Simon Newcomb (March 12, 1835 – July 11, 1909) was an astronomer and mathematician. Born in the town of Wallace, Nova Scotia, Newcomb appears to have enjoyed no formal education beyond his short apprenticeship to a charlatan herbalist in 1851.
Son of Emily Prince and itinerant school teacher John Burton Newcomb, Newcomb studied mathematics and physics privately and supported himself with some school-teaching before becoming a computer (a functionary in charge of calculations) at the Nautical Almanac Office in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1857. At around the same time, he enrolled at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, graduating in 1858.
In the prelude to the American Civil War, many US Navy staff of Confederate sympathies left the service and, in 1861, Newcomb took advantage of one of the ensuing vacancies to become professor of mathematics and astronomer at the United States Naval Observatory, Washington D.C.. Newcomb set to work on the measurement of the position of the planets as an aid to navigation, becoming increasingly interested in theories of planetary motion.
By the time Newcomb visited Paris, France in 1870, he was already aware that the table of lunar positions calculated by Peter Andreas Hansen was in error. While in Paris, he realised that, in addition to the data from 1750 to 1838 that Hansen had used, there was further data stretching as far back as 1672. His visit allowed little serenity for analysis as he witnessed the defeat of French emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War and the coup that ended the Second French Empire. Newcomb managed to escape from the city during the ensuing rioting that led up to the formation of the Paris Commune and which engulfed the Paris Observatory. Newcomb was able to use the "new" data to revise Hansen's tables.
He was offered the post of director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1875 but declined, having by now settled that his interests lay in mathematics rather than observation.
In 1877 he became director of the Nautical Almanac Office where, ably assisted by George William Hill, he embarked on a program of recalculation of all the major astronomical constants. Despite fulfilling a further demanding role as professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University from 1884, he conceived with A. M. W. Downing a plan to resolve much international confusion on the subject. By the time he attended a standardisation conference in Paris, France in May 1896, the international consensus was all ephemerides should be based on Newcomb's calculations. A further conference as late as 1950 confirmed Newcomb's constants as the international standard.
In 1878, Newcomb had started planning for a new and precise measurement of the speed of light that was needed to account for exact values of many astronomical constants. He had already started developing a refinement of the method of Léon Foucault when he received a letter from the young naval officer and physicist Albert Abraham Michelson who was also planning such a measurement. Thus began a long collaboration and friendship. In 1880, Michelson assisted at Newcomb's initial measurement with instruments located at Fort Myer and the United States Naval Observatory, then situated on the Potomac River. However, Michelson had left to start his own project by the time of the second set of measurements between the observatory and the Washington Monument. Though Michelson published his first measurement in 1880, Newcomb's measurement was substantially different. In 1883, Michelson revised his measurement to a value closer to Newcomb's.
In 1881, Newcomb discovered the statistical principle now known as Benford's law, when he observed that the earlier pages of logarithm books, used at that time to carry out logarithmic calculations, were far more worn than the later pages. This led him to formulate the principle that, in any list of numbers taken from an arbitrary set of data, more numbers will tend to have the leading digit 1 than any other leading digit.
In 1891, within months of Seth Carlo Chandler’s discovery of the 14 month variation of latitude, now referred to as the Chandler wobble, Newcomb explained the apparent conflict between the observed motion and predicted period of the wobble. The theory was based on a perfectly rigid body, but Earth is slightly elastic. Newcomb used the variation of latitude observations to estimate the elasticity of Earth, finding it to be slightly more rigid than steel.
Newcomb was an autodidact and polymath. He wrote on economics and his Principles of political economy (1885) was described by John Maynard Keynes as "one of those original works which a fresh scientific mind, not perverted by having read too much of the orthodox stuff, is able to produce from time to time in a half-formed subject like economics." He spoke French, German, Italian and Swedish; was an active mountaineer; widely read; and authored a number of popular science books and a science fiction novel, His wisdom the defender (1900).
Newcomb died in Washington, DC of bladder cancer and was buried with military honours in Arlington National Cemetery with President William Howard Taft in attendance.
It is often repeated that Newcomb believed it impossible to build a “flying machine.” But that is not true. Newcomb was specifically critical of Samuel Pierpont Langley’s work, who claimed that he could build a flying machine powered by a steam engine. Newcomb argued that, “Quite likely the twentieth century is destined to see the natural forces which will enable us to fly from continent to continent with a speed far exceeding that of a bird. But when we inquire whether aerial flight is possible in the present state of our knowledge; whether, with such materials as we possess, a combination of steel, cloth and wire can be made which, moved by the power of electricity of steam, shall form a successful flying machine, the outlook may be altogether different.” Newcomb favored the development of rotating wing (helicopter) and airships that would float in the air (blimps). Within a few decades, Zeppelins regularly transported passengers between Europe and the United States, and the Graf Zeppelin circumnavigated the Earth.
See “Simon Newcomb, America’s Unofficial Astronomer Royal,” by Bill Carter and Merri Sue Carter, Mantanzas Publishing, St. Augustine, Fl 2006, for more information on the life and scientific works of Simon Newcomb.