Edward Hitchcock: Stargazer and Geologist

by Richard Sanderson
Reproduced from The StarGazer - Volume 2 - Winter, 1988


Edward Hitchcock

Pioneer geologist Edward Hitchcock was internationally known for his research into the nature of the dinosaur tracks of the Connecticut Valley, but except for a twist of fate, this Amherst native might have been a great astronomer instead.

Edward Hitchcock was born in Deerfield in 1793. As a youth, he worked on a farm, but spent much of his free time persuing his major interest: science. He attributed his passion for science to his uncle, Major General Epaphras Hoyt, who also lived in Deerfield. Although Hoyt's specialty was military science, he also was fond of astronomy and natural history, and these became Hitchcock's favorite subjects.

In 1811, a brilliant comet appeared in the sky and Hitchcock observed it with a telescope borrowed from Deerfield Academy. From September 7 to December 17, he carefully recorded the comet's position among-the stars. Hitchcock suffered from frail health, and the hours spent outdoors at night observing the comet took their toll on him. When Hitchcock visited his physician, the doctor told him, "I see what your difficulty is; you have got the comet's tail in your stomach!"

Thanks to the Great Comet of 1811, Hitchcock acquired a deep interest in theoretical and practical astronomy. He wrote, "I would cheerfully forgo every ordinary source of pleasure sought after by young men, in order to gratify this scientific passion."

While still a teenager, he used astronomical observations to determine the longitude and latitude of the church in Deerfield - calculations which later proved to be accurate to within two miles.

Hitchcock planned to enter Harvard to study astronomy, but in the spring of 1814 his plans were shattered. He blamed an attack of the mumps for causing his eyes to become so weak that he was forced to abandon all hope of persuing science as a profession. Hitchcock struggled with this eyesight problem for the rest of his life, although the condition improved in later years. But in 1814, it meant giving up observational astronomy, for which acute vision is a necessity.

From 1816 to 1819, Hitchcock served as principal of Deerfield Academy despite "defective education, weak eyes, and poor health." During this time, be began studying for the ministry. He also devoted more and more time to natural history because he believed the outdoor jaunts were good for his health. Hitchcock still dabbled in "armchair astronomy," and from 1814 to 1818 he calculated and published a country almanac. He also became embroiled in a controversy with a national publication.

In making his astronomical calculations, Hitchcock often used information from the "Nautical Almanac," published by Edmund Blunt of New York. On the opening page of the almanac was the statement "Ten dollars will be paid on the discovery of an error in the figures." "This led me to an examination," wrote Hitchcock, "and I soon found that I would accumulate money rapidly if the offer was fulfilled."

Hitchcock went over the almanac and came up with a long list of errors, "both in the figures and the words." He sent the list to Blunt, whose reply was so evasive and unsatisfactory that Hitchcock sent the material to the "American Monthly Magazine," where it was published. This elicited a cold response from Blunt who, rather than acknowledging his errors, accused Hitchcock of "shameful neglect" for examining only the portion of the almanac used by astronomers and neglecting the part used by mariners. But as these words were being printed, Hitchcock had already discovered 20 errors in the nautical section "of such magnitude as would be fatal to the seamen, if not discovered."

After Hitchcock found mistakes in subsequent editions of the "Nautical Almanac," Blunt was forced to hire a man to recalculate his almanac for the year 1819. He sent the revised copy to Hitchcock, who promptly found 35 more mistakes. Due to the embarrassing publicity, Blunt changed his tone, and in a letter to the "American Monthly Magazine," he wrote that "Hitchcock is entitled to much credit for his perseverance." Hitchcock had found a total of 80 errors, but he never received a dollar of reward money offered by the almanac.

Hitchcock became minister of a large congregation in Conway in 1821, but he still pursued his interest in science. However, the work required of him as minister began to affect his health. He wrote, " four years' labor there, with one or two extensive revivals, brought me into such a state of health that I felt as if I must get released." When the Trustees of Amherst College offered him a professorship in natural history and chemistry, the 32-year old Hitchcock resigned the ministry and accepted the position, believing the change would help him to "hold out a few more years."

Hitchcock held out for more than a few years. He taught a course in chemistry each year for the next twenty years, and he became a distinguished geologist, establishing the nation's first government funded geological survey for the state of Massachusetts. Hitchcock wrote many important books on Massachusetts geology and natural history, and he was a frequent contributor to scientific journals. Among his articles is his eyewitness account of the Great Leonid Meteor Storm of November 13, 1833, which was published in Yale's prestigious "American Journal of Science," America's premiere scientific journal at the time.

Hitchcock is best known for his investigation of the strange footprints discovered in the shale of the Connecticut Valley. The story of the discovery of dinosaur tracks is a fascinating chapter in the, history of local science.

The world's first known dinosaur tracks were plowed up in 1802 by a young South Hadley man named Pliny Moody. The slab of shale he unearthed was covered with mysterious footprints, and was eventually used as a door step. At the time, nobody suspected that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, and local people attributed the tracks to Noah's raven. Unfortunately, the specimen was never examined by anyone who could appreciate its importance, and the existence of prehistoric footprints in the rocks in the Connecticut Valley remained virtually unknown for another three decades.

In the spring of 1835, several Greenfield residents noticed what appeared to be turkey tracks in some shale flagstones piled near the street. The local physician, James Deane, was particularly fascinated by the curious footprints in solid rock, and he described them in a letter to Professor Hitchcock.

Upon examining these rocks, Hitchcock realized that this was a major scientific discovery. He spent the summer of 1835 searching for more specimens at local quarries, and in the fall he wrote a paper for the "American Journal of Science" announcing the discovery of fossilized bird tracks in the shale of the Connecticut River Valley. Hitchcock's announcement met with immediate skepticism within the scientific community, and he spent much of his free time over the next six years collecting and studying the tracks, and writing papers about them.

Hitchcock's evidence was overwhelming. In the early 1840s, his fellow geologists gradually conceded that the ancient impressions had been made by living creatures and not some other geologic process. Hitchcock was careful to credit Deane for calling his attention to the tracks, but as soon as the importance of the discovery became known, Deane suddenly claimed priority and launched a campaign to discredit Hitchcock. Deane was no geologist, but claimed to have acquired his knowledge about the nature of the tracks through "philosophical inductions." He accused Hitchcock of "muzzling" the scientific journals to prevent his articles from being published.

Professor Hitchcock continued to study his "bird tracks," amassing a huge collection which can still be viewed at the Pratt Museum on the Amherst College campus. Hitchcock was very distressed by Deane's attacks on his integrity, and in his monumental work on the tracks titled Ichnology of Massachusetts (1858), he included a 9-page discussion of the controversy and Deane's attempt to rob him of the most important original scientific research of his career.

Throughout his life, Hitchcock believed that the fossil footprints of the Connecticut Valley were made by birds. They do look very much like bird tracks, but today we know they were made by reptiles and other animals 200 million years ago, before birds had evolved. The fossilized tracks were made by a menagerie of dinosaurs who sometimes roamed across muddy flats. The clay containing their footprints was baked hard by the sun, and was eventually covered by more layers of mud. Over a period of millions of years, these muddy layers were compressed into shale, and if the shale is broken, the layers separate to reveal the footprints.

Geologists continue to study the dinosaur tracks, building on the investigation started over 150 years ago by astronomer-turned-geologist Edward Hitchcock. Had poor eyesight not forced Hitchcock to abandon astronomy, who knows to what depths this great scientist would have probed the mysteries of the Universe?

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