J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Samuel Williams: minister, astronomer, fugitive,…

Along with future physician Isaac Rand (profiled yesterday), Prof. John Winthrop took a young man named Samuel Williams (1743-1817) up to Newfoundland in 1761 to help observe the transit of Venus.

After that experience Williams, son of a Waltham minister (and former young captive from the Deerfield raid of 1704), set out on a rather conventional career path. He became minister at Bradford, Massachusetts. But he also kept up his scientific interests. In 1769 Williams observed the decade’s second transit of Venus from Newbury, publishing his observations through the American Philosophical Society seventeen years later.

In 1780 Williams succeeded Winthrop as Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard. That year he wrote about New England’s famous “Dark Day” and led a small college expedition to Maine to watch the Moon eclipse the Sun.

That trip was hampered by the fact that Williams decided that the best place to make his observations was an island in Penobscot Bay which the British military had just defended from a large Massachusetts attack. As with the 1761 transit of Venus, however, warring governments were willing to let gentlemen make observations for the sake of science.

Later in the 1780s, Harvard student John Quincy Adams wrote: “Mr. Williams is more generally esteemed by the students, than any other member of this government [i.e., college faculty]. He is more affable and familiar with the students, and does not affect that ridiculous pomp which is so generally prevalent here.”

But in 1788 Prof. Williams suddenly had to depart Harvard—and the U.S. of A. He was charged with forgery for falsifying a receipt from a trust he administered. Williams rode north, leaving his family in Cambridge to await word of where to find him.

Williams settled in Rutland, Vermont, and found work as a legal copyist and minister, first fill-in and then full-time. He brought his family north and rebuilt a respectable life. Williams launched the Rutland Herald newspaper and edited it for three years. He published a history of the state and a short history of the Revolution for use in schools. Williams helped found the University of Vermont and in 1806 used his astronomical knowledge to settle the state’s northern boundary with Canada.

One of the telescopes Williams reportedly used is shown above courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum’s webpage says Williams used this one to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, but also implies he was a Harvard professor at the time. Soon I’ll share links to more of Williams’s equipment.

In 2009 Robert Friend Rothschild published Two Brides for Apollo, a sympathetic biography of Williams. I believe the title refers to the two types of astronomical events Williams studied: the transit of Venus and the solar eclipse.


Joanq said...

Weird.... Currently I am reading two books;one about the Williams family and the Deerfield captives the other about the Battle of Penobscot!

Anonymous said...

A man under suspicion of forging a legal document finds work as a legal copyist. I bet he was good at his work. But if I were his boss, I might check it frequently for accuracy.

SaraS said...

The telescope belonged to Williams as his personal property. In 1769, he was not yet professor at Harvard. That would not be for another 10+ years.