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Six Months in Ascension

Thanks in part to his intrepid wife, David Gill made the observations that metered the 19th-century solar system

J. Donald Fernie

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.

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