William Lewis Elkin

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William Lewis Elkin
Born(1855-04-29)April 29, 1855
DiedMay 30, 1922(1922-05-30) (aged 67)
NationalityUnited States
Alma materUniversity of Strasbourg
AwardsLalande Prize (1908)
Scientific career
InstitutionsYale Observatory

William Lewis Elkin (April 29, 1855 – May 30, 1933) was an American astronomer known for his detailed work measuring parallaxes and for pioneering work in meteor photography. He served as director of the Yale University Observatory from 1896 to 1910.

Early life and education[edit]

He was born in New Orleans to Jane and Lewis Elkin, one of five children but the only one to survive to adulthood. Following the death of her husband in 1867, Jane travelled abroad for the following seventeen years, taking along William. As a result of a broad education, he learned to speak fluently in German and French, and acquired a basic understanding of Italian and Spanish. He also received a broad knowledge of music from many nations, and would retain a deep love of music for the remainder of his life.[1]

He became seriously ill in 1870, possibly from dysentery, and thereafter he would suffer health problems for the remainder of his life. In 1872 he joined the Royal Polytechnic School in Stuttgart, Germany, where he studied civil engineering, graduating in 1876. While at school, however, he gained an interest in astronomy and decided to make that his life's work. After graduation, he spent four years working at the Observatory of Strasbourg. In 1880 he was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Strasbourg, with a dissertation on the parallax of Alpha Centauri.[1]


Heliometric observations[edit]

A year before Elkin left Strassburg, he had a meeting with the directory of the Cape Observatory, David Gill. The two men became fast friends and Gill extended Elkin an invitation to Cape Town. Dr. Elkin sailed for South Africa in December, 1880, arriving in 1881. While at the observatory, Gill and Elkin collaborated to measure stellar parallaxes of first magnitude stars using a heliometer.[1]

In 1884, H. A. Newton invited Elkin to become "Astronomer in Charge of the Heliometer" at the Yale University Observatory. Elkin succeeded Newton as the observatory director in 1896. Elkin first used the Yale Heliometer to make measurements of the Pleiades and later a survey of northern stars. Working with Frederick L. Chase and Mason Smith, the heliometer was used to undertake a survey which identified 238 parallaxes.[1] These efforts were noted for their particular accuracy, at least for that time period, and elimination of systematic errors by Frank Schlesinger.[1][2]

Meteor photography[edit]

Elkin is also recognized as a pioneer of meteor photography and between 1894 and 1910 he captured photographs of around 130 meteor trails.[3][4] Using two groups of cameras with rotating shutters, an idea first suggested by Jonathan Homer Lane, he was the first to accurately determine meteor velocities.[4][5]

Personal life[edit]

In 1896 he married Catharine Adams in New Haven. Due to ill health he retired at age 55, but lived until May 30, 1933. During his retirement he pursued music, photography, reading, and car mechanics.[1]

Awards and honors[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Schlesinger, Frank (1936). Biographical Memoir of William Lewis Elkin, 1855–1933 (PDF). National Academy of Sciences.
  2. ^ a b Williams, Thomas R. (2014). "Elkin, William Lewis". In Hockey, Thomas; Trimble, Virginia; Williams, Thomas R.; Bracher, Katherine; Jarrell, Richard A.; II, Jordan D. Marché; Palmeri, JoAnn; Green, Daniel W. E. (eds.). Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer New York. pp. 650–652. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-9917-7_406. ISBN 9781441999160.
  3. ^ Hoffleit, Dorrit (1975). "Yale University Observatory at the Turn of the Century". Irish Astronomical Journal. 12: 104. Bibcode:1975IrAJ...12..104H.
  4. ^ a b Hughes, Stefan (2012). Catchers of the Light: The Forgotten Lives of the Men and Women Who First Photographed the Heavens. ArtDeCiel Publishing. p. 448. ISBN 9781620509616.
  5. ^ Williams, I. P. (2004-03-23). "The velocity of meteoroids: a historical review". Atmos. Chem. Phys. 4 (2): 471–475. doi:10.5194/acp-4-471-2004. ISSN 1680-7324.
  6. ^ a b c Johnson, Rossiter; Brown, John Howard, eds. (1904). The twentieth century biographical dictionary of notable Americans. 3. Boston: The Biographical Society.
  7. ^ "Scientific Notes and News". Science. 34 (872): 342–345. 1911. Bibcode:1911Sci....34..342.. doi:10.1126/science.34.872.342. JSTOR 1638228. PMID 17802102.

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