Monday, June 19, 2017

There Once Was a Girl From Nantucket (Part 2)

There Once Was a Girl From Nantucket (Part 2) . . .

. . . and her name was Maria Mitchell. It's not women's history month anymore but it is always a good time to learn about women's history. Maria (Ma-RYE-uh just like Lydia Maria Child) Mitchell is a lady astronomer! The first ever in the United States. She grew up here in Nantucket. 


Maria Mitchell was born in this house in 1818. She was the third child in a large family. The house was kind of old by then. It was built in 1790! It is typical Nantucket architecture. It has an off-center front door and a small window above to let light in the hall when the door was closed. Her family moved here just before she was born. Maria's father had to add a new kitchen to the old house to make the house bigger. The new kitchen has a back staircase, a warming alcove and plaster walls painted to look like wood.


Can you spy the roof walk on top? That's for putting out fires in chimneys. Did you know that? 

Maria attended a school for young ladies. Her father also taught her astronomy and things only boys learn. Maria soon opened her own school for girls to learn the same subjects as boys. In the future this type of school might be called STEM (or just the science and math parts in my day).  Maria loved astronomy, just like her father. When she was 12, Maria helped her father calculate the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14 she was calculating navigational computations (whatever that means) for sailors leaving on whaling journeys.


This is the Nantucket Atheneum. Miss Mitchell was a librarian here from 1836 to just recently in 1858. She read everything she could when she wasn't working.

This is the Pacific National Bank where Mr. Mitchell is a cashier in 1836. He was in charge of the entire bank.

This is the side door to the upstairs apartment where the Mitchells lived. 

Maria and her father put a telescope up on the roof. On October 1, 1847 there was a party Maria did not feel like going. She went up on the roof with her telescope. What did she spy with her telescope? A fiery ball flying through the air- a comet!

She wrote down what she saw and the exact time to send her finding off to a society that keeps track of scientific discoveries. There was a storm in Nantucket the next day. The mail could not go out. A man in Italy claimed he saw the comet first. Maria persisted. She insisted she saw the comet first and her notes proved she was right. She was given an international gold medal from the King of Denmark. The comet is named after Miss Mitchell.

Maria Mitchell soon became famous. She was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848. The U.S. Coastal Survey paid her $300 a year as a celestial observer. She helped predict weather patterns using math to compute distances. This is very important on an island. We can't leave our island except by boat and most people are employed in the whaling industry.

Maria is no longer officially a Quaker but she believes in many of the Quaker principles. She refused to wear cotton before the war because cotton was picked by slaves. She always wears a black silk dress.

She is now Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College and studies the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn. She is the first lady professor and ignores silly rules about ladies not going outside at night.

Ignore the observatory behind me until you time travel forward to the early 1900s.

Meanwhile, back at the bank in 1849, Mr. Mitchell put this stone here to measure the varying angle between magnetic north and true north. This helps sailors. This stone is the first one here in the United States.

This is what Nantucket looks like outside of the center of the village. The island is one giant sand dune created by a glacier in the ice age. wow!

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