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Brief Sketch of the Public Services of George Davidson

[From “Mining and Scientific Press”, August 1885.]

Professor George Davidson.

A Sketch of Our Most Prominent Pacific Coast Scientist

george davidsonProbably no name is better known in the scientific world of the Pacific Coast than that of Professor George Davidson, of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. His active and untiring efforts , extending over a long period of time in advancing the interests of science on this coast, are well known; and the work he has accomplished in the service in which he holds high rank has earned for him a name and reputation which might be envied by any man. A brief sketch of his life and services will be of interest to very many, who have not the pleasure of his personal acquaintance, as well as to those who have been associated with him.

George Davidson is at the head of the Field Assistants of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. He was 60 years of age in May last, and has been on the Survey for over 40 years on consecutive duty, serving from Newfoundland to Texas and from Panama to Alaska.

He came to the Pacific Coast early in 1850, when it was a new and difficult field, having been chosen for this special duty by Superintendent Bache. He served five consecutive years, winter and summer, on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts before that, and afterward during the rebellion, and has been again upon the Pacific Coast since 1867.

In 1841 he was a student in the Philadelphia Central High School under Prof. Bache, afterward Superintendent of the Survey, who selected him for survey work, one year before graduation, from among hundreds of students who had been with Prof. Bache. He entered the Survey June 1, 1845, upon graduation. After one year’s service as secretary, computer, etc., to Superintendent Bache, he chose field duty as his future labor.

Prof. Bache offered him the position of assistant in charge of the office in 1850, which offer was declined, and he was selected for duty in California before he was 25 years of age; and was for several years specially engaged in the determination of the latitude and longitude of prominent capes, bays, etc., and of the magnetic elements of the Pacific Coast, reporting also upon the proper location for light-houses. Prof. Bache frequently declared that his energetic work in 1850 saved the Pacific Coast items in the appropriation in the succeeding Congress.

Prof. Davidson has made himself thoroughly familiar with the currents on the Pacific Coast and discovered the existence of the inshore eddy current which affects all bars and influences all improvements for harbors of refuge. He has given great attention to all hydraulic problems, to the water supply of large cities, the sewerage of the large cities of Europe and America, and the drainage of great districts (Egypt, Italy, Holland, etc.) Most of these studies were directly connected with the work of the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Beyond these he has been an active member of the California Academy of Sciences and has published original investigations in geometry, in the devising of new instruments of precision, in the physical appearance of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars; on the constitution of the tails of comets, the plateau of the Pacific off the California Coast, etc. He has produced papers upon methods of determining the solar parallax, the introduction of science in our public schools, the endowment of scientific research by the State, the necessity for a physical survey of this State, the irrigation of California, etc. To the Geographical Society of the Pacific he has presented papers upon the ascent of the Makushin Volcano, the eruptions of Bogoslov, and other volcanoes, on the shoaling of the bar of San Francisco bay, the dangers of future shoaling, etc.

To the National Academy of Science he has presented papers on the geography and resources of Alaska, abrasions of the northwest coast of North America, geodetic instruments of precision at the Paris Exposition and in European workshops, etc., etc.

He has been engaged in every variety of field work, and is familiar with the use and detailed construction of every instrument; he has devised new and economic forms; knows the methods of investigation employed; made the first complete series of observations for the coefficient of refraction on this coast, and two subsequent series (published); has had charge of the San Francisco sub-office for the greater part of 17 years; and has proved his administrative capacity and executive ability in every position.

Outside of his regular official duties, Prof. Davidson has written three editions of the “Coast Pilot of California, Oregon, and Washington,” and at the request of the Superintendent, is at work on the fourth edition. He also wrote the “Coast Pilot of Alaska, Part I.,” published in 1868. He has computed field catalogue of transit of stars (published), and by direction of the superintendent has completed an extended catalogue of 1,278 stars for a second edition (published); has computed a table of 67,000 star factors to three places of decimals (published), and is engaged upon another equally extensive, but requiring greater labor.

After Prof. Peirce’s appointment in 1867, Prof. Davidson was placed in charge of the work on the Pacific Coast, and laid out all the schemes of work for all the land parties from 1868 to 1875, and inspected all the fields of work. An appeal to the records will show greater general progress, and more system in that period than in any other. He made telegraphic connections for longitude with all the different centers of triangulation and topography, and in the telegraphic longitude work between San Francisco and Cambridge, determined directly the signal time over 7,200 miles of line. He determined the Eastern boundary, 120thmeridian, of California in 1873.

After his return from Japan, Italy and Egypt, in 1876, he was placed in charge of the main triangulation and astronomical work of the Pacific Coast; and the records of the computing division show that the results of his observations stand higher than any ever executed in America, Europe or India. The Superintendent has approved special results and operations of this work “as unique in the history of Geodesy,” and has praised the character of all. And whilst its magnitude and difficulties are greater than any abroad, it has been carried on more economically and more rapidly than any other.

In 1881 he measured the longest base-line yet attempted in trigonometrical operations, and with the greatest accuracy. In acknowledgment of the character of the system of triangulation developed from the Yolo base-line to the Sierra Nevada and the Coast range, and the high standard of the observations, the superintendent has designated it by the name of the “Davidson Quadrilaterals.”

For his services when in charge of the Pacific Coast work, Superintendent Peirce had him promoted to the head of the list of field assistants for administrative capacity and special aptitude.

He has, moreover, kept abreast of all scientific progress correlated with the work of the survey, and in 1874 was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has been re-elected President of the California Academy of Sciences from 1871 to 1885; elected President of the Geographical Society of the Pacific, at its inception in 1881; made life member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for special services (1855); elected member of the American Philosophical Society, 1865; Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1880; received the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy from Santa Clara “for advancing the cause of true learning in 1876.

Prof. Davidson holds the position of Honorary Professor of Geodesy and Astronomy in the University of California (1873), made at the suggestion of Prof. Peirce; and was a regent of the same institution from 1877 to 1884. At his own expense he has maintained the first astronomic observatory on the Pacific Coast of North America; and has given the use of his equatorial to the Survey when special observations demanded it. (Total solar eclipse January, 1880, at Santa Lucia mountain, comet b, 1881, 1883, etc.)

In 1865, at the appeal of Mrs. Bache, he went to Europe (at his own expense), by authority of Captain Patterson, to conduct Superintendent Bache home again. In 1867 he was appointed to make a special examination and report upon the geography and resources of Alaska, pending its purchase, and his published report and conferences with Congressional committees influenced the passage of the bill appropriating the money. In 1871 he was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to examine and report upon the weights and balances of the U.S. Mint at San Francisco (published). In 1873 was appointed by the President of the United States one of the three U.S. Commissioners of Irrigation of California, with General B.S. Alexander and Col. G.H. Mendell. The report made by these Commissioners was published by the Government. Prof. Davidson afterwards went officially through India, Egypt, Italy, etc., to study the same subject (published), and to examine and report upon harbors of refuge, etc. (published).

He was also appointed by the President one of the three U.S. Advisory Commissioners for the Harbor of San Francisco, with Admiral John Rodgers and Col. G.H. Mendell; was sent in charge of the U.S. Transit of Venus Expedition to Japan in 1874; determined (at his own expense) the telegraphic longitude between Nagasaki and Tokio, Japan, and presented the observations to the Coast Survey; was sent to the Paris Exposition in 1878, to examine the instruments of precision applicable to astronomy and geodesy, and was there elected by the French and foreign jurors the president of the important jury on machinery, when that jury examined 3,800 pieces of machinery and awarded 850 prizes. For this service he received the large medal of the French Government.

Under instructions, Prof. Davidson has officially visited many of the observatories and most of the prominent instrument work-shops of Europe; has visited the field and conferred with the officers of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, examining their means and methods; has visited the headquarters and officers of the geodetic work of France, Prussia, Great Britain and Switzerland to study their methods and appliances and to learn their views; was nominated by Superintendent Patterson for the South American Expedition for the Transit of Venus in 1882 of the U.S., sent out on an expedition, but he chose the station in New Mexico, and was very successful. Superintendent Patterson had also advised him that he should be ordered East in the spring of 1882, to present his work and methods of the main triangulation to the National Academy of Sciences.

The accompanying engraving, made from a photograph by Taber, is a very faithful likeness of Prof. Davidson. Aside from his scientific attainments in special branches, the subject of this sketch is an exceptionally well-informed man on general topics. Traveled and well read, there are few subjects which have escaped his attention. His social qualities are such as to have endeared him to a large circle of friends, and his conversational powers of a character to make him one of the most agreeable of companions. Few men are so frequently consulted for advice or information. It is one of his peculiarities that he takes the greatest interest in young men, and is always ready to assist them in any possible way, a fact to which many he has helped can testify. Having grown sons of his own, he appreciates the thoughts and feelings of young men better than most men in his position are apt to do.

The writer of this sketch has been, as Secretary of the California Academy of Sciences, a co-laborer with Prof. Davidson for some 13 or 14 years, and intimately associated with him during that period. He is, therefore, in a position to know how highly the Professor’s talents and social qualities are appreciated by those with whom he has been connected and to know of the elevated position he has attained in the scientific world. The whole Pacific Coast has benefitted by Prof. Davidson’s talents and energy, for a large portion of his successful life work has been performed on this side of the continent.

Charles G. Yale

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