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Marshal Merriam

GEORGE MADEIRA AND HIS OBSERVATORY

AN EARLY CALIFORNIA ASTRONOMER

Several miles from the town of Volcano in Amador County stands a large stone with a bronze plaque. Hopefully, it won't be standing there much longer. It's in the wrong place by about four miles. A new monument with a new plaque will soon be erected in downtown Volcano, correcting a mistake made almost 50 years ago.

Before continuing with the story of the monument, let us go back to the story of the man and the event being commemorated. Volcano is a small place today (pop. 100), but that wasn't always so. In the early 1850's the population was in the thousands and people were pouring in to get the placer gold. The boom times didn't last long. The newspaper, started in 1855, removed to Jackson (where it remains to this day) in mid-1857. The decline of Volcano had begun by that time and has continued, slowly but steadily, ever since.

Some of the people coming into town in the early 1850's came from the East, by covered wagon across the plains. Among these was the Madeira family, arriving on the 30th of August 1852. There were five of them, father, mother, three sons. The youngest of the three brothers was George David Madeira (1836-1922), the future amateur astronomer. A vigorous young man, he immediately set about recovering gold, with success.

As did many in his day, George had a strong interest in the heavens and astronomy; this interest stayed with him for life. He wrote (much later) of seeing a comet which appeared in the Illinois sky in late February 1843, and he dates his interest in astronomy from this event. He would have been age 6 yrs and 4 months.

As a 15 year old he possessed a star chart and some books, which he brought to California in the wagon. In the worst part of the journey, when the wagon had to be lightened, these were thrown out, but the young George retreived them, his father relented, they were brought to California. Years later, when giving public lectures on astronomy, he would display the star chart and say it was the first star chart ever brought to California. (It was actually not the first, John Bidwell brought an astronomy book and star chart with him on his overland journey, 1841.).

After some years in Volcano he traveled to San Francisco and ordered a telescope. He ordered it through an instrument maker and dealer named Thomas Tennent whose shop was on Battery Street opposite the Custom House. The telescope was manufactured by the firm of Lerebours and Secretan of Paris. It was a refractor of three inches aperture having a maximum power of 125 times and a focal length of under three feet, all on an equatorial mount with a clockwork drive. George later wrote that this small telescope was of excellent optical quality, fully equal to many larger and more famous telescopes which he was able to observe with at various times in his later years (Greenwich, England and U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, for example). He recalled that it was "expensive for its size". George's written accounts say nothing of multiple eyepieces, but in one of his published works he reports observing at 65X, so presumably he had at least two.

In due course the telescope arrived in Volcano, surviving the rough freight transport of the day, and was at once put to use. Early in 1860 a small observatory was set up with the telescope, a sextant, a surveyor's transit, and a compass. George's older brother Frank was a trained surveyor; the last two items came from him. The observatory, as George described it in a letter written to the Director of Lick Observatory in 1914, "...was a primitive affair...(there was) a stone pedestal six feet high on which the telescope rested permanently. There was no dome, the weather protection being a heavy canvas and oilcloth covering. There is no vestige of the observatory standing at the present time. I visited the place in 1881. ..The family residence, where the observatory stood...had been destroyed by fire, the cut stone pedestal of the observatory had disappeared, only a few of the rough stone blocks which once formed the base remaining....". Elsewhere in the letter George affir med that his was the first observatory erected in California. He stated that he had maintained it for two years (1860-62), until the family left Volcano and moved to Carson City, chasing the riches of the Comstock silver strike. When they left Volcano, George sold the telescope to Professor Whitney (Josiah D. Whitney), then in charge of the Geological Survey in California.

While he had the telescope he made frequent use of it. He had a neighbor, a Methodist minister named Telerand (Tallyrand?) who was well educated in mathematics and taught George how to compute orbits and celestial positions.Writing 50 years later (Santa Rosa Republican, 3 March 1910, p.2) George Madeira recalled, "I was a youth in 1860 and an enthusiast in astronomical studies. Professor Telerand was my instructor, a thorough mathematician, and for two years, while he was with me the Volcano Observatory ran day and night. Geometry, algebra, and logarithmic tables was the mental food upon which we thrived.". ( George was a quick learner. He learned not only mathematics but also Latin and Greek from Telerand, to a rather high level of competence.). In the Sacramento Daily Union of 18 October 1860 appears a letter from George Madeira, under the pen name 'Herschel, Jr', titled "Observations on the Sun". The letter is about sunspots observed through the telescope at 65X and the ir possible correlation with auroral displays. Presumably he used a smoked glass filter. This 1860 letter is the earliest publication of astronomical research from California that I know of.

In addition to building the first observatory to study the heavens (there was a professional observatory in Sacramento, set up for a different purpose, to determine longitude) and publishing the first astronomical research results obtained in the state, George Madeira made a major contribution to California astronomy in another way. He was a talented young man, widely read, a good writer and a good public speaker. He was a paid lecturer, even at an early age. He would take his telescope with him and talk about astronomy. After a public lecture in San Jose, an older man approached him, said he had a ranch in the vicinity, and invited George to stay a few days with him. George accepted. For several nights they looked at the stars and planets with George's telescope and George told him of all the great discoveries of Herschel, Lord Rosse, and so on. The older man was James Lick. Madeira's little refractor was the first telescope he had ever looked through. As Madeira later re lated the story, Mr Lick was concerned about what would happen to his wealth when he passed on. ( James Lick was immensely wealthy and had no heirs.).George relates that he pointed to a mountain in the distance and said, "If I had your wealth, Mr. Lick, I'd build the world's largest telescope on top of that mountain.". He may not have been the only influence responsible for Lick's bequest, but he very probably was the first to suggest the idea of a large telescope to him. A few years later he spent time with Lick again, in San Francisco this time, and again they looked through Madeira's telescope (a different telescope this time) and talked astronomy. So George Madeira was a significant influence, setting in motion the events which led to the opening of Lick Observatory in 1888.

Madeira went on to an interesting and varied career as a mining geologist, mineralogist (he was Curator of the California mineral exhibit at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis), journalist, prospector, mining consultant and organizer of enterprises. Hundreds of pages of his writings have survived. He never lost his interest in astronomy and he wrote many up-to-date tutorial articles on aspects of astronomy for the newspapers he was associated with. He attempted to become a professional astronomer, applying for a position at Lick Observatory when it opened, but in this he was not successful.

In the early 1950's Victor Killick, Vice-President of the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society felt that the site of the state's first astronomical observatory should be commemorated. He went to Volcano and started searching for the exact location, mostly by talking with older residents. By 1958 he believed he had found the spot.The concrete foundation for the monument was in place by December of that year (Griffith Observer, April 1959). The Stockton Astronomical Society then picked up the project, arranged for recognition as a California Historical Landmark, erected the monument. Dedication, with many VIP's and speeches, and heavy press coverage, was in November 1968. By 1986, almost two decades later, Clarence Custer and Robert Birch of the Stockton Astronomical Society had uncovered evidence showing conclusively that the monument was in the wrong place. The inscription was also wrong, both because of the location error and because a claim made about a comet discovery was exaggerated. Custer and Birch published their conclusions in the Griffith Observer, September 1986.

Clarence Custer and others in the Stockton group pressed for recognition and correction of the error. A hearing was held in Sacramento, submissions were made, and in l991 a determination was made by the State Historical Resources Commission that the monument should be moved and the plaque corrected. Implementation of the decision was left to the local people, and since no funds were provided, nothing was done.

Until now. At the request of Larry Cenotto, Archivist of Amador County, I have been leading an effort to get the monument moved and corrected. The Stockton and the Sacramento Valley Amateur Astronomers have each contributed money, as have I, and things are moving. The new site is determined, the new bronze plaque is being cast, and hopefully the new monument will be in place by the end of the year.

 

 

 


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