Canadian-born US mathematician
and astronomer who compiled charts and tables of astronomical data with
phenomenal accuracy. His calculations of the motions of the bodies in
the Solar System were in use as daily reference all over the world for
more than 50 years, and the system of astronomical constants for which
he was most responsible is still the standard.
Newcomb was born in Wallace, Nova Scotia, and had little or no formal
education. In his teens he ran away to the USA, and eventually enrolled
at Harvard. In 1861 he joined the navy, where he was assigned to the
US Naval Observatory at Washington DC, and in 1877 put in charge of
the American Nautical Almanac office. From 1884 he was also professor
of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. He retired
with the rank of rear admiral.
At the Nautical Almanac office, Newcomb started the great work that
was to occupy the rest of his life: the calculation of the motions of
the bodies in the Solar System. The results were published in Astronomical
Papers Prepared for the Use of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac,
a series that he founded 1879.
With his British counterpart Arthur Matthew Weld Downing (1850-1917),
Newcomb established a universal standard system of astronomical constants.
This was adopted at an international conference 1896, and again 1950.