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Lewis Morris Rutherfurd
(25 Nov 1816 - 30 May 1892)

American astrophysicist and spectroscopist.

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd

Obituary1 by John K. Rees (1892)

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd


Lewis Morris Rutherfurd

[p.689] In the death of this eminent man astronomical science has lost one of its most efficient workers; one who loved devotedly his chosen labor, and who did much to originate means and methods and gave most invaluable direction and impulse to astronomical photography.

Mr. Rutherfurd was born at Morrisania, N. Y., on November 25th, 1816.2 John Rutherfurd, his grandfather, was of Scotch descent, and served as Senator of the United States from New Jersey from 1791 to 1798. He was also one of the commissioners for establishing the boundary lines between several states, and assisted in laying out a portion of New York City. The Earl of Stirling, Major General William Alexander, was an uncle of John Rutherfurd. General Alexander took a distinguished part in several battles of the Revolution. He is said to have been an excellent mathematician and somewhat of an astronomer. Lewis M. Rutherfurd’s mother was a direct descendant of Lewis Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and after him Mr. Rutherfurd was named.

At the age of fifteen he entered the Sophomore class at Williams College, and was graduated in due course. At College he showed his love for investigation, and was made assistant to the Professor of Chemistry and Physics. He aided in the lecture preparations and experiments. Here he gave evidence of his taste for scientific work and of his mechanical skill. After graduation he studied law with the Hon. William H. Seward, at Auburn, N. Y., and was admitted to the bar in 1837. Mr. Rutherfurd’s associates in the practice of law were the distinguished men, Peter A. Jay, and, after Jay’s death, the Hon. Hamilton Fish.

During the practice of his profession he gave much of his leisure time to studies and experiments in chemistry and mechanics bearing on astronomy. In the early part of his professional career he married Miss Margaret Stuyvesant Chanler, a niece of Peter G. Stuyvesant. His wife’s fortune added to his own made it agreeable [p.690] and possible for him in 1849 to abandon the law, and thereafter he devoted his leisure to science, principally in the direction of astronomical photography and spectrum analysis.

In 1849 he travelled in Europe and studied with the Italian optician Amici. He remained abroad some time travelling and studying. On his return to New York City he erected in his garden, at the back of his house at the corner of Second Avenue and Eleventh Street, a small but excellent Observatory. The building was arranged to contain transit instrument, clock and equatorial telescope. It was a very modest building but destined to be the witness of great deeds.

Near by, in the fine dwelling house, were a commodious study and a work shop fitted with turning lathes and tools of all kinds necessary for his work. The splendid work of Bunsen and Kirchhoff was then attracting great attention, and Mr. Rutherfurd devoted most of his time to spectroscopic investigations. One result was that in January 1863 he published in Silliman’s Journal3 a paper on the spectra of stars, moon, and planets. In this paper he gave diagrams of the lines and a description of the instruments employed. This paper was the first published work on star spectra. In this important communication the first attempt was made to classify the stars according to their spectra. He wrote in this paper, “The star spectra present such varieties that it is difficult to point out any modes of classification. For the present, I divide them into three groups: first, those having many lines, and bands, and mostly resembling the Sun, viz., Capella, β Geminorum, α Orionis, etc. These are all reddish or golden stars. The second group, of which Sirius is the type, presents spectra wholly unlike that of the Sun, and are white stars. The third group comprising α Virginis, Rigel, etc., are also white stars, but show no lines; perhaps they contain no mineral substance or are incandescent without flame.”

The spectroscope of that day was a rude instrument, not well understood; and its results, of course, do not compare in definition and accuracy with spectroscopes of more recent times, but Mr. Rutherfurd’s results were most suggestive and valuable.

In the course of his observations upon the stellar spectra he discovered the use of the star spectroscope to show the exact state of the color correction in an object glass, particularly for the rays used in photography. Patiently and skillfully he followed up this trail, and in 1864, after many experiments in other directions, but always aiming at the same end, he succeeded [p.691] in devising and constructing, with the aid of Mr. Fitz, an object-glass 11¼ inches in diameter and about fifteen feet focal length. This lens was corrected for photography alone and was useless for vision. A very brief account of this glass and of the prior experiments was published by Mr. Rutherfurd in the American Journal of Science for May, 1865.

The 11¼-inch glass was a great success and was used constantly in making negatives of Sun, Moon, and star groups. All of the superb photographs of the Moon taken before 1868 were made with this lens. Mr. Rutherfurd considered the negative made on the night of March 6th, 1865, as especially good. His photographs of the Moon were the finest ever made up to that time and have only been equalled in very recent years. The copies, which were scattered with a generous hand, attracted great attention and inspired deserved admiration. Of course Mr. Rutherfurd used wet plates, and in making moon photographs he quickly discovered that the brighter portions of the moon must have shorter exposures than the ragged edge; so he always gave his plates a skillfully graduated exposure, which is evident in the beautiful definition throughout the whole surface of his moon photographs.

Moon photographed 16 Sep 1870 by Lewis Morris Rutherfurd


Photograph of Moon taken 16 September 1870
by Lewis Morris Rutherfurd

In 1868 he finished his 13-inch object glass. The 11¼-inch was taken by Dr. Gould in 1870 to South America. Unfortunately it was cracked in transit. Dr. Gould put the pieces together and made some photographs with it of the southern heavens. He afterwards obtained another lens. The new 13-inch had a focal length of a little over fifteen feet. This glass was an ordinary achromatic lens and was connected with a third lens of flint glass which made the proper correction for photography, and shortened the focal length to 13 feet. This correcting lens could be fixed outside of the ordinary seeing glass, in a few minutes, by three set screws. All of the photographs taken after 1868 were made with this new instrument. Mr. Rutherfurd’s photographs of the Sun were quite as remarkable as those of the moon. The series taken in 1870 showed beautifully the details of spots, the faculæ, and the mottled surface of the photosphere, and exhibited clearly the rotation of the Sun and the changes in the forms and groupings of the spots. Mr. Rutherfurd was not content with merely taking the photographs: he contrived and constructed a measuring micrometer for his plates. This was arranged to measure position-angle and distance from a central star. In the micrometer used previously to 1872, he employed screws only, but, on finding that the screw was unreliable for [p.692] long distances, be it cut ever so nicely by his own apparatus, as it needed constant investigation for errors of wear, etc., he in 1872 arranged his measuring machine with a glass scale, so that thereafter he depended on the screw for very small distance measures only between the divisions of the scale. This instrument will be found illustrated and described in Appleton’s Cyclopædia. Doubts having been expressed in Germany as to the stability of the collodion film he published in 1872,4 a series of measurements which demonstrated conclusively the fixity of the film when used upon a plate treated with dilute albumen. In 1864, Mr. Rutherfurd presented to our National Academy of Sciences a photograph of the solar spectrum obtained by using bisulphide of carbon prisms. He explained how he secured the needed uniform density of the liquid, and proved how essential this precaution was. The number of lines in the spectrum photograph was more than three times the number within the same limits on the chart of Bunsen and Kirchoff.

During 1870, Mr. Rutherfurd constructed a ruling engine described and figured in Appleton’s Cyclopædia under the article “Spectrum.” With this beautiful apparatus he produced superb interference gratings on glass and on speculum metal. Some of the ruled plates had 17,000 lines to the inch; they were superior to all others down to the time when Professor Rowland perfected his machine.

Mr. Rutherfurd spent a great deal of time studying the cutting operation of diamonds, and in perfecting the micrometer screw for his ruling engine. The engine was run by a miniature turbine wheel and was kept at work during the still hours of the night. Many of these ruled plates were distributed with a generous hand among the scientific men of the world.

The American Journal of Science for March, 1865, contains an article by Mr. Rutherfurd describing and illustrating his method for the adjustment of a battery of prisms to the position of least deviation. This method was extremely convenient. He produced a photograph of the solar spectrum with his grating (17,000 lines to the inch) which was for a long time unequalled.

Mr. Rutherfurd in 1876 gave an account of an instrument in which the divided circle was of glass. He showed that a far greater accuracy could be obtained with his glass circle than with a metallic one of the same diameter, at that time. This circle was broken during its use and Mr. Rutherfurd did not make a second one.

[p.693] President Grant in 1873 appointed Mr. Rutherfurd one of the scientific commission to attend the Vienna Exposition, but he was obliged to decline the honor on account of business engagements in America. In 1885 he was named by the President of the United States one of the delegates to the International Meridian Conference which met in Washington in October, 1885. He took a very active and honorable part in that conference, and was able to bring about an agreement when none seemed possible. He framed and presented the resolutions which finally expressed the conclusions of the conference. The French Academy invited him to become a member of the International Conference on Astronomical Photography held in Paris in 1887. Our National Academy of Sciences named him as its representative to the same conference. Unfortunately failing health compelled him to decline these high and merited honors. He was frequently consulted by the United States and foreign goverment officials in relation to questions of photography especially referring to eclipses of the sun, and transits of Venus. For more than twenty-five years he was a most influential member of the Board of Trustees of Columbia College, taking active part in the formation of the School of Mines and in building up the scientific work of that institution. He resigned in 1884 because he was unwilling to be absent from the monthly meetings of the Board so much of the time as his health compelled. “No man’s judgment was clearer, or better informed, no man’s interest keener in all that pertained to the advancement and elevation of the college, no man was a better or more judicious friend of the professors and no man’s resignation as trustee could, I believe, have been more reluctantly accepted.”5

Mr. Rutherfurd was one of the original members named in the Act of Congress creating the National Academy of Sciences. For services rendered the cause of Astronomy he was made an associate of the Royal Astronomical Society of London. His work was recognized at home and abroad by many other honors conferred, such as diplomas (he was made an LL. D. at the centennial celebration of Columbia College in 1887), memberships, orders and medals; he received the Count Rumford medal.

Mr. Rutherfurd took a leading part in assisting President Barnard to form, with the aid of the late Professors Peck and Trowbridge, a department of Geodesy and Practical Astronomy at Columbia College in 1831. When the Trustees built the fine library building an Observatory was placed on the top of the [p.694] edifice, and accomodations were prepared for equatorial, transit, and other instruments. In December 1883 Mr. Rutherfurd made an unconditional gift to the Observatory of his 13-inch telescope with its photographic correcting lens, his transit instrument, Dent clock, measuring micrometer, barometer and other apparatus. He was aware of the importance to science of a complete reduction of his measures on the star plates. Early in his work Dr. B. A. Gould reduced the measures made on the Pleiades and Præsepe plates taken with the 11¼-inch glass and measured with the first micrometer machine which was not provided with a scale.

As the scientific world is aware these results were given to the National Academy of Sciences in August, 1866, and April, 1870. In these reductions Dr. Gould showed clearly the great accuracy and value of the measures. The only publication made at the time was in the Astronomische Nachrichten where Dr. Gould gave the resultant distances and position angles from Alcyone for the brightest ten stars of the Pleiades group, and called attention to their close accordance with Bessel’s earlier values deduced from his observations with the Königsberg heliometer. No further publication was made as Dr. Gould has explained (before the National Academy of Sciences at the New York meeting in November, 1891), because in May, 1870, he departed for South America expecting to be gone three years only, whereas his stay was prolonged to fifteen years. Moreover as Mr. Rutherfurd had in 1866 orally explained his methods to the National Academy, it was expected that he would write out a full account of his work which should antedate the full publication of the measures reduced by Dr. Gould. This Mr. Rutherfurd failed to do. Poor health and a very strong indisposition to “rush into print” (as he expressed it to me) prevented him. On Dr. Gould’s return he had the original memoirs printed by the National Academy and thus twenty-two years after they were read these important communications were given to the world. During the intervening years Mr. Rutherfurd endeavored, he told me, to find some one to take up the reduction of the measures, but seemed unable to do so. His frequent and long absences from home prevented him from looking after the matter properly, and his sensitive nature would not allow him to ask anyone to attend to the work for him. It was during these years that I frequently urged him to present to Columbia College Observatory his negatives and measures, but he thought he would prefer to keep his work and arrange the reductions himself. He was exceedingly modest [p.695] about his estimate of his work on the star groups, speaking of recent improvements that had been made and saying that perhaps after all there was no demand for the reductions. Finally, however, he gave up the idea of himself directing the reductions of the measures and was persuaded that astronomers were anxious to have the work reduced. Professor E. C. Pickering’s influence was weighty at this time. He offered to Columbia College $500 of the Bruce fund to publish the reductions. President Low laid this offer before Mr. Rutherfurd and he at once replied that the donation was generous but unnecessary, and that he would place in my hands the matter of the reductions and supply the needed funds.

So on November 13th, 1890, Mr. Rutherfurd gave all his negatives of sun, moon and star groups to Columbia College. With these negatives came twenty folio volumes of about two hundred pages each containing the measures of many of the plates. This valuable contribution has been placed in a fire proof vault at the College. I have given in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (Vol. VI, June, 1891) a complete list of these negatives. This catalogue shows

175 plates of the Sun taken between 1860-74
174 plates of the Solar Spectrum taken between 1860-74
435 plates of the Moon taken between 1858-77
664 plates of the Star groups taken between 1858-77

Some of the principal star plates may be mentioned:

33 plates of 44 Bootis taken between 1868-75
12 plates of B A. C. 8083 taken between 1873-74
27 plates of η Cassiopeæ taken between 1870-73
58 plates of μ Cassiopeæ taken between 1868-73
15 plates of β Cygni taken between 1875-76
24 plates of 21 Cygni taken between 1875-76
22 plates of 61 Cygni taken between 1871-76
19 plates of 7 Cygni taken between 1875-76
27 plates of Perseus Clusters taken between 1865-74
54 plates of Pleiades taken between 1865-74
23 plates of Præsepe taken between 1865-77
23 plates of 1830 Groombridge taken between 1872-77

Many of the plates are still unmeasured.

When the collection was turned over to my care it was arranged to push forward the reductions as rapidly as possible. Mr. Jacoby of the College Observatory entered on the work at once and the results are shown in the first publication “The Rutherfurd Photographic Measures of the Groupof the Pleiades.” The measures reduced in this paper were made with the micrometer machine supplied with the glass scale, on plates taken with the 13-inch glass.

[p.696] These reductions show conclusively that the results of Rutherfurd’s measures of the Pleiades group must hereafter be taken into account with the Bessel and Elkin heliometer measures, for a study of proper motions and to form a definitive catalogue of the Pleiades. In a recent review of Mr. Jacoby’s reductions Dr. Elkin states6 that he shortly proposes to make a revision of the Yale Pleiades work and when that is done “the accuracy of the photographic results will be still more apparent.” These results show with what ability and thoughtful care for every detail of measurement Mr. Rutherfurd directed the work of photography and of measurement; they also show that he was correct in his judgment when he stated “that the photographic method is at least equal in accuracy to that of the heliometer or filar micrometer, and far more convenient.” When Mr. Rutherfurd was on his deathbed a bound copy of these reductions was placed in his hands. He was able to show his pleasure and great gratification only by the expression of his face. In the previous fall, however, he had seen most of the finished manuscript.

Mr. Jacoby has completed his reductions of the measures of the “Stars about β Cygni,” and the publication will be sent out very soon. Other measures will be reduced as rapidly as possible. Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, Esq., has taken great interest in putting his father’s work into available shape, and through Mr. Stuyvesant’s aid the Columbia College Observatory hopes to place before the world the reductions of all the star measures. It may thereafter be desirable to measure the plates now unmeasured and to proceed to their reduction.

Dr. Gould, in an appreciative notice of Mr. Rutherfurd, has written:

“Mr. Rutherfurd was of an exceptionally amiable and generous disposition, helpful to others and tolerant of their feelings. His intellectual diffidence and almost shrinking modesty were as notable as were his boldness of invention, ingenuity of device and persistence in following up his ideas, under trying circumstances. The moral effect of his example among his co-workers, was quite as beneficent as the scientific stimulus exerted by the results he obtained and partially published. To these qualities he added a calm and unprejudiced judgment, an admirable power of statement, and every instinct of a gentlemen.”7

A friend of Mr. Rutherfurd of thirty years’ standing tells us in the Photographic Times that “ The rigor of our northern winters [p.697] led him to spend the colder parts of the last twenty years in more southern latitudes: sometimes in the south of France but more recently amid the orange groves and tropical surroundings of Florida. While on his journey south in the autumn of last year, he contracted a severe cold, through some defect or oversight in the heating apparatus of his sleeping car, and he never fully recovered from its effects. While prostrated and weakened by this attack, the sudden death of a daughter in his northern home, produced a depression of vitality, which was lasting. In the early spring he returned to New York with his oldest son, who had passed the winter with him, and at whose residence he remained a few days. Not recovering his strength and seeming to realize that the end was near, he expressed a desire to reach his country home; the old homestead which he and his ancestors had occupied more than 150 years. Soon after reaching ‘Tranquillity,’ a home most appropriately named, the symptoms of failing strength became more marked, until a blood clot formed on the brain, which, although it rendered him speechless during the last few days, yet did not destroy consciousness, until the end, which came peacefully and without apparent pain” on May 30th, 1892.

Columbia College Observatory, August 25th, 1892.

1 Communicated by the author.
2 I am indebted for many items of information in this brief sketch to Mr. Rutherfurd’s son, Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, Esq., of New York City, who at my request sent me a copy of some notes written out by his father a few years ago after urgent and repeated solicitation on the part of the son. A portion of these notes was used in preparing the article on Mr. Rutherfurd in Appleton’s Cvclopjedia for 1888
3 American Journal of Science Vol. XXXV, p. 71.
4 American Journal of Science, December, 1872.
5 Letter of Professor J. H. Van Amringe to the writer August 11, 1892.
6 Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. IV, No. 24.
7 Astronomical Journal, June, 1892


Text from Carleton College (Northfield, Minn.), Goodsell Observatory, Astronomy and Astro-Physics (1892), 11, 689-697 (source) . Photos (not in original text) added for portrait (source) and Moon (source).

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