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Lick Observatory

Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California, 1888. The Astronomers' House is shown in the foreground.

Lick Observatory sits atop 4,200-foot Mt. Hamilton in the Coast Range, just east of San Jose, California. It was built between 1880 and 1887 and is named after James Lick, the man who donated the money to build it. 

My great grandfather James Edward Keeler was an assistant astronomer there from 1886 to 1890 and the observatory's director from 1898 until his death at age 42 in 1900.

My great grandparents met at Lick Observatory in 1886. My great grandmother, Cora Slocumb Matthews, had come to California to tutor her half-cousin, Harriet "Harry" Floyd, the daughter of Captain Richard S. Floyd, president of the Board of Trust of Lick Observatory. Cora had been living on Mount Hamilton with the Floyds while the captain was overseeing the completion of the observatory.

They were married on June 16, 1891 at my great grandmother's home in Louisiana, Oakley Plantation. Shortly thereafter they moved to Pittsburgh where Keeler had been appointed the director of Allegheny Observatory. 

James Edward Keeler and his future wife Cora Slocumb Matthews

The Keelers remained in Pittsburgh for seven years. This was where their two children were born: Henry Bowman in 1893, Cora Floyd (my grandmother) in 1894. This was also where Keeler made his most important discovery, namely that the rings of Saturn were not solid disks, but rather were composed of a myriad of tiny particles each revolving around the planet at a speed determined by the force of gravity. Keeler did this by measuring the Doppler shift of light emanating from opposite sides of the disk, and demonstrating that the rotational velocities decreased with increasing distance from the planet.  

 Front steps of the Astronomers' House at Lick Observatory, 1898

The group photograph was taken not long after the Keelers' arrival at Lick in 1898 when my great grandfather assumed the directorship of the observatory. It was taken on the steps of the building where the astronomers and their families lived. 

Keeler is the one wearing the bowler hat in the back row, two from the left. Two to the left of him is my great grandmother. Their two children, Henry and Cora are in the front row. To the right of Henry is Ida Matthews, my great grandmother's younger sister who was visiting from Oakley.  

To the left of my grandmother is Harry Floyd, who was then a wealthy heiress to her parents' fortune, which included a house in San Francisco and a large estate at Kono Tayee, north of San Francisco.

An observant reader will have no doubt noticed the similarity of this photograph and my mother's painting The Family Portrait, in particular the presence of the umbrellas. This is not a coincidence for this photograph (or rather one very similar) appears in Donald Osterbrock's book about Keeler, a copy of which was in our house. The umbrellas in the photograph were used to reduce the contrast of the bright Mount Hamilton sunshine, while those in the painting were for artistic purposes, as were the camels and donkey.      

In addition to his administrative duties at Lick Observatory, Keeler also began working on a 36-inch diameter reflector telescope which one of the astronomers thought was a "pile of junk." After making a number of important modifications to the telescope which made it functional, he started on a program of photographing nebulae, many of which are known today as galaxies.

From mid-November 1898 until the month before his death in August 1900, he made long-exposure high-resolution photographs of these objects, which had hitherto never been done. His work revealed that the sky was filled with them, many of which were spiral in shape.

Keeler's biographer Donald E. Osterbrock, an astronomer and a former director of Lick, believed that if Keeler's life had not been cut short he would have discovered the very large radial velocities of the spiral nebulae, a finding that would have led him to conclude that these objects could not be in our galaxy, but must be separate, independent systems of stars.    

Andromeda Galaxy 

In the closing sentence of his book, Osterbrock described Keeler as follows: "A skilled, intelligent research worker, he was at the same time a successful administrator, an outstanding graduate teacher and a warm, well-loved human being, a type rare indeed in the annals of science."