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Session 1 - HAD I: LeRoy E. Doggett Memorial Session.
Oral session, Tuesday, January 06

[1.04] Astronomy and Geography vs. Navigation: Defining a Role for an American Nautical Almanac, 1844-1850

C. Waff (Macmillan General Reference USA)

Between 1844 (when he was appointed the first superintendent of what would become the U.S. Naval Observatory) and 1848, Navy Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury repeatedly advocated, both to the Navy Department and members of Congress, the production of an American Nautical Almanac. Maury apparently envisioned a nautical almanac, as its name implies, as being used solely by navigators, and he argued that American ships, both naval and maritime, should not have to rely on the almanacs produced by Great Britain and other European nations. In 1849, however, when an American Nautical Almanac was authorized by Congress, an anonymous writer (possibly Benjamin Apthorp Gould) and Navy Lieutenant Charles Henry Davis (the first superintendent of the Almanac office) pointed out that astronomers and geographers also made use of almanacs or astronomical ephemerides (as they are alternatively called), and they argued that, priimarily for the benefit of such users, a new almanac/ephemeris more accurate than the European ones should be produced as a showcase of the skills and talents of the emerging American astronomical community.

Whether the newly authorized Almanac should be produced for navigators or for astronomers and geographers was hotly debated in late 1849 and early 1850 after Davis proposed using, primarily for the benefit of the latter group, an American prime meridian as the basis for the Almanac's tables. This debate ultimately led to the Almanac, for many years, having separate sets of tables based on the Greenwich prime meridian (favored by navigators) and on a prime meridian passing through the Naval Observatory. Congress's endorsement of this compromise, which was coupled with a stated preference for an American prime meridian, was another decisive step (following the establishment of the Naval Observatory) in the federal government's promotion of the science of astronomy in the United States.

Program listing for Tuesday