Astronomy Bio...Lewis Morris Rutherford

Jay Bitterman

Lewis Morris Rutherford was born into a well-established family of Scottish descent in Morrisania, New York on November 25,1816. He showed an early interest in science, and was made an assistant to the Professor of Physics and Chemistry during his student days at William's College, Massachusetts. However, he went on to study law after graduating.

His financial means was augmented by his marriage to Margaret Stuyvesant Chanler, which allowed him to travel abroad for seven years and freed him from the need to practice law. In 1856 he returned to the United States and had his own observatory built where he then spent the rest of his life working on astronomical photography and spectroscopy.

Rutherford produced many admirable photographs of the moon, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun and stars down to the fifth magnitude, using an 11-inch (29 cm) achromatic refracting telescope built by Henry Fitz. He took photographs of star clusters and went on to map the heavens using a new micrometer of his own design, which allowed him to measure photographic distances more accurately.

He became extremely interested in the spectroscopic work of Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchoff. Beginning in 1862 he started to make spectroscopic studies of the sun, moon, Jupiter, Mars and sixteen fixed stars. Through his independent stellar studies, he evolved a classification scheme of stars based on their spectra that was remarkably similar to Angelo Secchi's star classification.

At the January 1864 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, he showed his unpublished photograph of the solar spectrum that had three times the number of lines that were noted by Bunsen and Kirchoff. To enhance his spectroscopic work, he made his own diffraction gratings. His innovative skill in producing them became generally well known to astronomers of the time, which led to his providing them with diffraction gratings with up to 17,000 lines to the inch (6,700 lines per cm).

In 1878 Rutherford made his last observations. In 1883 he donated all of his equipment and his large collection of photographic plates to the Observatory of the University of Columbia.

He died in Tranquillity, New Jersey, on May 30, 1892.