JOHN NELSON STOCKWELL. In the death of Prof. John Nelson Stockwell of Cleveland, May 18, 1920, America has lost
one of her foremost philosophers and the dean of her astronomers. Professor Stockwell was the contemporary of Gould,
Hall, Newcomb and Hill and outlived them all by a considerable period of years. Fortunately his health enabled
him to be active to the very end; so that as in the case of the elder Herschel, some of his notable advances were
made at a great age. Accordingly, his devotion to science extends from 1850 to 1920, fully seventy years.
He was born at Northampton, Massachusetts, April 10, 1822, and in the autumn of the following year his parents
moved to Ohio and nearly the whole of his life was spent in the region of Cleveland. His father, grandfather and
great grandfather all bore the name William, first of that name being born at Thompson, Connecticut, in 1744. The
mother of Doctor Stockwell was Clarissa Whittemore, whose brother, Amos Whittemore, was inventor of the machine
for carding wool and cotton. At the age of eight years, John Nelson Stockwell was taken to live with an elderly
aunt and uncle in Brecksville Township, near Cleveland. As the years passed by he became so attached to his foster
parents that he did not care to leave them. He attended school at an early age but his interest in books was slight
until he reached the age of twelve.
The account of his introduction to science, written by Doctor Stockwell himself, is thus quoted: "In the spring
of 1849 I commenced the study of algebra. The public schools provided no instruction in that science and I had
no means for pursuing it elsewhere. I was therefore obliged to get along without assistance or abandon the study.
The difficulties which I first encountered, however, gradually disappeared and I was surprised at the simplicity
and elegance with which arithmetical problems could be handled by means of algebra. I afterward made the discovery
that no teacher was necessary.
"I have often been asked how I happened to take an interest in astronomy and at what age that interest manifested
itself. It is easy to answer both of these questions now, although at one time it was a little difficult to answer
the latter with certainty. Two circumstances, however, which I well remember, enable me to remember the date. My
interest was awakened to the subject of astronomy by a total eclipse of the moon which occurred early in the evening,
about the beginning of winter. I have already mentioned the fact that I lived with my uncle, and that he lived
with his uncle, who was nearly eighty years of age. We were all somewhat frightened at the occurrence and the old
gentleman asked me with some earnestness if I thought that I would, ever be able to foretell when such an event
would occur again. The idea of foretelling such an event was entirely new to me. I had never heard of such a science
as astronomy, and I could only reply to the old gentleman by saying that I did not know but that I would try. From
that time on I was a careful student of all the old almanacs that I could get possession of, and I picked up a
good many items of interest in astronomy.
"I found the study of algebra so interesting that I devoted every leisure moment to its consideration and
in the period of about eight months I had solved nearly every problem in Day's Algebra, which was then used in
the principal colleges of this country. In the autumn of 1849 I procured a little book on practical geometry. In
fact I became so absorbed in study that the labors of the farm became rather irksome, and I sometimes suspect that
the growing crops suffered detriment for the benefit of science. There certainly seenied to be a degree of incompatibility
between my natural tastes and my occupation, and this incompatibility soon led to a modification of the conditions
that were so satisfactory at the age of fourteen.
"It was about that time that the wonderful discovery of Neptune took the scientific world by surprise and
the fame which rewarded the theoretical discoverer of that planet served as a stimulus to continued exertion. In
1850, while attending the college commencement at Hudson, in July, I found Olmstead's Astronomy with Mason's Supplement,
which I purchased and which I afterwards read with a great deal of interest. I also obtained the writing of Dr.
Thomas Dick, who was a very charming and popular writer on scientific subjects. His works, called 'Celestial Scenery,'
'Sidereal Heavens' and 'The Practical Astronomer,' afforded a vast amount of general information on the subject
At the age of twenty, in the spring of 1852, he came into possession of Laplace's great works, "Mecanique
Celeste." In 1832 he composed and prepared the matcrial of a "Western Reserve Almanac" for the year
of our Lord, 1853. A little later he became acquainted with Dr. B. A. Gould of Cambridge, Massachusetts, editor
of a journal of astronomy. This acquaintance delevoped into a friendship ended only by the death of Doctor Gould.
In August, 1854, Mr. Stockwcll went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to accept under Doctor Gould a situation as a
computer in the longitude department of the United States Coast Survey at a salary of $400. After eight months
he returned to Brecksville and on December 6, 1855, married Miss Sanh Realy, a foster daughter of his uncle and
who had lived in the family during about ten years.
Soon after the breaking out of war in 1861 Mr. Stockwell again accepted a position as computer under Doctor Gould
at the United States Naval Observatory at \Vashington, and continued in service there until the end of 1867.
In the meantime he had made the acquaintance of Mr. Leonard Case of Cleveland. To quote his own words: "My
acquaintance with Mr. Case was most fortunate and his friendship was cordial and continuous during the remainder
of his life. From him I received the material encouragement which has enabled me to devote the greater part of
my time during the past twenty years to scientific pursuits. It was he who encouraged me to undertake a complete
discussion of the mathematical theory of the moon's motion, the subject on which I was engaged at the time of his
death, and which I have continued at intervals since. But the continuity of my efforts were then broken, and I
have since been obliged to confine my attention to some specific problem in relation to the subject rather than
to a general advance all along the line."
The result of Doctor Stockwell's laborious researches are found in a long list of articles published in the Astronomical
Journal and other sicentific journals of this country and abroad. Some of the more notable of his published works
were: "Memoir of the Secular Variations of the Sanitary Orbit in Smithsoniap Contributions to Knowledge,"
1872; "Stocks and Interests Tables," 1873; "Theory of the Moon's Motions," 1881; "Eclipse
Titles," 1901; "Sheet Tax Tables," 1903; "Theory of Sanitary Perturbations and the Cosmogony
of Laplace," 1904.
In general, philosophers are esteemed according to the sincerity with which they persist in the search for truth.
Newton and Laplace each gave over sixty years to science and traversed and improved the theory of many of the great
phenomena of the world. Our venerable Doctor Stockwell has followed worthily in their footsteps. For nearly seventy
years he cultivated with vigor, originality and conscientious effort the improvements of Celestial Mechanics in
its various branches, and his efforts were crowned by numerous advances which add lustre to the age in which he
If he had lived in former centuries, he would have been the associate of Newton and Laplace, who laid and finally
established the foundation of the theory of universal gravitation. If he had lived in the age of Archimedes, Apollonius
and Hipperchus, he would have added lustre to the Alexandrian School of Astronomy. At Cleveland, Ohio, he witnessed
the celebrated experiments of Michelson and Morley on the stagnation of the £ther about our moving earth
and himself cultivated and adorned nearly every department of the science of the motions of the heavenly bodies.
Doctor Stockwell was preeminently a true philosopher, happy in his researches and seeking no reward but the noblest
of all rewards, the advancement of truth.
Doctor and Mrs. Stockwell lived together more than sixty years, a companionship of wonderful devotiop. Six children
were born to them, and those surviving Doctor Stockwell were Orison Lincoln of Greensburg, Kansas; Edward A., of
Cleveland; Netta Augusta, now Mrs. Walter S. Sapp, of Cleveland; and John Nelson, Jr., of Cleveland.
A History of Cuyahoga County
and the City of Cleveland
By: William R. Coates
The American Historical Society
Chicago and New York, 1924
Cuyahoga County, Ohio Biographies
Names A to G
Names H to P
Names Q to Z
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