Navigation, Astronomy, and Time

Last Friday morning I scored a tour of the Old Naval Observatory from Stephen Randolph, the historian of the U.S. Department of State. I’ve been wanting to get inside this place ever since I first saw its dome rising among other buildings in Foggy Bottom. Back then, it still belonged to the Navy and I would have had no hope of getting in there unless I knew someone in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery for the Navy.


The Old Naval Observatory building from 23rd Street NW.

As it happens, current connections enabled me to email Dr. Randolph, who was happy to walk around with me and talk about the long and illustrious history of the place, which now houses State Department offices in the buildings that have been refurbished.


Dr. Randolph in front of a statue of Benjamin Rush, who advanced medical science in the early years of the country.

We started our tour in front of the observatory building, where Dr. Randolph pointed out the topography of the site, which is on Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the capital city. Apparently George Washington thought it would make a good site for a national university. It was on high ground by the river and sloped gently down on all sides. The topography is greatly changed since the L’Enfant plan; the E street expressway has interrupted the slope, and the course of the river has also changed due to construction on the shoreline and other activities in what was once the port of Georgetown. These activities slowed the current of the river and created conditions for malarial mosquitoes to thrive.


Looking NE from the Observatory, you can see the slope is no longer as gradual.

The site never became the grounds of a national university, but in 1825, John Quincy Adams signed a bill for an observatory to be established. Nothing happened until the 1840’s. By that time Adams, who had been a president and a secretary of state was in the House of Representatives for his Massachusetts district. In the meantime, the site was a depot for the navy where it repaired and calibrated navigational instruments.


Victory at last! I get ready to head in to the Observatory building, which was constructed between 1844 and 1847.

When money was finally appropriated for the observatory, James Gilliss, a navy lieutenant, was given the job of designing it. He traveled to observatories in Europe and bought necessary equipment. He was not, however, to become the first superintendent of the observatory. That job was given to Matthew Maury, another naval officer, who held the position from 1844 to 1861. In his first years at the observatory, Maury often received visits from John Quincy Adams, an amateur astronomer as well as past president. Maury had the first American time ball installed at the observatory. These balls would drop at mean solar noon and were used to verify the setting of marine chronometers, whose accuracy is essential for determining longitude at sea. When the telegraph was established, they also served the railroads in keeping time. The time ball is now gone, but others are still in working order at the Greenwich Observatory in England, in Port Lyttelton, New Zealand, and the Titanic Memorial in New York City.


Part of the dome where the first telescope was housed.

During his time at the observatory, Mr. Maury, who was not an astronomer, but an oceanographer–what was then called a hydrologist–worked to improve navigation, charting tides and currents in the ocean, noting weather and wind patterns, and helping to get international agreement for reporting captain’s observations from the logbooks of voyages. Graduates of the Naval Academy came to the observatory to learn navigation. By the time Maury left the position, his work had contributed to shaving two months off the average voyage to the far east. When the southern states seceded in 1861, he resigned his commission to join the Confederacy. He spent the Civil War in London buying ships for the Confederacy and afterward served at several universities and was instrumental in establishing what is now known as Virginia Tech at Blacksburg.


Another view showing where the telescope would point out of the roof.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is saidΒ to have visited the observatory at night to observe the stars. The first visit was in a carriage with other guests. Subsequent visits he came on foot or horseback alone. During the 1860s the entire area of Foggy Bottom was a military camp. I can imagine him stopping to talk to anyone who was awake in the wee hours of the morning.


View of the building from the rear. To the right is the extension where the new telescope was housed.

In 1873, a new telescope was installed in an addition to the observatory. It was 40 feet long, had a 26 inch lens and was the largest refracting telescope in the world for a decade. It was with this telescope that Asaph Hall discovered two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos in 1877, making the observatory one of the leading astronomical laboratories on the world.


This is the extension built for the new telescope. It was later used as a library.

In 1893, worn down by large numbers of staff contracting malaria, the Navy moved the observatory telescope to its current site at Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. The telescope that had aided the discovery of Phobos and Deimos was remounted in a new dome with a rising floor that brings viewers up to the eyepiece. It is still in use with some upgrades to add photographic capability and is used to view double stars, planets, and their satellites.


The ceiling of the new extension as sealed after the removal of the telescope to its new housing.

The Navy then moved the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery to the site and it began a long history as a medical facility. The Naval National Medical Center, now in Bethesda, moved from here and at various times the National Institutes of Health and the Surgeon General’s offices were housed here.


This building, currently being remodeled, was a hospital for mariners.

It also housed the Office of Special Services, providing office space for “Wild Bill” Donovan in the second world war, and the offices of the newly formed CIA in the years after.


Allen Dulles had his offices as the first civilian director of the Central Intelligence Agency here, to the south of the hospital building pictured earlier.

Currently, the buildings are being restored and renovated for use as offices by the Department of State. The observatory building is the last to be restored. It is on the National Register of Historic Places–and should be given the science done there and the people who gazed through its telescope. It is currently not open to the public but once restored, given its place in the history of science, it would be wonderful if people could see it and hear about what happened here. We’ll see.


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38 Responses to Navigation, Astronomy, and Time

  1. What a marvelous and interesting day out!! perfect for a winter day(great coat too…) Thnak you for bringing me along! xo Johanna


  2. A very nice tour, Lisa. I am especially interested in the subject of time balls, and didn’t realize there once was one here. I’ve also always loved the name “Foggy Bottom” for that area of D.C. Apparently, efforts to stop that appellation have never succeeded, and I don’t wonder— it is so humorous and evocative. Looks like you’re free of snow at the moment, but I bet that nice new coat is keeping you warm. Thanks for a most informative post!


    • arlingwoman says:

      Ah, Foggy Bottom, that word refers to the RIVER bottom, not that part of the anatomy…The time ball was covered with vulcanized rubber and manufactured by a man with the last name of Goodyear (fancy that).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, lovely to see the new coat getting an airing! πŸ™‚ I was tickled to recognise some of the buildings and history you mention thanks to your marvelous tourist guide exploits earlier last year!
    The Time Ball in Lyttelton New Zealand is alas no more – it was damaged in the first big quakes that hit Christchurch in 2011 and tumbled down in one of the after-shocks. I don’t think it is being reconstructed as last I heard it was under insured and there were just too many other projects to see to in the ruined city. I used to live in Lyttleton [in a cottage made of hand sawn timbers, built by a retired sea-farer] and could see the Time Ball station from my house. It’s a bit sad to think it is no more!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Sylvie G says:

    Thank you very much for the tour as we are unlikely to ever be able to get in. So pleased to see your coat, and with the buttons πŸ™‚


  5. Mary Tang says:

    The coat looks great on you.

    So no one thought of fixing the mosquito/malaria problem and everyone just moved out instead? We have a saying in Chinese: “chopping off your toes to avoid being bitten”; guess that’s what the Navy did. πŸ™‚


    • arlingwoman says:

      Oh, no. They moved medical people in and they worked on it. No one knew until a few years later what caused it all. The whole city needed malaria relief in the 19th century–at least near some parts of the river. They actually dealt with that holistically.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jean-Marcel says:

    Great guided visit and history lesson.Had never heard of a time-ball before, fascinating.


  7. Boomdeeadda says:

    Well now, tour guide extraordinaire, that was really interesting. Washington has the personality to go along with all the fascinating history. You’re really lucky to call it home.
    Hey? Did we walk by this building? I thought I remember some guys planting flowers on the stairway towards the building. I think it’s fascinating that a building from the mid 19th century can have so many transformations. If those walls could talk hey? True enough. Thanks for the tour lovely Lisa xo B

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That was a very interesting tour, I feel like I’ve been there now! And the coat looks gorgeous πŸ™‚


  9. arlingwoman says:

    The coat is very warm, which is lucky, as it’s only going to get up to 29 degrees tomorrow. Less than 0 C. I was very excited to see the building. I’d been wanting to get into it for years and figured I just couldn’t. Any goannas come by lately?


  10. They all love the coat (as I do) but what of the wondrous wrought-iron railing behind? Do males only notice these wonderful things? !!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. badfish says:

    An interesting tour, and interesting photos and story. But you know, it looks cold there!


  12. A fascinating historical tour, Lisa. Congratulations on scoring it


  13. KerryCan says:

    I love the image of Lincoln, alone at night, pondering the cosmos while war waged all around. I hope it gave him some peace and a sense of perspective. (And, PS–the coat! Yes, the coat!)


    • arlingwoman says:

      There was always an astronomer on duty, so I imagine he found relief in company as well, though there is much talk of him wandering insomniac about Washington at night. I AM quite pleased with the coat. As it was in the teens here this morning and blowing 25+ mph winds, I am very glad to have it’s length!


  14. Robin says:

    What an interesting tour! Thank you for taking us along with you. I do hope they open it to the public.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Lisa, what a score getting in to see that building. I too remember you pointing this out on our walking tour and I remember parts of the story of Lincoln.

    How times have changed. Can you imagine a current sitting president strolling along on his own to a building in the wee hours of the night?

    DC has so much to see and hear and learn.

    The coat deserves it’s own tab on your blog. Looks great.


    • arlingwoman says:

      I’m still pinching myself!!! There’s a good deal of outdated info floating about related to the observatory–some in the Lincoln link is inaccurate and our own Pauline pointed out some outdated stuff too. I’m hoping Dr. Randolph can pin some things down and maybe do an article then a book…or I could start it in my retirement. He’s probably a better bet.


  16. Allison says:

    Univ of Mary Washington’s Great Lives series is having John Grady speak on Thursday Feb 11th. He is the author of – “Matthew Fontaine Maury – Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873” Bob and I hope to attend.

    Liked by 1 person

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