Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 29: Lewis A. Swift

Lewis A. Swift
February 29, 1820 – January 5, 1913

Lewis Swift was an American astronomer. He discovered or co-discovered a number of comets, including periodic comets 11P/Tempel-Swift-LINEAR, 64P/Swift-Gehrels, and 109P/Swift-Tuttle (parent body of the Perseids meteor shower). He also discovered comet D/1895 Q1 (a.k.a. D/Swift) whose debris stream Mariner 4 probably encountered on September 15, 1967. Note, however, comet 54P/de Vico-Swift-NEAT was discovered by his son Edward D. Swift rather than by him. Apart from comets, he also discovered hundreds of nebulae.

In 1878 he believed he had observed two Vulcan-type planets (planets within the orbit of Mercury), but he was mistaken. He discovered his last comet at the age of 79. He was one of the few people to see Comet Halley at two of its appearances, 76 years apart.

Dr. Swift or “Professor” Swift, as he became known, was handicapped by a childhood accident, and devoted his time to the study of astronomy. It appears that his titles were honorary and not the result of the award of any advanced degrees. Indeed, he was an astronomer by avocation only and the operator of a hardware store vocationally. However, his sightings of previously undiscovered comets elevated his reputation and enabled him to give lectures. His notoriety allowed him to begin the process of raising money for an observatory in Rochester.

His patron was the Rochester patent medicine businessman Hulbert Harrington Warner, who financed the building of an observatory for Swift. Warner assured the “famous comet finder” that if Swift could raise the money to purchase a large telescope, Warner would furnish a place to put it. The original estimate for construction of the Observatory was $20,000. Dr. Swift was able to fulfill his part of the bargain and a 16-inch refractor telescope was ordered from Alvan Clark & Son in Massachusetts. Ultimately, the Observatory cost Warner $100,000. The plans for the Observatory also called for an astronomical library, astronomical equipment and a residential space for Dr. Swift and his family.

Warner went bankrupt in the Panic of 1893, which ended his financial support, and Swift then went to California to become director of Mount Lowe Observatory.

The asteroid 5035 Swift is named in his honour, as is the lunar crater Swift. In 1897 he was awarded the Jackson-Gwilt Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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