S. president, traveling around the world. He spent time in Leiden, which is a European city famous for scientific research. He seems to have picked up an enthusiasm for science while there, and he took that into his presidency. In his first inaugural address to Congress, he essentially advocated for a federal astronomical observatory. He argued that because Europe had so many astronomical observatories and because the United States at that time did not, [building one] would show the world that America was prepared to contribute to the global scientific endeavor. He explicitly thought of this as a signal of the strength of this new union at the time.
Congress was not particularly pleased with the idea; they never actually supported his proposal when he was president, but he continued to advocate for the idea, and his advocacy ultimately ended up leading to the Smithsonian. John Quincy Adams argued that James Smithson’s bequest [of his estate to the nation in 1835] should be used for a permanent endowment that will perpetually fund science in America.
Koren: It was kind of surreal to read John Quincy Adam’s pitch to Congress, because he literally talks about how the Russians are outpacing the Americans in astronomy. It sound as if, in his mind, there was a space race.
MacDonald: In his mind, there really was. And he looked to the Pulkovo Observatory outside of St. Petersburg. A lot of observatories had been established for the determination of longitude and practical matters, but Pulkovo had really been established in order to have a very large telescope that would hopefully find new discoveries. John Quincy Adams argued that the United States needed to follow this model.
And his advocacy actually inspired others. A guy with a marvelously 19th-century name of Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel ended up going to Cincinnati—which in the 1840s was the sixth-largest city in America—and advocated, through a series of public lectures, the need for an astronomical observatory. He argued that because America had no czars like Russia did, that in America the people will have to take up the role of patrons of science. He advocated that Cincinnati should build the largest telescope in the world, which is a pretty ambitious notion. But the people actually responded strongly to this request. They end up importing the third-largest telescope in the world at the time, from Germany. And when they opened the observatory for the first time, John Quincy Adams made the last trek of his life for his last major speech to dedicate the observatory on what was renamed, and today is still called, Mount Adams.