Isabel Martin Lewis

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Isabel Martin Lewis
Isabel Martin Lewis.jpg
Born(1881-07-11)July 11, 1881
DiedJuly 31, 1966(1966-07-31) (aged 85)
Nationality American
Alma mater Cornell University
Scientific career
Fields Astronomy
Institutions United States Naval Observatory

Isabel Martin Lewis (July 11, 1881 July 31, 1966) was an American astronomer who was the first woman hired by the United States Naval Observatory as assistant astronomer. In 1918, Lewis was elected a member of the American Astronomical Society. She was also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Astronomer Scientist who studies celestial bodies

An astronomer is a scientist in the field of astronomy who focuses their studies on a specific question or field outside the scope of Earth. They observe astronomical objects such as stars, planets, moons, comets, and galaxies – in either observational or theoretical astronomy. Examples of topics or fields astronomers study include planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin or evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies. Related but distinct subjects like physical cosmology, which studies the Universe as a whole.

United States Naval Observatory scientific agency in the United States

The United States Naval Observatory (USNO) is one of the oldest scientific agencies in the United States, with a primary mission to produce Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) for the United States Navy and the United States Department of Defense. Located in Northwest Washington, D.C. at the Northwestern end of Embassy Row, it is one of the pre-1900 astronomical observatories located in an urban area; at the time of its construction, it was far from the light pollution thrown off by the (then-smaller) city center. Former USNO director Gernot M. R. Winkler initiated the "Master Clock" service that the USNO still operates, and which provides precise time to the GPS satellite constellation run by the United States Air Force. The USNO performs radio VLBI-based positions of quasars with numerous global collaborators, in order to produce Earth Orientation parameters.


Early life

Isabel Eleanor Martin was born in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, on July 11, 1881. [1] Lewis earned her A.B. from Cornell University in 1903 and earned her A.M. there in 1905, specializing in mathematics. [1] From 1905 to 1907 she was an "astronomical computer" for Simon Newcomb. Under Newcomb, Martin worked on eclipse data, an experience that would prove essential to her later work.

Maine State of the United States of America

Maine is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. Maine is the 12th smallest by area, the 9th least populous, and the 38th most densely populated of the 50 U.S. states. It is bordered by New Hampshire to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the southeast, and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec to the northeast and northwest respectively. Maine is the easternmost state in the contiguous United States, and the northernmost state east of the Great Lakes. It is known for its jagged, rocky coastline; low, rolling mountains; heavily forested interior; and picturesque waterways, as well as its seafood cuisine, especially lobster and clams. There is a humid continental climate throughout most of the state, including in coastal areas such as its most populous city of Portland. The capital is Augusta.

Cornell University Private Ivy League research university in Upstate New York

Cornell University is a private and statutory Ivy League research university in Ithaca, New York. Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, the university was intended to teach and make contributions in all fields of knowledge—from the classics to the sciences, and from the theoretical to the applied. These ideals, unconventional for the time, are captured in Cornell's founding principle, a popular 1868 Ezra Cornell quotation: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."

Human computer occupation

The term "computer", in use from the early 17th century, meant "one who computes": a person performing mathematical calculations, before electronic computers became commercially available. "The human computer is supposed to be following fixed rules; they have no authority to deviate from them in any detail." Teams of people were frequently used to undertake long and often tedious calculations; the work was divided so that this could be done in parallel. Frequently, the same calculations were performed independently by separate teams to check the correctness of the results.

Lewis began work as a computer at the Nautical Almanac Office in 1908. Although Lewis was not the first woman to be hired by the Naval Observatory (this was Maria Mitchell, who in 1849 was hired as a computer), Lewis was the first woman to be hired as assistant astronomer. At the NAO, Lewis met her husband, Clifford Spencer Lewis, another astronomer. They were married on December 4, 1912. [1]

Maria Mitchell American astronomer

Maria Mitchell [pronounced "mə-RYE-ə"] was an American astronomer, who in 1847 by using a telescope, discovered a comet, which as a result became known as "Miss Mitchell's Comet." She won a gold medal prize for her discovery, which was presented to her by King Christian VIII of Denmark. On the medal was inscribed "Non Frustra Signorum Obitus Speculamur et Ortus" in Latin (taken from Georgics by Virgil. Mitchell was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer.

Popularization of science

With the birth of her son, Raymond Winslow Lewis, Lewis worked only part-time at the observatory and began an effort to popularize science.

Writing three books and countless articles, Lewis started in 1916 to reach out to a popular audience about the wonders of astronomy and earth science. Her columns appeared in the New York Evening Sun , the Electrical Experimenter (later known as Science and Invention ), Popular Astronomy , The Scientific Monthly, and the Astronomical Journal , among others. For thirty years, Lewis had a monthly column in Nature Magazine (this title was published by the American Nature Association and should not be confused with the journal Nature). Introducing her first article in Electrical Experimenter, editor Hugo Gernsback praised Lewis for her exactitude and learning, saying that she "has the rare faculty of interpreting difficult and dry subjects in a popular manner." [2]

<i>Electrical Experimenter</i>

The Electrical Experimenter was an American technical science magazine that was published monthly. It was established in May 1913, as the successor to Modern Electrics, a combination of a magazine and mail-order catalog that had been published by Hugo Gernsback starting in 1908. The Electrical Experimenter continued from May 1913 to July 1920 under that name, focusing on scientific articles about radio, and continued with a broader focus as Science and Invention until August 1931.

Popular Astronomy is an American magazine published by John August Media, LLC and hosted at for amateur astronomers. Prior to its revival in 2009, the title was published between 1893 and 1951. It was the successor to The Sidereal Messenger, which was published from March 1882 to 1892. The first issue of Popular Astronomy appeared in September 1893. Each yearly volume of Popular Astronomy contained 10 issues, for a total of 59 volumes.

American Nature Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was the publisher of Nature Magazine from 1923 to 1959; and a discount reseller of natural science books for its members. It was founded by Arthur Newton Pack and his father, Charles. Nature Magazine was an "illustrated monthly with popular articles about nature" and later, the "interpreter of the great outdoors." A May 1924 review of the organization and its magazine, written by Carroll Lane Fenton and published in American Midland Naturalist called the magazine "excellent" with "abundant pictures, admirably printed"; and said it was a "highly worth while publication" that deserves a wide circulation among town and school libraries."

The articles from the Sun were combined into a 1919 book, Splendors of the Sky, and her articles before 1922 in Science and Invention were included in the second part of her book Astronomy for Young Folks. In addition, in "News of the Stars" she gave lectures on the local radio station (WRC) and made presentations at schools and churches.

Return to full-time work

Lewis returned to full-time work after her husband's death in 1927. On October 1, 1927 Lewis was promoted to Assistant Scientist. Lewis was further promoted to the rank of Astronomer in 1930.

A specialist in eclipses, at the Naval Observatory Lewis derived a faster and more accurate method to determine where an eclipse would be visible. She also found a way to predict more occultations of the moon; these moments when the moon passed before other heavenly bodies were used to investigate the moon's orbit. Her new method for calculating solar eclipses allowed for a level of detail that could be used to understand the ionosphere.

Eclipse astronomical event where one body hides another

An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object is temporarily obscured, either by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer. This alignment of three celestial objects is known as a syzygy. Apart from syzygy, the term eclipse is also used when a spacecraft reaches a position where it can observe two celestial bodies so aligned. An eclipse is the result of either an occultation or a transit.

Occultation event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer

An occultation is an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer. The term is often used in astronomy, but can also refer to any situation in which an object in the foreground blocks from view (occults) an object in the background. In this general sense, occultation applies to the visual scene observed from low-flying aircraft when foreground objects obscure distant objects dynamically, as the scene changes over time.

During this period, she participated in expeditions to view the solar eclipse of June 19, 1936 in Russia. Also, she organized and participated in the Hayden Planetarium-Grace Eclipse Expedition to Peru to view, photograph, and broadcast by radio the solar eclipse of June 8, 1937. [3]

Solar eclipse of June 19, 1936

A total solar eclipse occurred at the Moon’s descending node on Friday, June 19, 1936. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, thereby totally or partly obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's apparent diameter is larger than the Sun's, blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness. Totality occurs in a narrow path across Earth's surface, with the partial solar eclipse visible over a surrounding region thousands of kilometres wide. The path of totality crossed Europe and Asia. The full phase can be seen in Greece, Turkey, USSR, China and Japan. The maximum eclipse was near Bratsk and lasts about 2.5 minutes. Places east of international date line or before midnight witnessed the eclipse on Thursday, June 18, 1936. The sun was 57 degrees above horizon, gamma has a value of 0.539, and was part of Solar Saros 126.

Solar eclipse of June 8, 1937

A total solar eclipse occurred on June 8, 1937. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, thereby totally or partly obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's apparent diameter is larger than the Sun's, blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness. Totality occurs in a narrow path across Earth's surface, with the partial solar eclipse visible over a surrounding region thousands of kilometres wide. The path of totality crossed the Pacific Ocean starting in Gilbert and Ellice Islands on June 9th, and ending at sunset in Peru on June 8th (Tuesday).

Lewis retired from service at the Naval Observatory in 1951 but continued to publish in newspapers and magazines until 1955. [1] The length of her career and her prominence are unlike that of other women in astronomy; according to Lankford and Stavings, only 12% of women astronomers from 1900-1940 had careers longer than 25 years. [4]



  1. 1 2 3 4 Carter, Merri Sue. "Mrs. Isabel Martin Lewis". The Contributions of Women to the United States Naval Observatory: The Early Years. Retrieved 22 May 2014.
  2. Gernsback, Hugo. Introduction to "Popular Astronomy: Dark Stars" by Isabel M. Lewis. The Electrical Experimenter, July 1918.
  3. Bennett, Dorothy A. "The Hayden Planetarium-Grace Eclipse Expedition". Popular Astronomy. 45: 353–357. Bibcode :  1937PA.....45..353B.
  4. Lankford, John; Slavings, Rickey L. "Gender and Science: Women in American Astronomy, 1859–1940". Physics Today. 43 (3): 58–65. doi : 10.1063/1.881229.

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