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James M. Gilliss

AKA James Melville Gilliss

Born: 6-Sep-1811
Birthplace: Washington, DC
Died: 9-Feb-1865
Location of death: Washington, DC
Cause of death: Natural Causes

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Astronomer, Military

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Founder, US Naval Observatory

Military service: US Navy (1827-65, Capt.)

James M. Gilliss enlisted in the Navy at the age of 15, and as Midshipman aboard the Delaware, Java, and Concord he showed an astute interest in improving methods of navigation. Largely a self-taught astronomer, he spent only a brief time at the University of Virginia, learning more of the stars by frequenting Naval libraries. In 1836 he was given command of the Depot of Charts and Instruments -- described as "an obscure Navy storehouse". Under his supervision, DCI produced the first star catalog published in America. Gilliss lobbied to have DCI and its mission revamped, eventually transforming it into the US Naval Observatory, America's first observatory devoted entirely to research.

Though political maneuvering led to the installation of another man, Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), as the Observatory's first Superintendent, Gilliss is acknowledged as the founder of the US Naval Observatory. He also undertook an 1852 expedition to Chile, and established what is now the Chilean National Observatory there. He conducted astronomical and meteorological studies, including observations for determination of the solar parallax, and he was a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Father: George Gilliss (government worker)
Mother: Mary Melville Gilliss
Wife: Rebecca Roberts Gilliss

    University: University of Virginia (attended, 1833-34)

    Depot of Charts and Instruments Officer in Charge (1836-41)
    US Naval Observatory Superintendent (1861-65)
    National Academy of Sciences (1863, charter member)
    Scottish Ancestry

Author of books:
Astronomical Observations (1846)
United States Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemispheres in 1849-'52 (1855, two volumes)


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