The Life and Accomplishments of E.E. Barnard

Edward Emerson (E.E.) Barnard was one of the greatest astronomers of the 19th century. His exceptional eyesight aided him in the discovery of the fifth moon of Jupiter, approximately thirty comets, and numerous bright and dark nebulae. His lasting legacy is the set of exquisite photographs in his Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way.

Barnard's early life was far from spectacular. He was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1857 shortly before the Civil War. His father had died before he was born, and his mother had great difficulty supporting herself and her two young sons during and after the ravages of the war. When he was not quite nine years old, young Barnard went to work at a photographer's studio. His sole task for several years was to keep a giant portrait camera pointed directly at the Sun for hours on end. During these long periods of manually tracking the solar motion by slowly turning wheels, he developed the "patience, care, and endurance" that would serve him so well later as a professional astronomer.

At the age of seventeen, because of interest in a book that was left with him, he began to teach himself astronomy, including the names of the stars he had stared at for years. Soon thereafter he built a small telescope. Two years later he purchased a superb five–inch refractor (costing two–thirds of his annual salary) and began searching for comets. By the time he was 25, he had discovered two comets. Capitalizing on the popular and skillful hometown boy, Vanderbilt University hired him as an astronomer and enrolled him as a student, no mean feat considering Barnard had only had one to two months of formal education.

After Barnard spent four years at Vanderbilt and discovered ten comets, the director of the newly formed Lick Observatory near San Jose, California hired Barnard away in 1887. Barnard jumped at the chance to use the brand new 36–inch aperture refractor, then the world's largest. Unfortunately, his relationship with the director deteriorated quickly, and he rarely had an opportunity to use the large telescope. Finally, on one of his few observing nights, he discovered the fifth moon of Jupiter, today known as Almathea. His visual discovery of a moon would be the last by any astronomer, for photography and spacecraft imagery would discover all since then. While at Lick Observatory, he began to use photography himself, and he was the first to discover a comet by this means.

Barnard also took a keen interest in photographing the Milky Way, the band of light produced by our interior view of the disk of the Galaxy. His two– to five–hour–long exposures, which required his constant guiding of the telescope, revealed beautiful vistas of starry fields containing numerous dark holes and lanes (Barnard's belief for many years). Eventually he realized their true nature–obscuring clouds of interstellar gas and dust, known as nebulae, produce the dark features.

Barnard's last association, beginning in 1895, was with the new Yerkes Observatory in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Yerkes Observatory boasted the largest refractor ever made–40 inches in diameter! Although he had much more time on this instrument, he found the weather was substantially inferior to that of the California observatories. It was during an eight–month visit at the Mt. Wilson Observatory (in California) that he obtained thousands of photographic images of the Milky Way. He selected the best for publication in his Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way, but his perfectionism made it difficult for publishers to reproduce prints to Barnard's satisfaction. Barnard personally inspected each print. This meticulous care resulted in his highly regarded Atlas. Barnard did not live long enough to complete the text, so his niece (and twenty year associate), Mary Calvert handled the last aspects of publishing the Atlas.

Barnard was known as "The Man Who Never Slept." His lifetime contributions include the fifth moon of Jupiter, approximately thirty comets, the fastest moving star across the sky (which is also the second closest star to the Sun after the α Centauri system), tens of thousands of photographs of the night sky, and the beautiful Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way.

James R. Sowell