Henry Draper and his Passion for Astronomy

Henry Draper

Henry Draper (1837-1882)

On March 7, 1837, American doctor and amateur astronomer Henry Draper was born. He is best known today as a pioneer of astrophotography. After his death, the Henry Draper Catalog of stellar spectra as well the Henry Draper medal is named after him.

Henry Draper was the son of John William Draper, a doctor, chemist, and professor at New York University. He was known for his interest in the chemical effects of light and he managed to take the first daguerreotype of the Moon around 1839. Henry Draper then assisted his father in photographing microscope slides for a textbook with similar techniques. The young Draper spent a year in Ireland where back then the world’s largest telescope was located. After his return home, Draper was determined to devote his career to photography for astronomical purposes. He built his own observatory and still had time to work as a physician at Bellevue Hospital and leter as professor of medicine at New York University.

Henry Draper’s wife, Anna Mary Palmer became his laboratory assistant and they often invited celebrities and contemporary scientists to their home. Henry Draper is best best known for obtaining the first astronomical photograph of a nebula. The image of the Great Nebula of Orion was created in September 1880. Throughout the years, Draper kept improving his images and he is also credited for the first stellar spectrum photograph, which he took of Vega in August 1872, the first wide-angle photograph of a comet’s tail, and the first spectrum of a comet’s head, both of these with Tebbutt’s Comet in 1881. Further, the amateur astronomer obtained photographs of the Moon, a benchmark spectrum of the Sun in 1873, and spectra of the Orion Nebula. Draper managed to publish much of his work in the field of astronomy and he suggested to build observatories in the Andes in order to avoid atmospheric turbulences.

The mechanical mechanism for tracking the telescope, which was driven by a mechanical clockwork at the time, was decisively improved by him. Sky shots with exposure times of more than three hours were possible. He also published monographs on spectrography and telescopic constructions in trade journals. His widow donated a considerable part of her heritage to the Harvard Observatory (“Henry Draper Memorial Fund”). Herewith the publication of a comprehensive star catalogue (nine volumes, 1918-1925) could be financed. It was created by Annie Cannon [4] and Edward C. Pickering and lists over 350,000 stars with their spectral classes.

Henry Draper was honored numerous times during his lifetime and beyond. He received honorary degrees from NYU and the University of Wisconsin. He was awarded a Congressial medal and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Astronomische Gesellschaft. Draper was a member of the American Photographic Society, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

At yovisto academic video search, you may enjoy a video lecture by Mary Dussault and Joe DePasquale titled ‘Understanding Astrophotography: Where Science and Art meet‘.

References and Further Reading

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