Six Months in Ascension
Thanks in part to his intrepid wife, David Gill made the observations that metered the 19th-century solar system
A Tropical Vacation?
Because of Earth's rotation, an observer near the equator travels a
longer distance in a given time than does an observer at higher
latitudes. Thus, Gill expected the best results from a field outpost
in the tropics. There being no established astronomical
observatories in the tropics, Gill resolved to mount an expedition
to erect a temporary one. He decided Ascension would do nicely.
Getting there was another matter. Gill applied to the Royal Society
for a grant of £500 to finance the expedition. He was refused.
However, the Astronomer Royal intervened on his behalf and persuaded
another agency, the Royal Astronomical Society, to make a grant of
£250; the rest Gill had to supply himself. As for
transportation, no southbound English ships called at Ascension, so
the Gills had first to travel to the island of St. Helena, 800 miles
to the southeast, and there wait for a northbound ship. Finally, on
July 13, 1877, they found themselves anchored off Georgetown. It was
not a prepossessing sight. "Stones, stones, everywhere stones,
that have been tried in the fire and are now heaped in dire
confusion, or beaten into dust which we see dancing in pillars
before the wind. Dust, Sunshine, and cinders, and low yellow houses
frizzling in it all!" was Isobel's description. Their 20 tons
of delicate equipment was lifted ashore by crane, but they
themselves had to face jumping for the steep steps cut into the
rock, very likely the same ones I saw 80 years later. Passengers do
not often envy the privileged handling of freight, but in this case
"… I certainly wished myself a chronometer … when
I saw, rising up behind us, a long wall of threatening water, and
before us, the steep, dark rock, wet with spray," wrote Isobel.
Once ashore, the Gills found they would be living in a tiny cottage
on the outskirts of town and that Captain Phillimore, the senior
officer of the garrison (as Georgetown was known), had courteously
volunteered the garrison's croquet ground as a base for the
observatory. This site proved to be a sweltering stretch of
concrete, but little alternative existed. Although they could buy
food from the naval canteen, the provender was usually less than
desirable. Fresh meat and vegetables were rare, a quart of milk a
week was considered a good ration, and fresh water was so limited
that they often cooked with seawater. Fish, however, was plentiful.
On Isobel's first visit to the bakery she found "a pallid baker
[standing] at the threshold wiping the perspiration from his
forehead. Evidently he made his bread by the sweat of his
brow!" In any case, his bread was so hard it nearly required an
axe to break.