Simon Newcomb

Simon Newcomb


Date of Birth
March 12, 1835
Date of Death
July 11, 1909

At age eighteen Simon Newcomb, with no money and little education, made his way on foot from his native Nova Scotia to the United States. Later he found employment as a computer with the Nautical Almanac Office, then in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and earned a B.S. at Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School. He eventually became director of the Nautical Almanac Office, later part of the United States Naval Observatory, and served concurrently as professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. He used carefully analyzed measurements of stellar and planetary positions to compute motions of the sun, moon, planets, and their satellites. He measured the speed of light and the constant of precession. His values for the fundamental constants of astronomy were used by the world’s almanac makers for decades. He provided important guidance on the construction of the world’s largest telescopes. Newcomb wrote profusely on mathematics, economics, and other subjects and is credited with discovering “Benford’s Law” in statistics. A leader in American science, he was the first president of the American Astronomical Society and the American Society for Psychical Research, and he also served as president of the American Mathematical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Philosophical Society of Washington, and other organizations.

Presentation of Bruce medal

Alvord, William, PASP 10, 49 (1898).

Other awards

Holland Academy of Sciences, Huygens Medal, 1878.
Government of Germany, Order Pour le Merite for Arts and Sciences, 1905.
Royal Astronomical Society, Gold medal, 1874, presented by Arthur Cayley, MNRAS 34, 224-33 (1874).
Royal Society, Copley Medal, 1890.

Some offices held

American Association for the Advancement of Science, President, 1877.
American Astronomical Society, President, 1899-1905.
American Mathematical Society, President, 1897-98.

Biographical materials

Archibald, Raymond Clare, Semicentennial History of the American Mathematical Society, 1888–1938 (American Mathematical Society, 1938), pp. 124-39 [includes an extensive list of Newcomb’s publications].
Campbell, W.W., Biographical Memoirs of the Nat. Acad. of Sciences 17, 1-71 (1924). [includes an extensive bibliography by R.C. Archibald]
Carter, Bill & Merri Sue Carter, Simon Newcomb: America’s Unofficial Astronomer Royal (Matanzas, St. Augustine, FL, 2006).
Kirkman, Tom, Simon Newcomb
Marsden, Brian, Dictionary of Scientific Biography 10, 33-36.
Moyer, Albert E., A Scientist’s Voice in American Culture: Simon Newcomb and the Rhetoric of Scientific Method (Univ. of California Press, 1992).
Moyer, Albert E., “Simon Newcomb: Astronomer with an Attitude,” Scientific American 279, 4, 88-93 (Oct 1998).
Newcomb, Simon, Reminiscences of an Astronomer (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1903).
Norberg, Arthur L, “Simon Newcomb’s Early Astronomical Career,” Isis 69, 209-225 (1978).
Norberg, Arthur Lawrence, Simon Newcomb and Nineteenth-Century Positional Astronomy, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1974.
O’Connor, J.J. & E.F. Robertson, The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive
Tenn, Joseph S., Simon Newcomb: A Famous and Forgotten American Astronomer,” Griffith Observer 51, no. 11, 2-11, 14 (1987).
Tenn, Joseph S., “Simon Newcomb: The First Bruce Medalist,” Mercury 19, 1, 18 (1990).


Arlington National Cemetary
Brown, E.W., Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 16, 341-355 (1910).
C[omstock], G[eorge] C[ary], Science 30, 357-58 (1909).
C[owell], P[hilip] H[erbert], Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 84, xxxii-xxxviii (1910-11).
Hill, G.W., “Professor Simon Newcomb as an Astronomer,” Science 30, 353-57 (1909).
London Times, 1909.
Stone, Ormond, Ap.J. 30, 171-77 (1909).
Turner, H.H., MNRAS 70, 304-10 (1910).


AIP Center for History of Physics
Caltech Archives
Library of Congress: autographed drawing by Robert Kastor
U.S. Naval Observatory Library

Named after him

Cape Newcomb of the Hoyt Islands, Greenland, National Geographic 9, 3 (1898).
USS Simon Newcomb, U.S. Navy surveying ship
Lunar crater Newcomb
Martian crater Newcomb
Minor planet #855 Newcombia
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Simon Newcomb Award
U.S. Naval Observatory, Simon Newcomb Award for Scientific Research Achievement.


Papers, etc.

Newcomb's papers are in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.

Other References: Historical

Search ADS for works about Newcomb

Dick, Steven J., Wayne Orchiston, & Tom Love, “Simon Newcomb, William Harkness and the Nineteenth-century American Transit of Venus Expeditions,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 29, 221-255 (1998).

Dick, Steven J., Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory 1830-2000 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK , 2002).

Dick, Steven J., “A History of the American Nautical Almanac Office,” in Proceedings of the Nautical Almanac Office Sequicentennial Symposium, U.S. Naval Observatory, March 3-4, 1999, ed. by Alan D. Fiala & Steven J. Dick (U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, DC, 1999), p. 11-53.

Fiala, Alan D. & Steven J. Dick, eds., Nautical Almanac Sesquicentennial Symposium, Proceedings, (U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, DC, 1999).

Kennedy, J.E. & S.D. Hanson, “Excerpts from Simon Newcomb’s diary of 1860,” JRASC 90, 292-303 (1996).

Lankford, John, American Astronomy: Community, Careeers, and Power, 1859-1940 (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997).

Moyer, Albert E., American Physics in Transition: A History of Conceptual Change in the Late Nineteenth Century (Tomash, Los Angeles, 1983).

Moyer, Albert E., “Simon Newcomb at the Nautical Almanac Office,” in Proceedings of the Nautical Almanac Office Sequicentennial Symposium, U.S. Naval Observatory, March 3-4, 1999, ed. by Alan D. Fiala & Steven J. Dick (U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, DC, 1999), pp. 129-45.

Norberg, Arthur L, “Simon Newcomb’s Role in the Astronomical Revolution of the Early Nineteen Hundreds” in Sky With Ocean Joined, Proceedings of the Sesquicentennial Symposia of the U.S. Naval Observatory, (USNO, 1983), p. 74-88.

Plotkin, Howard, “Astronomers vs. the Navy: The Revolt of American Astronomers over the Management of the United States Naval Observatory, 1877-1902,” Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc. 122, 385-99 (1978).

Schaefer, Bradley, “The Astronomical Sherlock Holmes,” Mercury 22, 1, 9 (1993).

Sheynin, Oscar, “Simon Newcomb as a Statistician,” Historia Scientiarum 12, 142-167 (2002).

Skinner, A.N., “The United States Naval Observatory,” Science 9, 1-16 (1899).

Sponberg, Brant L. and David H. DeVorkin, History of the American Astronomical Society.

Stanley, Matthew, “Predicting the Past: Ancient Eclipses and Airy, Newcomb, and Huxley on the Authority of Science,” Isis 103, 254-77 (2012).

Duncombe, R.L., R.F. Haupt, & J.S. Duncombe, “The Use of Solar Eclipse Timings to Compare the Reference Systems of Newcomb’s Tables of the Sun and of the Improved Lunar Ephemeris (Papers presented at the Proceedings of the International Symposium on the 1970 Solar Eclipse, held in Seattle, U. S. A. , 18-21 June 1971),” Solar Physics 21, 260-62 (1971).


Other References: Scientific

Search ADS for works by Newcomb

Newcomb, Simon, “On a Method in Dynamics,” Astronomical Journal 5, 121-27 (1858).

Newcomb, Simon, “On the Secular Variations and Mutual Relations of the Orbits of the Asteroids,” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 8, 123-52 (1861).

Newcomb, Simon, An Investigation of the Orbit of Neptune, with General Tables of Its Motion (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, ,1866).

Newcomb, Simon, “On Hansen’s Theory of the Physical Constitution of the Moon,” Philosophical Magazine 37, 32-35 (1869).

Newcomb, Simon,“Positions of Fundamental Stars Deduced from Observations Made at the U. S. Naval Observatory between the Years 1862 and 1867,” Astronomical and Meteorological Observations made at the U.S. Naval Observatory 7, C1-C45 (1870).

Newcomb, Simon, “On a Very Accurate Method of Determining the Relative Positions of the Centres of the Sun and Moon during a Nearly Central Eclipse of the Sun,” Astr. Nach. 76, 365-68 (1870).

Newcomb, Simon & George William Hill, United States. Commission on the Transit of Venus in 1874. Papers Relating to the Transit of Venus in 1874, Prepared under the Direction of the Commission Authorized by Congress and Published by Authority of the Hon. Secretary of the Navy (U.S. Govt. Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1872).

Newcomb, Simon, An Investigation of the Orbit of Uranus, with General Tables of its Motion (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1873).

Newcomb, Simon, “The Discovery of the Satellites of Mars,” Nature 16, 456-57 (1877).

Newcomb, Simon,“Researches in the Motion of the Moon,” Astronomical and Meteorological Observations made at the U.S. Naval Observatory 15, B1-B280 (1878).

Newcomb, Simon, Astronomical Papers Prepared for the Use of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac 1-9 (1879-1913). [contains most of his scientific writings.]

Newcomb, Simon, Logarithmic and other Mathematical Tables: with Examples of Their Use and Hints on the Art of Computation (H. Holt, NY, 1882).

Newcomb, S., “Probable Times of the Four Contacts in the Coming Transit of Venus,” Astr. Nach. 103, 111-12 (1882).

Newcomb, Simon, “The Present State of the Theories of the Celestial Motions,” Observatory 6, 143-49 (1883).

Newcomb, Simon, “Considerations on the Best Method of Determining Positions of the Planets by Observation,” Astronomical Journal 13, 191-92 (1894).

Newcomb, Simon, The Elements of the Four Inner Planets and the Fundamental Constants of Astronomy (U.S. Govt. Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1895).

Newcomb, Simon, “On the Principal Fundamental Constants of Astronomy,” Astronomical Journal 14, 185 (1895).

Newcomb, Simon, “Usefulness of the Planet 1898 DQ [(433) Eros] for Determining the Solar Parallax,” Astronomical Journal 19, 147 (1898).

Newcomb, Simon, A New Determination of the Precessional Constant with the Resulting Precessional Motions (U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, Washington, DC, 1905).

Newcomb, Simon, “The Optical and Psychological Principles Involved in the Interpretation of the So-Called Canals of Mars,” Ap.J. 26, 1 (1907).

Newcomb, Simon, assisted by Frank E. Ross, Investigation of Inequalities in the Motion of the Moon Produced by the Action of the Planets (Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, DC, 1907).

Newcomb, Simon, “Comparison of Ancient Eclipses of the Sun with Modern Elements of the Moon’s Motion,” MNRAS 69, 460 (1909).

Newcomb, Simon, Researches on the Motion of the Moon. Part II, The Mean Motion of the Moon and Other Astronomical Elements Derived from Observations of Eclipses and Occultations Extending from the Period of the Babylonians until A.D. 1908 (U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, Washington, DC, 1912).

Wylie, Lloyd Ritchie, “A Comparison of Newcomb’s Tables of Neptune with Observation, 1795-1938,” Astronomical Journal 49, 101-07 (1941).

Other Works: Popularizations, Fiction, Textbooks, etc.

Newcomb, Simon, A Critical Examination of our Financial Policy during the Southern Rebellion (Appletons, NY, 1865).

Newcomb, Simon, “Story of a Telescope,” Scribners Monthly 7, 44-55 (1873).

Newcomb, Simon, “Exact Science in America,” North American Review 119, 286-308 (1874).

Newcomb, Simon, The Course of Nature: an Address Delivered before the American Association for the Advancement of Science. St. Louis, Aug. 22, 1878 (Salem Press, Salem, 1878).

Newcomb, Simon, Popular Astronomy (Harper, NY, 1878 (and many later editions).

Newcomb, Simon, “Astronomical Observatories,” North American Review 133, 196-204 (1881).

Newcomb, Simon, “The Extent of the Universe” (1884; in The Harvard Classics, vol. 30 (Collier & Son, 1909-14; Harvard Classics with an introductory note on Newcomb).

Newcomb, Simon, Principles of Political Economy (Harper, NY, 1886).

Newcomb, Simon, A Plain Man’s Talk on the Labor Question (New York, 1886, Arno Press, NY, 1969; Ayer Pub.. 1978).

Newcomb, Simon, “Soap-Bubbles of Socialism,” North American Review 150, 563-73 (1890).

Newcomb, Simon, “The Elements which Make up the Most Useful Citizen of the United States,” American Anthropologist A7, 345-51 (1894) [First Prize Essay in Citizenship Prize Essays contest].

Newcomb, Simon, “The Wreck of the ‘Columbia.’ A Story” Harper's New Monthly Magazine 93, 466-75 (1896).

Newcomb, Simon, “Aspects of American Astronomy,” Ap.J. 6, 289 (1897). [address at the dedication of the Yerkes Observatory]

Newcomb, Simon, “Modern Mathematical Thought,” Nature 49, 325-29 (1894).

Newcomb, Simon, “Why We Need a National University,” North American Review 160, 210-17 (1895).

Newcomb, Simon, et al., “Discussion of A National Observatory,” Science 9, 467-77 (1899) [Comments on the preceding article].

Newcomb, Simon, His Wisdom, the Defender: A Story (Harper & Bros., New York, 1900).

Newcomb, Simon, The Stars: A Study of the Universe (Putnam, NY & J. Murray, London, 1904).

Newcomb, Simon, Astronomy for Everybody: A Popular Exposition of the Wonders of the Heavens (Garden City Publishing Co., Garden City, NY, 1902).

Newcomb, Simon, The Stars: a Study of the Universe (J. Murray, London, 1902).

Newcomb, Simon, A Statistical Inquiry into the Probability of Causes of the Production of Sex in Human Offspring (Carnegie institution of Wasington, Washington, 1904).

Newcomb, Simon, “The Evolution of the Scientific Investigator. Opening Address at the International Congress of Arts and Science at the Universal Exposition, St. Louis, September 19, 1904,” (Universal Exposition, St. Louis, 1904).

Newcomb, Simon, Side-Lights on Astronomy and Kindred Fields of Popular Science (Harper, New York, 1906).

Newcomb, Simon, A Compendium of Spherical Astronomy with its Applications to the Determination and Reduction of Positions of the Fixed Stars (Macmillan, London, 1906; reprinted by Dover, NY, 1960).

Newcomb, Simon, “The Philosophy of Hyperspace,” Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 4, 187-95 (1898).