James Melville Gilliss

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James Melville Gilliss
James Melville Gilliss.jpg
James Melville Gilliss
Born September 6, 1811
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
Died February 9, 1865 (1865-02-10) (aged 53)
Washington, D.C.
Fields astronomy
Known for United States Naval Observatory

James Melville Gilliss (born September 6, 1811 in Georgetown, District of Columbia – died February 9, 1865 in Washington, D.C.) was an astronomer, United States Navy officer and founder of the United States Naval Observatory.


His parents were George and Mary (née Melvile) Gillis[1] and he joined the navy in 1827 as a midshipman at the age of 15. He served on the Delaware, the Java, and the Concord. In 1831, after an examination, was advanced to passed midshipman.

In 1831 he started his studies at the University of Virginia, and went to Paris for further studies one year later. He got the position of an assistant at the Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington in 1836. He was also responsible for astronomical observations.

He made an astronomical research journey under Captain Charles Wilkes in 1837. He made observations on the differences of longitude by means of moon-culminations, made meteorological observations and worked on new instruments.

Gilliss was made a lieutenant in 1838.

In August 1842, the U.S. Congress passed a bill authorizing the creation of an observatory, intended to be a "National Observatory" by John Quincy Adams who was an amateur astronomer it came to be under the command of the navy and thus for 12 years it was alternately called the National Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory although the latter was used less until a bill was passed clarifying what it would be officially called. Until that point every item, every document and letter had to be duplicated because of the two names of "National Observatory" and "Navy Observatory.". This was but another time consuming duty that came to Matthew Fontaine Maury who headed the observatory from its beginning until 1861. Another of the many duties of superintendent M. F. Maury during this time period was to oversee all publications that embraced every maritime survey.

Matthew Fontaine Maury was the first superintendent who headed the "National" / "Naval" Observatory and he made the observatory internationally known due to his many works including charting the sea and his instigation of the first international conference of Nations that gathered to work under Commander M. F. Maury's plans for charting the seas for the safety and betterment of all (1853 Brussels Conference) for 40 years before resigning.

When Maury resigned to serve his state, his home, kin and friends. Lieutenant Gillis was then placed in charge of observatory. He had previously been placed in charge of obtaining the instruments needed and books that were to be used in the observatory. It would be the first national research observatory in the U.S. When it was first created and everything appeared to be in order it was discovered that the concrete beneath the telescopes and other equipment was weak and damp which could ruin the delicate instruments. But Gillis had failed in overseeing the actual building and placing of instruments. Thus all had to be removed while the building itself was repaired. Gillis was assigned elsewhere and became the second superintendent of this observatory lasting from 1861 until his death in 1865 - only four years total as opposed to Maury's long time there.

Published works[edit]

  • The United States Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemispheres in 1849-'52 (2 vols., Washington, 1855 et seq.)
  • An Account of the Total Eclipse of the Sun on September 7, 1858 (Washington, 1859)

Honored in ship naming[edit]

James M. Gilliss was honored in two ship names by the U.S. Navy:


  1. ^ Hockey (2009)


External links[edit]