Friday, August 12, 2005

A few words about Lewis Swift

The parent comet of the Perseid meteor shower is Comet Swift-Tuttle. It was first observed by Lewis Swift, a farmer and amateur astronomer of Marathon, New York, on the evening of July 15, 1862, with a 4.25-inch refractor mounted on a platform attached to his barn.

Unfortunately, Swift did not realize he was looking at an object never seen before. Three days later he finally realized he had discovered a comet, but by then Horace Tuttle of the Harvard Observatory had seen it too, so Swift shared the name -- and fame.

The comet brightened to become one of the most splendid of that century. Swift's enthusiasm for astronomy was fired. He subsequently discovered thirteen comets, although none as bright as the comet of 1862.

For his work with comets, the star-struck farmer was awarded a gold medal by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna, and in the 1880s he was appointed director of the Warner Observatory in Rochester, New York. From the people of that city he received a 16-inch refractor telescope worth $10,000, with which he discovered more than a thousand nebulas.