TITLE:  Keeler, James Edward

Named for two deceased brothers of father; known as Eddie to family and close friends.



Born: 1857 September 10, La Salle, Illinois

Died:  1900 August 12, unexpectedly after two strokes, at age 42 at Waldeck Sanitarium

in San Francisco, California. Cremated remains lie in crypt below 30-inch Keeler Memorial Reflector Telescope at Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, along with the remains of his son Henry and the remains of John and Phoebe Brashear.



Father: William F. Keeler, commissioned as Assistant Paymaster on ironclad steamship, U.S.S. Monitor during Civil War; showed heroism during battle with Confederate ironclad Merrimack; Monitor crew hailed as “saviors of the North” and visited by President Abraham Lincoln and other dignitaries.

Mother: Anna E. Dutton

Genealogy: Descended from Ralph Keeler who settled in Hartford, Connecticut in 1635; mother was daughter of Henry Dutton.

Married: Cora S. Matthews, 1891 June 16 at Oakley Plantation, Louisiana; died in 1944.

Children: Henry Bowman Keeler, born 1893 January 10; died of appendicitis at age 25.

            Cora Floyd Keeler, born 1894 July 16; died in her 80s.

Education: Public schools of La Salle, Illinois until family moved to Mayport, Florida in 1869 November; then, continued studies at home. B.A. in Physics and German, with Minors in Mathematics, Chemistry, and Astronomy, received from Johns Hopkins University in 1881 June; paid for with assistance of New York philanthropist Charles H. Rockwell. From 1883 May to 1884 June, studied under Quincke, Bunsen, Helmholtz, Kayser, and Runge overseas, primarily in Heidelberg and Berlin; paid for by Pittsburgh philanthropist William Thaw. Beginning in 1889, Edward S. Holden, first Lick Observatory Director, lobbied to have Johns Hopkins University confer a Ph.D. on Keeler, noting his “steady growth and excellent achievement” at Lick Observatory. The University refused to break their rule that degrees would only be awarded for work done on campus, This degree would have meant a lot to Keeler.

Accomplishments and Honors:

            Director of Allegheny Observatory, Allegheny City, Pennsylvania(1891)

            Director of Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California(1898)

            Co-Founder(in 1895) and Co-Editor, with George Ellery Hale,

of the Astrophysical Journal.

            Served as President of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

            One of the Founders of the American Astronomical Society(1899)

            Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto:

                        Corresponding(Foreign) Member(1894)

                        With discovery of particle nature of Saturn’s rings,

elevated to Honorary Member(1895)

            National Academy of Sciences(member)

            Royal Astronomical Society(Fellow)

            Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

            Draper Medal



J.E. Keeler, "First Observations of Saturn with the 36-Inch Refractor of the Lick Observatory," Sidereal Messenger 7  (1888): 79--83.


E. S. Holden, J. M. Schaeberle, and J. E. Keeler, "White Spots on the Terminator of Mars," Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 2 (1890): 248--249.


Keeler, James E. (1890) Drawing of the Planet Mars.

< http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/online.bks/mars/chap06.htm >[Figure 10, more than half-way down this web page.] (2002 June 21)


Brief Biography:


When Keeler was born, his father was a partner in the La Salle Iron Works; previously, he had been a watchmaker and had traveled to China and around the world after having no success during the California Gold Rush. Keeler lived in La Salle, Illinois, on the Illinois River, until his family moved to Mayport, Florida(18 miles downstream from Jacksonville). Just before this move, Keeler saw the solar eclipse that swept the United States in 1869; this had a vast influence on the “young Eddie.”


Keeler developed an interest in Astronomy, from practical side of surveying, which he learned from his father. Ordered two-inch achromatic lens, and two smaller lenses for eyepieces, from Philadelphia optical house; within week of delivery, he had the telescope assembled. In addition to viewing terrestrial objects such as distant ships and the Mayport lighthouse(necessitated by the cloudy weather of Winter), he viewed the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, nebulae, and other celestial objects. He also built a Meridian Circle described “of at least semiprecision” in 1877.


His sister, Lizzie, attended a private school in Tarrytown, New York(just north of New York City). When viewing Saturn through a telescope while visiting a local astronomical observatory with her classmates, Lizzie mentioned that she had seen Saturn in her brother’s telescope in Florida. A young man with an unusual hobby intrigued wealthy philanthropist, Charles H. Rockwell, who owned the private observatory. Rockwell brought Keeler north and helped him apply to several colleges. Rockwell was quite impressed that Keeler had paid for his passage north, by assisting the schooner captain with navigation by the Sun and stars. All college officials who met Keeler were impressed with the young man. However, his level of training did not enable him to enter Yale or Harvard. Thus, Rockwell helped him gain admittance to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; Keeler joined the University’s second(ever) class in December of 1877.


During his college years, he assisted a research team which viewed the total eclipse of the Sun on 1878 July 29 from Central City, Colorado, at an elevation of 8,400 feet above sea level. Keeler drew a picture of the solar corona during the eclipse, with the aid of a two-inch aperture telescope with a large field of view; this drawing was published along with his first scientific paper, as part of the United States Naval Observatory report on the eclipse. During eclipse totality, Keeler noticed the reaction of animals to the sudden darkness.


After graduation from Johns Hopkins University, Keeler went to work as the assistant of Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley, at the Allegheny Observatory near Pittsburgh. This was just about the time that Langley was perfecting the bolometer, used to detect radiant energy(i.e. heat) from celestial bodies, to an accuracy of one-hundred-thousandth of a degree Celsius. He assisted Langley with the study of the hitherto unknown region of the solar spectrum.




1)      Pioneer Astronomical Spectroscopist


Keeler was one of the pioneers in utilizing Spectroscopy to study the composition of light from stars, nebulae, and other celestial objects. His peers considered him to be the leading Astronomical Spectroscopist of his generation. Along with Samuel Pierpont Langley and several others, he was also one of the pioneers of the new branch of Science known as Astrophysics, the application of physics to better understand the celestial bodies seen by Astronomers.


After the 36-inch refractor, at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton in California, went into operation in 1888, Keeler used the telescope to make spectroscopic measurements, with unprecedented accuracy, of the wavelengths of the strongest emission lines in the spectra of nebulae; he primarily observed the Orion Nebula and thirteen planetary nebulae. He was able to prove that they were not emitted by any element under conditions known in Earth laboratories. It was thirty years later that I.S. Bowen identified them as emission lines of ionized oxygen under very low-density conditions. Keeler was able to demonstrate that, like stars, these nebulae were in motion.


In addition to studying the spectra of stars and nebulae, he discovered that the rings of Saturn are made of individual particles, each in its own orbit around the planet. He also discovered a minor division in Saturn’s rings that became known as Keeler’s Gap.


In  1895, Keeler spectroscopically measured the rotation speeds at different parts of the rings of the Saturn, at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh. He verified the effects mathematically predicted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1857. The velocities of rotation varied from 20 kilometers per second at the inner edge of the B ring to just under 16 kilometers per second at the outer edge of the A ring. This confirmation of Maxwell’s hypothesis brought Keeler worldwide fame.


2)      Demonstrated Significance of Spiral “Nebulae”


Keeler was able to demonstrate the unique nature of nebulae, particularly the spiral nebulae, which we today know to be spiral galaxies. With the Crossley Reflector Telescope, at Lick Observatory, his photographs(of M31, the great galaxy in Andromeda, to the smallest spiral nebulae observable with the telescope)  revealed the true nature of spiral nebulae. He started the first rigorous examination of these nebulae, which eventually led to the demonstration, by Edwin P. Hubble, that these nebulae were really “island universes” of stars, or galaxies.


3)      Active Promotion of Astrophysics as a New Science


Along with George Ellery Hale in 1895, he founded the Astrophysical Journal, for communication among the adherents to what Langley had termed, the “New Astronomy.”


Keeler started the first regular graduate program at the University of California, built around Lick Observatory fellowships, to produce theoretically-trained, observationally-oriented professional researchers in Astronomy and Astrophysics.


He was the first Astronomer to use a large reflecting telescope for major research, for his study of nebulae. Previously, Astronomers had concentrated their research time using refracting telescopes. The primary advantage of a reflector telescope is that you can construct a telescope with a much larger aperture at a more reasonable cost. In addition, it becomes very difficult to build larger and larger objective lenses for refractors. Thus, Keeler showed the world the true promise and future prospects of the large reflecting telescope.


As did his predecessor at Allegheny Observatory, Samuel Pierpont Langley, Keeler did what he could to popularize Astronomy and Astrophysics. He knew that this would be an important aid in his efforts to raise funds for his research; although politically shrewd and diplomatic, Keeler was never a very successful fundraiser.




Osterbrock, Donald E. James E. Keeler, pioneer American astrophysicist, and the early development of American astrophysics. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1984.


Memoir with bibliography in National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs. V 1905.


Campbell, W.W. “James Edward Keeler.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 1900 October 1.


Obituary. Popular Astronomy. 1900 October, November.


Obituary. Science. 1900 September 7.


Osterbrock, Donald E. “Founded in 1895 by George E. Hale and James E. Keeler: The Astrophysical Journal Centennial,” Astrophysical Journal, 438:1-7, 1995.


Brashear, John A., Edited by W. Lucian Scaife. John A. Brashear, Autobiography of A Man Who Loved the Stars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925


Malone, Dumas, Ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961.

Other Internet Biographies of James E. Keeler:

Link 1 *** Link 2 *** Link 3 *** Link 4 *** Link 5

Walsh, Glenn A. "Historic Lick Observatory Receives $1 Million From Google." Blog Post.
SpaceWatchtower 2015 Feb. 11.

Walsh, Glenn A. "Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory: New History Film." Blog Posting.
SpaceWatchtower 2012 April 19.
New film documentary regarding the largest astronomical observatory located within the city limits of a major American city. Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie helped John Brashear construct the new Allegheny Observatory building. Samuel Pierpont Langley, James E. Keeler, and John Brashear were Directors of the original Allegheny Observatory.

Smydo, Joe. "Wife finally laid to rest near husband."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2007 April 15.

The remains of Cora Matthews Keeler, wife of famous astronomer James E. Keeler, were transferred to a crypt at Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory which holds the cremated remains of James Keeler and also those of famous astronomer and lensmaker John A. Brashear.

StarDate -- 150th Anniversary of Birth of James Keeler: 2007 September 10

Keeler, J. E. "Note on Repolishing Surfaces of Rock-Salt."
The Sidereal Messenger 5.7 (1886): 222-223.


Biographies of John A. Brashear * Samuel Pierpont Langley *** Other Internet Biographies



Glenn A. Walsh is a free-lance writer and Internet web page designer. He is a former Astronomical Observatory Coordinator and Planetarium Lecturer with The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh, and former Treasurer and Trustee with the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Carnegie, Pa. The author can be contacted by electronic mail:

< gawalsh@planetarium.cc >.


© Copyright MMII, Glenn A. Walsh, All Rights Reserved

SpaceWatchtower Blog