Astronomy and Astronomers

By: David S. Evans

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: June 6, 2017

Apart from the work of a number of isolated amateurs, early astronomy in Texas mainly consisted of surveys of the state and professionals visiting for special events. From 1686 to 1690, during his five expeditions through Texas, Alonso De León carried astronomical tables and made latitude observations with an astrolabe. In 1772 Athanase de Mézières wrote probably the first report of an iron meteorite in Texas, the Texas Iron, based on accounts he heard from Indians living near the Brazos River. During the Red River expedition in 1806 Thomas Freeman and Lt. Enoch Humphreys used sextants and a telescope to determine latitudes and longitudes. Two years later Anthony Glass visited and described the Red River iron meteorite. A United States Army survey included the Panhandle in 1820 and a Pacific railroad survey in 1855; in 1850–51 the United States-Texas border was surveyed. Tables compiled by the United States Coast Survey include stations marked as early as 1848 at Dollar Point (near Galveston) and 1853 on Galveston Island. A few academic lectures were given, for example by Oscar H. Leland at Baylor and Waco universities, in the 1850s and 1860s.

On May 6, 1878, a transit of Mercury across the solar disk was observed by William Harkness and Lt. George E. Ide, of the United States Naval Observatory, from the grounds of the General Land Office in Austin. On July 29, 1878, a total eclipse of the sun was observed from Fort Worth by a party directed by Leonard Waldo, then at Harvard College Observatory. Many observers were recruited both locally and from out-of-state academic institutions. The program included drawings and photography of the solar corona, measurements of polarization, and spectroscopic observations of the changing light from the solar chromosphere. From the latter W. H. Pulsifer of Washington University in St. Louis deduced a height of the chromosphere of at least 524 miles. David Todd of the Naval Observatory observed from Dallas and produced sketches of the solar corona.

On December 6, 1882, a transit of Venus across the solar disk occurred. Such transits are very rare events that offer an opportunity of determining the distance of the earth from the sun by mounting expeditions to widely scattered sites over the earth, from which different tracks of the planet across the sun can be observed. On previous occasions the exact moments when the disk of Venus was just fully on the edge of the solar disk were unknown because of a distortion of the planet's image known as the "black drop effect." For the 1882 event many nations sent expeditions to a variety of sites. San Antonio was considered the best observing station in North America, and the city hosted two expeditions, one from the United States Naval Observatory and one from the Belgian Royal Observatory. The Belgian expedition was directed by Jean Charles Houzeau de Lehaie, who had an adventurous career in Belgium, Texas, Mexico, Louisiana, and Jamaica before returning to direct the Belgian Royal Observatory. He occupied a house near Fort Sam Houston and made meticulous observations, some by a novel technique, with a variety of instruments. Many drawings of the black drop effect were produced, both at San Antonio and at the companion station in Chile, but these led again to an uncertain estimate of the earth-sun distance. The American expedition under Asaph Hall was installed in army tents 500 yards to the east of the Belgians. The United States results were equally disappointing, not least because the funds allocated by Congress were cut off.

H. S. Moore, an amateur astronomer from McKinney, Texas, was a codiscoverer of the supernova in the Andromeda nebula in 1885. At the 1910 apparition of Halley's comet almost the only scientific observations in Texas were made at Holy Trinity College in Dallas by Father John Joseph Lesage, who had been giving scientific classes, including astronomy, over a period of eleven years. Again there was wide public interest and alarm.

When the American Association of Variable Star Observers was founded in 1911, a number of Texas amateurs began to contribute observations, notably S. H. Huntington of Kerrville; Oscar Monnig (a renowned meteorite expert) of Fort Worth, who with friends established a small observatory outside the city; Graham Kendall of Houston; and B. F. Grandstaff of Dallas. In 1932 the University of Texas joined with the University of Chicago to found the McDonald Observatory at Mount Locke (see UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS MCDONALD OBSERVATORY). In 1961 plans were announced for the establishment of the Manned Space Center (see LYNDON B. JOHNSON SPACE CENTER) at Clear Lake in Harris County. From the 1960s into the 1990s the facility continued to function as the control center for the United States space program under NASA. In the 1990s universities with separate astronomy departments were the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University. See also METEORITES.

David S. Evans and Donald W. Olson, "Early Astronomy in Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93 (April 1990). S. W. Geiser, "Men of Science in Texas, 1820–1880," Field and Laboratory 26–27 (July-October 1958-October 1959). Leo J. Klosterman, Loyd S. Swenson and Sylvia Rose, 100 Years of Science and Technology in Texas: A Sigma Xi Centennial Volume (Houston: Rice University Press, 1986).

  • Austin
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Houston
  • San Antonio
  • Central Texas
  • North Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David S. Evans, “Astronomy and Astronomers,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 25, 2022,

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November 1, 1994
June 6, 2017

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