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Charles Messier
1730 - 1817

 

 

 

Charles Messier was born in Badonvillier, Lorraine, France (20 miles from Luneville), as the 10th of 12 children, and grew up in humble conditions. In 1741, when Charles was 11, his father died, and he had to finish his school education, and the family had even less opportunity for any betterment. Charles got interested in astronomy when he was 14 years old, and a great 6-tailed comet appeared. This interest was further stimulated by an annular Solar eclipse which was visible from his hometown on July 25, 1748.

In 1751 he went to Paris, where he arrived in October. He was employed by the astronomer of the Navy, Joseph Nicolas Delisle, because of his fine hand-writing. His first job was copying a large map of China. Besides this activities, he got introduced into the observatory on Hotel de Cluny by Delisle's secretary, Libour. This man also instructed him to keep careful records of his observations. Delisle himself introduced him into elementary astronomy and convinced him of the usefulness of measuring exact positions of all observations -- without doubt one of the most important preliminaries for the success of his catalog. In 1754, he was regularly employed as a Depot Clerk of the Navy.

Sometime in 1757, Charles Messier started looking for comet Halley. His first reported observation of M32, a companion of the Andromeda galaxy, took place in the same year 1757. Comet Halley was expected to return in 1758, which, at that time, was a scientific hypothesis. Delisle himself had calculated an apparent path where he expected comet Halley to appear, and Messier created a fine star chart of this path. Unfortunately, there was a mistake in Delisle's calculations, so that Messier always looked at the wrong positions. However, he observed another comet which he followed from August 15 to November 2, 1758, and discovered a comet-like patch in Taurus on August 28, 1758. Evidently it turned out that this patch was not moving, and was thus indeed not a comet, but a nebula. He measured its position on September 12, 1758, and it later became the first entry, M1, in his famous catalog -- this object later turned out to be one of the most interesting objects in the sky, the remnant of the supernova 1054, now commonly called the Crab nebula.

Comet Halley was finally discovered by the German amateur astronomer Johann Georg Palitzch in the Christmas night (December 25-26) of 1758. Messier independently found it on January 21, 1759, about 4 weeks later, when he finally doubted the correctness of Delisle's path. Delisle however did not believe in this fault, advised him to continue observing, and refused to announce his discovery. Messier as loyal employee stated: "I was a loyal servant of M. Delisle, I lived with him in his house, and I conformed with his command." When Delisle finally announced the discovery on April 1, 1759, it was not believed by the other French astronomers (perhaps they took it as an April Fool's joke). Perhaps this disappointment and frustration was even more stimulating to the 28-year old observer, so that he devoted his professional life to comet hunting. This devotion suffered from a further frustration (and perhaps got further emphasized) when Delisle refused to publish a further comet discovery by Messier in early 1760.

Shortly after that incident, Delisle retired, and Messier continued observing from the Hotel Cluny observatory; his appointment as Astronomer of the Navy occurred considerably later, though: Not before 1771! He recorded his second "nebula", M2 (previously discovered by Maraldi), and plotted it on a chart showing Comet Halley's path. He observed the transit of Venus in 1761, and the appearance Saturn's rings. On September 28, 1763, he discovered Comet 1763 (Messier), and the next one, Comet 1764 Messier, on January 3, 1764 (this one was as bright as 3.0 magnitude when discovered, according to Don Machholz). A first hope to enter the French Academie Royale des Science in 1763 did not come true, a considerable disappointment for Charles Messier.

With the discovery of a further "nebula", his third object (globular cluster M3) and his first original discovery, it seems that he undertook a serious scan of the skies for these objects, as they could frequently fool comet discoverers. Besides own scans, leading to 19 original Messier discoveries that year, he used the catalogs of Edmond Halley (6 objects), William Derham (who chiefly had copied Hevelius' Prodomus Astronomiae) which was available in a French translation by P. de Maupertius, and Lacaille's Catalog of Southern "Nebulae" of 1755, as well as lists of Maraldi, de Cheseaux, and Le Gentil. He cataloged the objects M3--M40 this year, and looked for several non-existent nebulae from the older catalogs (certainly without success, but this explains why the double star M40 entered his catalog).

At that time, Messier was in vivid correspondence with astronomers and other academicians in Britain, Germany, and Russia. His Russian correspondent, La Harpe, was exile from Swiss and member of the Academy of sciences. On La Harpe's recommendation, Messier was named to the Academy of St. Petersburg in Russia. Moreover, on December 6, 1764, Charles Messier was made a foreign member of the Royal Society in London.

Early in 1765, he found the star cluster M41. On March 8, 1766, he discovered a new comet, and co-discovered one more on April 8 of that year. In early 1769, Messier must have decided to publish a first version of his catalog, and to enlarge the number of objects, cataloged the well known objects M42--M45 (Orion Nebula, Praesepe, and the Pleiades). Later that year, Messier took part in a journey in order to test and regulate some new marine chronometers, constructed by J. Le Roy. Therefore, he went on the ship L'Aurore for a 4-month voyage in the Baltic, together with his colleague Alexander-Guy Pingre (1711-96); Messier did the astronomical observations and Pingre the necessary calculations; during his absence, Lalande continued the observing program at Cluny.

On August 8, 1769, Messier discovered a new comet (1769 Messier, the Great Comet of that year). He sent a description and a map of this comet's discovery to the King of Prussia, who was so impressed that under his influence, Messier was made a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Finally, in 1770, he was elected into the Paris Academie Royale des Science. He also discovered Comet Lexell that year; this comet was however not named for its discoverer, Charles Messier, but for the calculator of its orbit, Anders Lexell, a Finnish astronomer and mathematician working at St. Petersburg Observatory.

On January 10, 1771, Messier independently co-discovered the Great Comet of that year. Three nights after the presentation of the first version of his catalog, he measured four more nebulous objects, M46--M49. For two of them, however, M47 and M48, he didn't proceed with the usual care, and did mistakes in the reduction of positional data, so that they were missed until their 20th century identification. M49 was moreover the first Virgo Cluster galaxy discovered. Later this year, on June 7, Messier discovered M62, but only measured an approximate position, so he included this "Very Fine Nebula" not before 1779. In the same year of 1771, Charles Messier was finally officially made the "Astronomer of the Navy", and granted a regular salary of 1700 francs annually (this was raised again in 1774 to 2000 francs). Also this year (in March, 1771) the portrait of Charles Messier displayed at the top of this page has been created by Desportes.

"Nebula" observation was apparently reduced by Charles Messier in the years following: He only added one cluster, M50, to his list in 1772. In 1773, he discovered the second bright companion of the Andromeda "Nebula", M110, but due to unknown reason did not catalog it. He found two more objects (M51 and M52) in 1774. He discovered one more comet on October 13, 1773; this one was found when it was "just visible to the naked eye" (Glyn Jones), or at 4.5 magnitude (Machholz). In the year 1774, Pierre Mechain was introduced to Messier by Jerome de Lalande, the leading French astronomer at that time; it may well be (according to a conjecture of Owen Gingerich) that he had met Messier before this time. Until 1777, Messier did not discover another nebula, nor another comet. In February that year, Messier cataloged M53 (this globular had been discovered two years earlier by Johann Elert Bode). He also contributed to the dubious hypothesis of a planet inside Mercury's orbit, when he reported several small bodies crossing the Sun's disk on June 17, 1777. He added that the objects observed might be atmospheric phenomena, but "more probably small meteorites". In 1778 Messier found two more nebulae, the original discovery M54, and M55 which had been reported by Lacaille, and which Messier had looked for in vain in 1764.

In 1779, Messier co-discovered Comet 1779 Bode on January 19, 13 days after its original sighting by Bode on January 6. Following this comet, he observed nine objects (M56--M63 in 1779, M64 in 1780). There was a modest discovery "outburst" when the comet passed Virgo and the Virgo cluster of Galaxies, and was observed by Messier, Johann Gottfried Koehler from Dresden, and Barnabus Oriani in Milan. Thus Koehler discovered M59 and M60 on April 11, 1779, but overlooked M58 which was discovered by Messier when he independently also found the other two on April 15. Oriani was the first to identify M61 on May 5, 1779; Messier found it the same day but took it for the comet on May 5, 6, and 11 -- he realized its nature as a nebula finally on May 11. Messier eventually got a good position for M62 which he had discovered in 1771. M63 was the first discovery of Mechain (on June 14, 1779), who had definitely started observing about that time, and like Messier focused on comet searching and observing.

Owen Gingerich reports that Messier, by chance, found M65 and M66, in March 1780; according to Kenneth Glyn Jones, these had been previously discovered by Mechain. Although a comet had passed between these galaxies in 1773, Messier had overlooked them, perhaps because the comet had outshined them. Also, Messier did not find a 3rd galaxy, NGC 3628, of visual magnitude 9.5 (but less surface brightness than the other two), which forms a conspicuous triangular group with them: This gives a hint on the modest power of his telescopes. In April 1780, he observed two further objects, and thus completed his observations for a second version of the catalog containing the objects up to M68, published 1780 in the French almanac, Connaissance des Temps, for 1783.

Starting in late August 1780, Messier, together with Mechain, took a vigorous effort to catalog more nebulae. By the end of the year 1780, Messier had collected the entries up to M79, and discovered a new comet (1780 I Messier, on October 27). By April 1781, the list had increased to 100 objects. Hastily, 3 more objects observed by Pierre Mechain (M101--M103) were added without personal validation, to get the catalog ready for its final publication in the Connaissance des Temps for 1784 (published 1781). Very shortly after publication, on May 11, 1781, Messier added M104 to his personal copy of the catalog, and probably also positions for the hitherto undetermined objects M102 and M103, as well as those nebulae mentioned at M97 now M108 and M109). One of Mechain's discoveries of March 1781, M105, had been overlooked and missed the final catalog, and Mechain discovered a further nebulous object, now M106, in July. Mechain also discovered his first two comets in 1781, on June 28 and October 9.

Meanwhile, Friedrich Wilhelm (William) Herschel, who was at that time astronomer (observer and telescope maker) and organist at Bath, England, had discovered planet Uranus on March 13. Messier got the note in April, and immediately started observing it. He wrote to Herschel: ``It does you the more honor as nothing could be more difficult than to recognize it and I cannot conceive how you were able to return several times to this star or comet as it was necessary to observe it several days in succession to perceive that it had motion, since it had none of the usual characters of a comet." He passed his observations to the French president de Saron, who was a good mathematician, and was among the first to calculate that Uranus was a planet and not a comet, since its perihelion was too great (this result was obtained on May 8, 1781). Others, namely Boscovich, Lexell, Lalande and Mechain, obtained the same result, and confirmed that Uranus was orbiting the sun beyond Saturn's orbit.

Later this year, on November 6, Messier's work was unfortunately interrupted by an awful accident, when he fell into the ice cellar about 25 feet deep. He was severely injured, and it took more than a year for him to recover; he was up not until November 9, 1782. In the meantime, in April 1782, Mechain had discovered another "nebula", which finally became the latest discovered Messier object, M107. Moreover, on September 7, 1782, Herschel began his extensive deep-sky survey, stimulated by Messier's catalog. Herschel had received on December 7, 1781, from his friend, Dr. William Watson, which had been sent to them by Alexander Aubert. He cataloged 1000 deep-sky objects until 1786, and a total of over 2500 until 1802 (however, some of them don't exist). Three days after his recovery on November 9, 1782, Charles Messier observed a Mercury transit on November 12, 1782.

In 1783, Pierre Mechain communicated the last 3 objects discovered by him (now M105-M107) to Bernoulli, editor of the Astronomisches Jahrbuch, to include it (together with the Messier catalog) in the 1786 edition. In this letter, he also disclaims the discovery of M102, thereby initiating a still open controversy on the identification of this object (i.e., if it duplicates M101, or may be identified with NGC 5866).

Messier resumed his assiduous observing activities as before, again concentrating on comets. He seems to have used his personal copy of his catalog also for a number of years, but apparently did no further attempts to find new nebulous objects, and not much work to improve the catalog further. This is probably because he knew of Herschel's survey, and as he couldn't compete in instrumentation, he lost interest: Perhaps he was aware that future comet hunters could use Herschel's compilation also.

The Messier catalog was finally corrected by identifying at least 3 of the 4 missing objects, and brought into its current state by adding the late discoveries of Messier and Mechain, M104--M109, plus the non-cataloged discovery M110, only in the 20th century.

Messier's comet search led to a further success on January 7, 1785, when he discovered comet 1785 I Messier-Mechain, when it was about 6.5 magnitudes bright; this one was visible for about 5 weeks. Mechain discovered another comet on March 11, 1785, and a further one on January 17, 1786; this was the first apparition of comet Encke, the comet with the shortest known orbital period of only about 3.3 years.

Messier was appointed as associate editor of the Connaissance des Temps in 1785, and hold this post for five years until 1790. Mechain also became associate editor one year later, in 1786. Both astronomers continued their successful comet search: Messier discovered a new one on November 26, 1788, while Mechain found a further comet on April 10, 1787, and discovered comet Tuttle when it appeared in 1790, on January 9.

Meanwhile, the French Revolution had begun with the storming of the Bastille on June 14, 1789. 4 years later, this culminated in the "Year of Terror" in France, 1793-1794. That year, the French king Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, and Messier's friend, ex-president de Saron, on April 20, 1794, shortly after he had calculated the orbit of Messier's comet discovered on September 27, 1793, and Messier could notify him secretly that he had found the comet on the calculated path. The terrorism ended when finally Robbespierre himself was guillotined on July 27, 1794. During that time, Messier lost his salaries and pension, and had to lean oil for his lamp from Lalande. Mechain was in Spain, employed in surveying the meridian, where he discovered another comet in January, 1793, but his family lost their estate during this year. He left to Italy, and returned to Paris in 1795. He entered the Bureau of Longitudes and (together with Messier) the new Academy of Sciences.

Messier discovered another comet on April 12, 1798. That year, his wife died; according to Glyn Jones, they had always been a devoted couple, and Messier had been proud that she came from a very good family in Lorraine. They had no children. A slightly malicious legend is reported that the death of Messier's wife had prevented the discovery of another comet, and Messier was more desperate because of the lost discovery than of the death of his wife. After her death, he lived alone for some time; later he was living with a widowed niece, a Madame Bertrand. Mechain discovered two more comets in 1799, which were also observed by Messier.

In 1801, when the first asteroid, Ceres, had just been discovered by Piazzi on January 1, Charles Messier, now at an age of 71 (shown at about this time in this image), took part in an observing project of occultation's of the magnitude 1 star Spica (alpha Virginis) by the Moon, on March 30 and May 24. Charles Messier did his last score in comet discovery on July 12, 1801, when he independently co-discovered Comet 1801 Pons; this brought the number of his comet discoveries
to 19, 13 being original and 6 independent co-discoveries. At that time, he apparently felt the need to comment on his intention for compiling his catalog. In the Connaissance des Temps for 1801 he lined out:

"What caused me to undertake the catalog was the nebula I discovered above the southern horn of Taurus on September 12, 1758, whilst observing the comet of that year. This nebula had such a resemblance to a comet in its form and brightness that I endeavoured to find others, so that astronomers would no more confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to appear. I observed further with suitable refractors for the discovery of comets, and this is the purpose I had in mind in compiling the catalog. After me, the celebrated Herschel published a catalog of 2000 which he has observed. This unveiling the heavens, made with instruments of great aperture, does not help in the perusal of the sky for faint comets. Thus my object is different from his, and I need only nebulae visible in a telescope of two feet [focal length]. Since the publication of my catalog, I have observed still others: I will publish them in the future in the order of right ascension for the purpose of making them more easy to recognize and for those searching for comets to have less uncertainty.''

Pierre Mechain lately became director of the Paris Observatory, a post he had for several years. But as he had been worrying about some latitude determinations in his longitude survey, he finally got Napoleon's permission to extend this survey to the Balearic Islands. He left Paris in 1803. After completing parts of this work, he caught yellow fever and died in Castillion de Plaza, Spain, on September 20, 1804.

In his older days, Charles Messier finally came to a certain portion of honour when Napoleon himself, in 1806, presented him the Cross of the Legion of Honour. In turn, the old man Messier ruined much of his scientific reputation by an elaborated memoir, devoting the great comet of 1769 to Napoleon, who had been born that year; thus he became probably the last serious scientist who claimed that comets announce events on earth, or as Admiral Smyth put it: `The last comet put astrologically before the public by an orthodox astronomer'. In the time following, Messier did less and less observing, although he didn't completely cease. His observatory grew into worse and worse state, with no funds to repair.

In 1815, Messier suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. After partial recovery, he attended one or two more academy meetings, but his everyday life became more and more difficult. In the night of April 11-12, 1817, Charles Messier passed away in his 87th year, in his home in Paris. Charles Messier has been honoured lately by the astronomical community by naming a Moon Crater (or even two) after him, situated on Mare Foecunditatis. Already during his lifetime, in 1775, French astronomer colleague Jerome de Lalande had proposed to name a constellation after him, Custos Messium, formed of bordering stars of Cepheus, Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis. However, this constellation was very short-lived and is now extinct.


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Charles Messier came to Paris in 1751 at the age of 21. He was hired by the astronomer Joseph Delisle as a draftsman, and as a recorder of astronomical observations. By 1754 he was also an accomplished observer, and at about that time he took a position at the Marine Observatory in Paris as a clerk.

This was the time when astronomers were anticipating the first predicted arrival of Halley's Comet. Delisle had made a map of the routes by which the comet could approach to arrive at its predicted perihelion, and Messier, his observing assistant, thus had the inside track in discovering (or rediscovering) it. He searched for 18 months, but in vain - Delisle had in fact miscalculated.

Meanwhile on Christmas night, 1758, a German farmer named Johann Georg Palitzsch discovered the comet. A month later, Messier did as well, having not heard of Palitzsch's success (no Internet). Delisle would not let Messier announce his discovery, until after Palitzsch's news finally reached Paris. This loss of 'credit' may well have forged Messier's determination to discover more comets.

After Delisle's retirement, Messier continued observing from the Hotel de Cluny. He discovered the comet of 1764, and (with the naked-eye) saw the comet of 1766. Over the next 15 years, nearly all comet discoveries were made by Messier. One perhaps apocryphal story relates that while at Messier sat at his wife's deathbed, a rival astronomer discovered a comet. When a friend consoled him on his loss, he said, "Alas! I have discovered a dozen of them; Montagne had to take away the 13th!" Only then did he realize that his friend was talking about the loss of his wife!

Messier did more than look for comets - he observed occultations, transits, eclipses, and sunspots. He was no theoretician, however; for all his comet discoveries, his assistants reduced his observations to the orbital elements.

In 1758, he wrote, "When the comet of 1758 was between the horns of Taurus, I discovered above the southern horn and a short distance from the star Zeta Tauri a whitish light, extended in the form of a candle light, which contained no stars. This light was a little like that of a comet I had observed before; however, it was a little too bright, too white, and top elongated to be a comet, which had always appeared to me almost round,..." It was the Crab nebula in Taurus - M1, and was duly plotted on the chart of the comet. The next object, the globular cluster in Aquarius, was observed in 1760.

By 1764, Messier had accumulated a number of such 'false comets' and began to make a list of them. In seven months Messier cataloged 40 objects - including the Hercules cluster (M13), the Omega (M17) and Trifid (M20) nebulas, the Dumbbell planetary nebula (M27), and the Andromeda galaxy (M31). To make his list as complete as possible, he added objects from previous catalogs by Edmund Halley (only five objects), William Derham, and Lacaille.

In 1765, he discovered the open cluster near Sirius (M41). In 1769, he also determined the positions of the previously-known Orion nebula (M42, M43), the Pleiades (M45), and Praesepe (the Beehive) to bring his list to 45 in time for his admission to the Academie Royale des Sciences in 1770, where it was published as Catalogue des Nebuleuses et des amas d'Etoiles, que l'on decouvre parmi les Etoiles fixes, sur l'horizon de Paris in 1771. Three nights after presenting this memoir, he recorded the positions of four more clusters!

In the years following, a few more objects were discovered in connection with comet searches. A break took place in 1779, when the comet of that year passed across the Coma - Virgo region, leading to the first sightings of the brighter galaxies of that area. The next year, he observed the M65 and M66 galaxies in Leo, to bring his list to 68 in time for the publication of the French almanac, Connaissance des Temps.

A few of the Messier objects have been mysterious or controversial, although it seems that most of the problems have been worked out by now. For example, the description given by Messier of M47:

7h 44m 16s, -1 16' 42". Cluster of stars a short distance from the preceding, (M46 cluster) the stars are brighter; the middle of the cluster was compared with the same star, 2 Navis. The cluster contains no nebulosity.

Messier's descriptions of his telescopes are rather unsatisfying; he usually says something like "easily visible in a telescope of two feet" (focal length). In fact, his favorite telescope was actually a Gregorian reflector with a focal length of 32 inches and an aperture of 7 1/2 inches. The mirrors were of polished speculum metal, which would mean a light-gathering power about equivalent to a three-inch modern aluminized glass mirror. (I think we should do our Messier Marathon using 80 mm telescopes!)

By this time, Messier had a new rival, Pierre Mechain, an astronomer at the naval map archives in Paris, who was 14 years his junior. In 1781, Mechain discovered two new comets, and in the course of his searches also found 32 new nebulous objects, which he communicated to Messier. Messier would then observe the new objects and add them to his list in the order he (Messier) observed them. Mechain discovered many new Virgo cluster galaxies. In light of Messier's previous jealousy about comet discoveries, it is surprising that the historical record betrays no such jealousy towards Mechain.

In April of 1781 the list stood at 100, with 24 of these having been referred from Mechain. That November, Messier had a serious fall into an icehouse, breaking his arm, leg, and two ribs. Messier did not resume observing until a year after. In 1784, the list was republished, including three new objects from Mechain that Messier had not had time to verify. M102 is another 'mystery' object, although it turns out that Mechain sent a letter to Bernoulli stating that it was actually a mistake, being identical to M101. (In the modern list, M102 is assigned to NGC 5866, which matches Mechain's position and description.) In this letter, Mechain also describes six new objects, bringing the list to 107 (discounting 102). In 1787, the list was republished in its final form during Messier's lifetime, this time edited by Mechain. The printed description of the Owl Nebula (M97) makes reference to three more undescribed objects in the vicinity. This, together with marginal notes on a copy of the 1787 list in Messier's hand, and a few other objects known to have been observed by Messier has been used to extend the list to the present 110 objects.

By 1790, revolution and economic turmoil brought trying times for Messier, who lost his navy pension and salary. In spite of circumstances, he managed to discover another comet in 1793. As the political situation stabilized, Messier was elected to the new Academy of Sciences, and received the Legion of Honour from Napoleon. He lived to the age of 86, dying on April 12, 1817.

Looking back on his interest in nebulae, Messier wrote in the Connaissance des Temps for 1801:

What caused me to undertake the catalogue was the nebula I discovered above the southern horn of Taurus on September 12, 1758, while observing the comet of that year.... This nebula had such a resemblance to a comet, in its form and brightness, that I endeavoured to find others, so that astronomers would not confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to shine. I observed further with the proper refractors for the search of comets, and this is the purpose I had in forming the catalogue. After me, the celebrated Herschel published a catalogue of 2,000 which he has observed. This unveiling of the sky, made with instruments of great aperture, does not help in a perusal of the sky for faint comets. Thus my object is different from his, as I only need nebulae visible in a telescope of two feet [length]. Since the publication of my catalogue I have observed still others; I will publish them in the future, according to the order of right ascension, for the purpose of making them more easy to recognize, and for those searching for comets to remain in less uncertainty.
 

 

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