General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel

The “New American Encyclopedia” furnishes the following sketch of this distinguished man Ormsby M. Mitchel, born in Union Co., Ky., August 28, 1812.  At 12 years of age, with a good knowledge of Latin and Greek and the elements of mathematics, he commenced the world for himself as clerk in a store in Miami, Ohio, and afterward removed to Lebanon, Warren Co., where he had been educated. There he received a cadet’s warrant, and earned the money that took him to West Point, which place he reached, with a knapsack on his back and 25 cents in his pocket, in June 1825. On graduating in 1829, he was made acting assistant professor of mathematics, which post he held for two years. From 1812 to 1814 he was counselor at law in Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1814 to 1844 professor of mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy at Cincinnati college; in 1816 and 1837 chief engineer of the Little Miami railroad; and in 1841 a member of the board of visitors of the military academy. In 1845, at the close of a course of lectures on astronomy in Cincinnati, he proposed the establishment of an observatory at that place; and the proposition having been at once carried out, mainly by his own exertions, he became director of the institution. The ground for the building was given by Nicholas Longworth, Esq. The building is of stone, 80 feet in length and 2~ stories high. The principal instrument is the great refractor equatorially mounted and made by Merz and Mohier of Munich. It cost $10,000, which Prof. Mitchel obtained by subscriptions, mostly of $25 each, in Cincinnati. In 1859 he became director of the Dudley observatory at Albany, retaining at the same time his connection with that at Cincinnati. Prof. Mitchel is eminent as a popular lecturer on astronomy, and scarcely less distinguished for his mechanical skill, by the aid of which he has perfected a variety of apparatus of great use to astronomy. One of the most important of his constructions is an apparatus at Albany for recording right ascensions and declinations by electromagnetic aid to within 1-1000 of a second of time, and for the measurement with great accuracy of large differences of declination, such as the ordinary method by micrometer cannot at all reach. Prof. Mitchel has carefully investigated the velocity of the magnetic current. Among his discoveries are the exact period of rotation of Mars, and the companion of Antares or Cor Scorpil. The most popular and characteristic of his published writings is “Planetary and Stellar Worlds,” a collection of earlier public lectures. He is the author also of a treatise on algebra, and of a “Popular Astronomy.” In July, 1846, he published the first number of the “Sidereal Messenger,” tile first periodical attempted in the United States devoted exclusively to astronomy. About the end of the second year it was abandoned for want of patronage. Prof. Mitchel has devoted much time to the re-measurement of Prof. W. Struve’s double stars south of the equator. The work was undertaken at the special request of that astronomer, and has resulted in a number of interesting discoveries.

At the outbreak of the great rebellion Prof. Mitchel promptly offered his services to his country. He was educated at West Point, and in thus early espousing the cause of his government he doubtless felt that he was defending his paternal guardian. He received the commission of a Brigadier General of Volunteers, and has shown in all his operations a wonderful degree of energy and determination. From our personal knowledge of Gen. Mitchel we feel well assured that the grass will not grow under his feet. The President, in appreciation of his valuable services, has promoted hint to the rank of Major General. Huntsville, the scene of Gen. Mitchel’s gallant exploit, is a fine town of about 6,000 inhabitants, 116 miles southeast of Nashville. It contains many. handsome brick buildings, among which are the Court House which cost $46,000, and stone banking house, which cost $80,000.


Scientific American. / New Series, Volume 6, Issue 17: pp. 257-272