Nantucket Atheneum Podcast

The Bonds, The Mitchells & The Dawn of Time: The Shocking Truth Behind Maria’s Discovery of the Comet

December 01, 2022 Nantucket Atheneum Season 4 Episode 3
Nantucket Atheneum Podcast
The Bonds, The Mitchells & The Dawn of Time: The Shocking Truth Behind Maria’s Discovery of the Comet
Show Notes

If you do a Google image search for Maria Mitchell, one of the top results will be a portrait of her elegantly dressed, seated, and looking though a telescope. This image romanticizes and perpetuates the story of Maria as a lone astronomer on a distant island discovering a comet and being the first woman awarded the gold medal from the King of Denmark. But like most success stories, it’s not nearly that simple.

This has been a production of the Nantucket Atheneum

Written, edited and narrated by Janet Forest 

Special thanks to the Atheneum’s Reference Library Associate Jim Borzilleri and Historian and Deputy Director of the Maria Mitchell Association Jascin Leonardo Finger for their research and insights.

Voice of Alexander Dallas Bache performed by Andrew Cromartie.

Resources and additional information:
If you want to know more about this topic, check our this very thorough list of resources that Jim has compiled:

•Click HERE for an image of the Bonds' American Method Device.
Source: Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University

• More on the fraying of the relationship between the Bonds and the US Coast Survey (USCS)

The 1851 Exhibition marked a turning point in Bache's relationship with the Bonds. Bache had previously considered the Bonds as overly compliant towards Airy and the Liverpool Observatory during their longitude work for the USCS, and now he quietly began looking for an alternative to the Harvard College Observatory (HCO).  

The situation worsened when George Bond got into a scientific fight with several of Bache's allies around 1854; a few had Harvard and USCS/Nautical Almanac connections, and almost all were part of the "Lazzaroni" group headed by Prof. Agassiz at Harvard.  When the Lazzaroni pushed the creation of the National Academy of Sciences in early 1863, George Bond was conspicuously excluded.

That said, most of Bache's attempts to cut out the Bonds ended in failure. HCO and Bond & Sons kept innovating and improving their products, and the HCO continued to be a significant "default" latitude point for North America.   

It was only ten years later, with the start of the Civil War, that Bache finally succeeded. Matthew Maury, the head of the US Naval Observatory joined the Confederacy, and a Bache ally took over the USNO. The Nautical Almanac moved to Washington, and coastal survey work ended, leaving the HCO isolated and underfunded. Most of the HCO's assistants enlisted for the Union, and George Bond, now widowed and working almost alone, gave up coffee and newspapers to help cut costs. The HCO was still doing important work and was critical to the success of Bond & Sons, but the center of gravity had shifted to the latter, now run by Richard Bond and John Clinch. 

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