University Libraries

Andersen Library

March 3, 2015
8:30am - 4:30pm

Measuring the Universe

William D. Morgan, who assembled this Astronomy Collection, was a traffic manager for wholesale fruit dealers by occupation and an astronomer /mathematician only by avocation. Through the years with very modest means he was able to build a notable collec­tion of rare books in the history of astronomy.

In 1924, in a letter to David Eugene Smith, the emi­nent American mathematician, Morgan gave the fol­lowing autobiographical sketch:

I am not a thorough going scientist or mathematician in the generally accepted sense of the terms. I was brought up on a small farm in southern Iowa under conditions of extreme privation, and was early thrown entirely upon my own resources. There was no com­pulsory system of education in this district a quar­ter of a century ago, and as a result I have never at­tended school for even a single day, a circumstance which I have found ample cause to regret. My early ambition was to become an astronomer, and this is the way in which I happened to become interested in mathematics. A series of circumstances forced me into a business rather than a professional career, but I have retained the study of astronomy and math­ematics as an avocation, because these subjects in­terest me, and it is my firm conviction that every man should have some interest in life beyond the mere making of money.

Morgan was born in White Lake, South Dakota on May 26, 1884, and spent his childhood on a farm in southern Iowa. In 1906 he came to St. Paul, which was his place of residence until his death on November 24, 1961.

Despite his lack of formal education, Morgan had, by the time he was eighteen, taught himself algebra, trigonometry and calculus. He was a member of sev­eral learned societies and in 1945 was made a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in recognition of the work he had done in computing the path of the total solar eclipse of 1954. The observation of this solar eclipse was probably the highlight of Morgan's life. Another important event, however, was a trip he made to California in 1955. While in California, he visited the observatory at Mount Wilson, the Pal­omar Observatory, the Lick Observatory, Stanford University and the Huntington Library.

During his lifetime he wrote many papers. Only one of these was published. It was entitled "Eclipse lists in the Alphonsine Tables'' and appeared in Popular Astronomy (vol. LVIII, no. 4, April 1950). In 1956 Morgan said, "of late years, I have derived a con­siderable amount of pleasure in the preparation and the delivery of lectures on astronomical subjects be­fore amateur or non-professional groups." He pre­sented such papers as "Some Astronomical and math­ematical tables in use during the Middle Ages" and "Life and its possible place in the universe." Mor­gan's papers and letters show that he remained ac­tive until very late in his life and maintained an in­terest in expanding his fine collection of books.

From an unpublished manuscript by
William D. Morgan

The eclipse of the sun which will be partial at Minne­apolis next Wednesday afternoon is only one of sev­eral such eclipses which have been seen here in re­cent years, and it has often been inquired just when Minneapolis will be favored with "the big show" or in the astronomer's language a total solar eclipse.

These phenomena do not recur with any fixed regu­larity in a particular place, but owing to the very nar­row track which they traverse over the earth's sur­face and to the further fact that they are of rather in­ frequent occurrence, any fixed point on the earth will be visited on the average about once in 360 years.

From an investigation of eclipses which have taken place in the past, it appears certain that there has been no eclipse of the sun total at Minneapolis since the country was settled by the white man. On Janu­ary 24, 1925 there was an eclipse which was total at Duluth. For a closer approach we must go back to April 10, 1679 at which time the southern limit of to­tality passed a few miles north of St. Cloud. A still closer approach occurred on March 27, 1503 when the southern limit of the moon's shadow passed about sev­en miles north of the present site of the University of Minnesota. The data from which these tracks have been calculated are subject to some slight error, but not enough to diminish the certainty of the results to any great extent.

For an eclipse which was actually total at Minneapolis we must go back still farther. It is not until June 4, 1285 that we actually find the track of the moon's shad­ow passing over Minneapolis. Computations show that the path of this eclipse was only about twenty five miles wide and that the present site of Minneapolis was bare­ly within the shadow track.

While the past several centuries have failed to favor us with our share of these phenomena, prospects for the future are somewhat more hopeful, for shortly af­ter sunrise on the morning of June 30, 1954 after wait­ing for 669 years Minneapolis will be again enveloped in the shadow of the moon. This eclipse is likewise barely total here, but preliminary calculations seem to prove unmistakably that Minneapolis will be just within the southern limit of the shadow track.

Special Collections
Wilson Library
University of Minnesota
June - July 1972