Asaph and Angeline Stickney Hall: Love in the Time of Satellites

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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There’s an old saying: “Behind every great man there’s a great woman.”

For Asaph and Angeline Stickney Hall, this is sort of true, though the preposition needs some work. See, before Angeline Stickney stood behind her husband, Asaph, and encouraged him to keep searching for the moons of Mars, she stood in front of Asaph. She was his college professor.

Mind you, this was around 1854. Which means Angeline Stickney, in 1854, was a woman who went to college while also teaching at said college to earn some extra cash to cover her tuition. Take a little reading break for a moment to visualize Angeline Stickney’s ghost sitting next to you. Now give her ghost a little pat on the back, because she made that sh*t happen in pre-Civil War America.1

Asaph and Angeline

Before we get take a deeper dive into the social and scientific frontiers braved by Mr. and Mrs. Hall, let’s have a bit of a doggy paddle through their early lives.

Asaph Hall in 1899, looking a little bored, to be honest.

Asaph Hall

Asaph Hall was born in Goshen, Connecticut, in 1829. He hailed from an old New England family—his grandfather had served in the Revolutionary War under Ethan Allen, a Vermont revolutionary leader. (Today, we have a North Carolina-based chain of custom furniture stores named after Ethan Allen; I do not know why.)2 3

Asaph’s dad—also named “Asaph”—was a clockmaker. In 1842, the senior Asaph died while selling clocks in Georgia, which sounds like a setup for the kind of heavy-handed metaphor you’d find in a first-year college writing workshop. “Asaph Hall could build clocks, but he could not build more time,” seems like something I might’ve written 15 years ago.

With his father gone, it fell to Asaph (Jr.)’s mother, Hannah Palmer, to make some cheddar for the Hall family. I mean that literally: Hannah Palmer spent three years trying to pay the mortgage and raise her family by operating a cheese factory.

There wasn’t a lot of money in said cheese factory so, at 16 years old, Asaph took a break from his academic studies and became a carpenter’s apprentice to help pay the bills. He swung a hammer for six years, but still found some time to study algebra and geometry at Norfolk Academy where he out-mathed his own teacher.

His studies spurred him to get more education: he figured on architecture—a natural next step, given his carpentry background and interest in math—and matriculated to Central College in McGrawville, New York, in 1854.4

Angeline Stickney

Angeline Stickney gets less attention than her husband does in most historical records—though their third son, Angelo, would later write a biography about his mother.5

She was born Chloe Angeline Stickney in 1830 and, like Asaph, grew up without any silver spoons. Despite growing up without money, Angeline was able to afford her tuition at Central College by teaching underclassmen and getting a little financial aid from her sister.

Central College was a big influence on Angeline—the school was progressive and taught students who were tight on money, including women and free African Americans. She studied science and math, focusing on calculus and mathematical astronomy. It was there that Angeline discovered her passions and picked up her historical tagline: “American suffragist, abolitionist, and mathematician, and the wife of astronomer Asaph Hall.”6

Two Heads Are Better Than One

At Central College, Asaph and Angeline’s orbits intersected.

Asaph was paying for part of his education at Central College through manual labor, as a kind of proto work-study program, while studying his two G’s: geometry and German.

As I mentioned earlier, Angeline Stickney was teaching to pay her way through Central College at that time and, guess what? She was teaching geometry, with a little German on the side.

Asaph and his classmates gave Angeline a bit of a hard time, probably because A) she was about the same age (a bit younger than Asaph, actually), and B) she was a woman in the mid-1850s—and if you thought the 1950s was a boys club decade, don’t get me started on the 1850s.

Angeline Stickney Hall—just don’t call her “Chloe.”

Still, the teasing wasn’t anything too untoward—these guys were math nerds, after all. Instead of conducting panty raids or bullying Angeline, they came up with math problems they were sure she couldn’t solve. Confidence isn’t everything, though, and Angeline served her students some humble pie by solving every damn problem they threw at her.

Since Asaph was an aspiring mathematician who was raised from the age of 13 by a hard-working single mom, I’m going to make the following speculation: Asaph dug a strong, independent lady who could crush math problems. And Angeline must have liked Asaph back, because they were married by the spring of 1856.7

Astronomy, Now

The newlyweds then set off to chase Asaph’s advanced education. First, they moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Asaph studied under the director of the University of Michigan Observatory.

The Halls ran out of money after three months, so they took a couple of teaching jobs for a year at the Shalersville Institute in Ohio (go Shalers!).

By this point in their lives, Asaph was dead set on being an astronomer, so the couple headed off to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Asaph took a low-paying job working for the Harvard College Observatory, and he rocked the sh*t out of it, becoming an observer and a master calculator of orbital tracks—even if he didn’t make any damn money.

That’s no moon, it’s a . . . Ah, wait. Nevermind. That’s a moon. (Phobos.)

Thanks to Angeline’s tutelage in German, Asaph was able to read Franz Brunnow’s (his instructor from the University of Michigan) Astronomie, and later studied Gauss’s Theoria motus. Both men were leaders in their fields of astronomy and mathematics at the time and both were German, so if you wanted to read their seminal works, well, you had to do it in German. Fortunately for Asaph, his wife was a Germanophone.

Asaph took a job as an assistant astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1862, and for the first time, his work provided the Halls with an adequate income. Once a professorship in mathematics opened up at the observatory, Asaph wanted it. But he had this weird philosophy that the office should seek the man, so he just waited for it to come to him.

Just waiting for the things you want to find you is definitely one way to seize opportunities, I guess. Fortunately, Angeline took a different approach. Without telling her husband, she sent a letter to the superintendent of the observatory that proposed her husband for the position, and Asaph got it. So, I guess a man can just wait for an amazing opportunity to find him, so long as that man has a wife around to do all the legwork.

Over the years, Asaph traveled widely for astronomical expeditions in Siberia, Sicily, Vladivostok, Colorado, and Texas, observing and studying eclipses, planetary transits, asteroids, and comets.

In 1875, Asaph discovered a white spot on Saturn, and used it as a reference point to reliably calculate that planet’s rotation.

Oh, and they had four sons, in case you were wondering what Angeline was busy with, besides getting her husband a job and teaching him science and German.8

Phobos and Deimos

In August of 1877, Mars was unusually close to Earth, so Asaph got to work searching for possible Martian satellites (I’m talking moons of Mars, not alien Sirius XM relays—though, that would’ve been a pretty wild discovery, too).

He had some theoretical info to start with: namely, that any Martian satellite would have to have a tight orbit around Mars. Any satellite too far away would be caught in solar gravity and leave Mars’s orbit.

Deimos.

Still, Asaph wasn’t confident that he could find anything at all, writing, “The chance of finding a satellite appeared to be very slight, so that I might have abandoned the search had it not been for the encouragement of my wife.”

Angeline was an astronomist herself, and she wasn’t about to have Asaph drop the ball on a potential discovery. The couple’s third son, Angelo, whom I mentioned earlier, said his mother “insisted upon her husband’s discovering the satellites of Mars.”

Lo and behold, Asaph caught sight of an object that appeared to be orbiting Mars on August 11. A few days later, on August 17, he knew it was a satellite. That same day, he discovered a second satellite. They would later become known as Deimos and Phobos, respectively: the moons of Mars.

The discovery of the Martian moons won Asaph academic kudos, and he became known as the satellite man, not just for Mars, but for Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, as well. He also garnered a slew of medals, prizes, and was even knighted a chevalier by the French Legion of Honor. He even served as the vice president of the National Academy of Sciences.9

But What About Angeline Stickney?

Well, Asaph’s career with the Naval Observatory lasted until 1891, when he turned 62, triggering his mandatory retirement. Angeline died the following year, in 1892.

Asaph kept working, teaching celestial mechanics at Harvard, and eventually married a woman named Mary Gauthier. He retired to his hometown in Connecticut and died in 1907. 10

But what about Angeline Stickney? If it hadn’t been for her, Asaph would likely not have gotten his professorship at the Naval Observatory, where he made his most important discoveries, nor would he have discovered the moons of Mars. Regardless, it seemed as though her legacy would be limited to “Asaph Hall’s wife.”

The Stickney crater—it’s the big one. Not the little one inside the big one. The little one’s called Limtoc. | NASA

Over 80 years after Angeline Stickney’s death, she finally got her due among the astronomy community. In 1973, the International Astronomical Union, chaired by Carl Sagan, named the largest crater on Phobos: “Stickney.”

The Stickney crater is 5.6 miles in diameter, and covers a good portion of Phobos’ surface. It likely resulted from an impact so great that it nearly shattered Phobos: a fitting tribute to a woman who left a big impact of her own.1112

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Encyclopedia.com. (Accessed April 5, 2018). Hall, Asaph. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/astronomy-biographies/asaph-hall
  2. Encyclopedia.com. (Accessed April 5, 2018). Hall, Asaph. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/astronomy-biographies/asaph-hall
  3. Connecicuthistory.org. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Ethan Allen Born—Today in History: January 10. Retrieved from https://connecticuthistory.org/ethan-allen-born-today-in-history/
  4. Encyclopedia.com. (Accessed April 5, 2018). Hall, Asaph. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/astronomy-biographies/asaph-hall
  5. Hall, Angelo. (1908). An Astronomer’s Wife: The Biography of Angeline Hall. Baltimore, Maryland: Nunn & Company. Available at https://archive.org/details/cu31924029854738
  6. Revolvy. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall. Retrieved from https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Chloe%20Angeline%20Stickney%20Hall&item_type=topic
  7. Revolvy. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall. Retrieved from https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Chloe%20Angeline%20Stickney%20Hall&item_type=topic
  8. Encyclopedia.com. (Accessed April 5, 2018). Hall, Asaph. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/astronomy-biographies/asaph-hall
  9. Encyclopedia.com. (Accessed April 5, 2018). Hall, Asaph. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/astronomy-biographies/asaph-hall
  10. Encyclopedia.com.(Accessed April 5, 2018). Hall, Asaph. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/astronomy-biographies/asaph-hall
  11. Revolvy. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Stickney (crater). Retrieved from https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Stickney%20(crater)
  12. NASA. (2013, January 18). Astronomy Picture of the Day. Retrieved from https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130118.html

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Connecicuthistory.org. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Ethan Allen Born—Today in History: January 10. Retrieved from https://connecticuthistory.org/ethan-allen-born-today-in-history/
  • Connecticuthistory.org. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Goshen’s Asaph Hall Becomes an Astronomical Success. Retrieved from https://connecticuthistory.org/goshens-asaph-hall-becomes-an-astronomical-success/
  • EarthSky in SPACE. (2016, August 17). Today in science: A moon for Mars. Retrieved from http://earthsky.org/space/this-date-in-science-asaph-hall-discovers-a-moon-for-mars
  • Encyclopedia.com. (Accessed April 5, 2018). Hall, Asaph. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/astronomy-biographies/asaph-hall
  • Hall, Angelo. (1908). An Astronomer’s Wife: The Biography of Angeline Hall. Baltimore, Maryland: Nunn & Company. Available at https://archive.org/details/cu31924029854738
  • NASA. (2013, January 18). Astronomy Picture of the Day. Retrieved from https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130118.html
  • Revolvy. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Chloe Angeline Stickney Hall. Retrieved from https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Chloe%20Angeline%20Stickney%20Hall&item_type=topic
  • Revolvy. (Accessed April 6, 2018). Stickney (crater). Retrieved from https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Stickney%20(crater)
  • U.S. Naval Observatory. (Accessed April 6, 2018). The Contributions of Women to the United States Naval Observatory: The Early Years. Retrieved from http://maia.usno.navy.mil/women_history/hall.html

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