Early Astronomy Courses
Early astronomy courses consisted of readings and lectures, with some training in the use of surveying and navigation instruments. The course description in the 1839-1840 college catalog reads, "Norton's Astronomy, 200 pages, and reviewed, with practical use of instruments in taking Latitudes, correcting Time, &c."
Several of the textbooks used in these courses, including William Norton's An Elementary Treatise on Astronomy in Four Parts (1839), are found in the Warren Hunting Smith Library’s rare book collection. In the plate above, from Norton's Astronomy, the solar system of 1839 can be seen. Neptune and Pluto have yet to be discovered, and Uranus is known as Herschel, named after its discoverer.
Training in the use of instruments varied through the years. The 1837 catalog read, "Much pains is taken to teach the use of instruments..." In 1840 it read, "The use of instruments... is taught with particular care." By 1845, the course included "the constant use of instruments," but the following year, "constant" had become "frequent".
A receipt for some of these surveying and navigational instruments can be seen below.
Astronomy during the 19th century was taught primarily by Horace Webster, John Towler, and Hamilton L. Smith. All three were polymaths who taught multiple subjects, served as acting president, and helped keep the institution alive during the difficult early years.
Incidentally, when the Alumni Association created the Colleges' Distinguished Faculty Award in 1990, the first three recipients were Webster, Towler, and Smith. While researching the descendents of the professors in order to invite them to the ceremony, the Colleges found that all three families had intermarried. Two of their great-great-great granddaughters attended.
Horace Webster was born in Connecticut in 1794. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he taught mathematics after graduating. In 1825, the same year that it was granted its permanent charter, he joined the faculty of Geneva College. He stayed for 23 years, serving as acting president twice and treasurer for four years. During a particularly difficult time in 1835, Webster and a tutor comprised the entire faculty of the college. The local Presbyterian clergy, wishing to purchase Geneva Hall and create a female seminary, encouraged Webster to resign and offered him a position in the future school. He refused, saving the college.
In 1848, Webster left to become the first president of the Free Academy of New York, which later became City College.
John Towler was born in England in 1811. He came to Geneva College in 1850 as professor of modern languages. He served as acting president for a time and was Dean of Geneva Medical College from 1853-1872. An expert in many subjects, Towler is listed in the 1856 college catalog, as "Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and of Chemistry and Pharmacy, and Acting Professor of Modern Languages, and Dean of Medical Faculty." He also wrote a popular book on early photography called The Silver Sunbeam (1864).
He left Hobart in 1882 to become United States Consul to Trinidad.
Hamilton L. Smith
In 1869, Hobart College hired Hamilton Lanphere Smith. Born in Connecticut in 1818, he attended Yale, where, as a student, he helped construct the largest telescope in the country at the time. Smith published a science textbook in 1848 and patented the tintype photography process in the United States in 1856. He was also an expert on microscopic algae, and the classification system he devised is still in use today.
Smith was the first professor whose primary focus was astronomy, and his arrival on campus began an era of prominence which lasted four decades.