Astronomer Barnard was among Vanderbilt's first academic superstars
by Bill Carey
Edward Emerson Barnard was one of the first academic superstars to emerge from Vanderbilt, and one of the only faculty members to have a building named after him. What makes his story all the more remarkable is that he had almost no formal education and spent only four years at the University.
Barnard was born in 1857 and was a small child when the Union Army occupied Nashville during the Civil War. He grew up fatherless and in abject poverty. One of the biggest breaks of his life took place because there were no child labor laws at that time. At the age of 9, Barnard took a job working in a photographic studio, doing a menial task no one else would do. In those days, the process of enlarging a photograph was crude and required an intense source of light. At the van Stavoren studio at the corner of Fourth and Union, that source was sunlight, directed through the lens of a massive device that sat on the roof. Barnard's job was keeping the device directed at the sun on long, sunny days. He did the job well enough to keep it for six years.
Barnard worked with some intriguing people at the studio (which later became known as the Poole Gallery.) Two were Ebenezer and Peter Calvert, who would go on to start a photography business called Calvert's Photographs, which still exists. Another was James Braid, who started a company called Braid Electric, which also still exists. A fourth was James Ross, an inventor who, along with Braid, conducted the first long-distance phone conversation in Nashville by connecting a Western Union station in Nashville with Bowling Green, Ky., in 1877. Barnard was present at that historic event. "It was a triumph in every way," Barnard later wrote in a letter about that phone conversation, which indirectly led to the formation of a start-up communications company called Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph.
There were so many fascinating people at the Poole Gallery that it is no wonder that young Barnard developed interests in both photography and astronomy while working there. According to Robert Lagemann's book To Quarks and Quasars: A History of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, Braid gave Barnard his first homemade telescope and helped him build a second. Barnard eventually saved enough money to buy a $380 telescope that had multiple eyepieces. Barnard spent entire nights looking through it, observing stars, planets, comets and other astronomical phenomena. In a time when there was high interest in things scientific, Barnard's interest in astronomy was apparently contagious. According to Lagemann, so many people would crowd on the roof of Poole's Gallery on some nights to look through Barnard's telescope that "there was a real danger that someone would be crowded off the roof."
About the time he bought the telescope, Barnard had an experience that traumatized him. In 1877, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held its annual meeting in Nashville. The meeting was an important one and was covered heavily by Nashville's daily newspapers. Sometime during the event, Barnard approached AAAS president, Simon Newcomb, told him about his interest in astronomy but his lack of education, and asked his advice. Accounts of what Newcomb said to Barnard vary. But in essence, he told Barnard that he could not go far in the profession of astronomy without an education in mathematics and that he should be content with astronomy as a hobby. Years later, Barnard said that after meeting with Newcomb, he walked behind one of the columns of the state capitol and wept.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his experience with Newcomb, Barnard continued to look through his telescope and study the heavens night after night. He probably had encouragement and professional advice on how to record what he saw from Olin Landreth, an engineering professor at Vanderbilt who had previous experience working in observatories. In 1881, Barnard's long hours staring through his telescope paid off when he saw something no one else had: a comet that later became known as 1881 VI.
At the time, a New York foundation gave $200 for every new comet discovered. The habitually-broke Barnard used that $200 to help pay off the loan on his small home. "When the first note came due a faint comet was discovered wandering along the outskirts of creation, and the money went to meet the payments," he later wrote. A year later, Barnard discovered another comet.
In 1883, Barnard was invited to attend Vanderbilt and to live in a small house located on the campus. Since he had no formal education, his status as a special student and instructor was vague. He was required to attend class. But his primary responsibility was to Vanderbilt's six-inch telescope and other astronomical equipment (then located in a small observatory near where Rand Hall now sits.) From all accounts, that is just what Barnard did. Among his discoveries at Vanderbilt: seven more comets, a new nebula and a small but discernible brightening of the sky now known as a Gegenschein.
During his years at Vanderbilt, Barnard frequently published articles about his work and was constantly being written about in scientific journals and daily newspapers across the country. Despite this fame, and despite the unbelievable working hours he maintained, he got along fine with students and faculty alike. "Sleep he considered a sheer waste of time," Robert Richardson wrote in his book The Star Lovers. "You might suppose that a person who held himself to such a work-crammed schedule would be a neurotic who was continually at the breaking point. On the contrary, he was genial and even-tempered, always friendly with everybody around him." Students liked Barnard so much that they named the yearbook The Comet in honor of his discoveries.
Barnard did not stay at Vanderbilt for long. In 1887, he was offered a job at the Lick Observatory near San Jose, Calif., the site of what was then the largest telescope in the world. Barnard would stay there until 1895 it was there he discovered seven more comets and a fifth satellite of Jupiter -- the first new satellite of Jupiter that had been discovered since the time of Galileo. Barnard later went to the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.
Barnard died in 1923. The observatory in which he spent his Vanderbilt life was razed in the 1950s (but replaced with the Dyer Observatory in the southern part of Davidson County at that time.) The school yearbook was changed from The Comet to The Commodore in 1909. However, the Barnard name remains with the dormitory called Barnard Hall. Barnard remains the only person to have received an honorary academic degree from the university.
There are two display cases in Kirkland Hall's Memorabilia Room recognizing Edward E. Barnard's life and achievements.