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A Brief Biography of Lieutenant Gilliss

Dr. Steven J. Dick, Historian, U.S. Naval Observatory


As we dedicate this library to James Melville Gilliss, and prepare to unveil the only known portrait of him still in existence, let me take you back for a few moments to the 19th century and say a few words about his life. Gilliss's father was a Federal civil servant, and so moved to Washington in 1800 when the Capital was transferred here. Gilliss was thus a local boy, born in Georgetown in 1811. He joined the Navy as a midshipman at the age of 15, and, determined to improve the scientific standing of the Navy, he entered the University of Virginia at the age of 22. He remained only a year, apparently because excessive study impaired his health (my son is now at the same University, and this is one problem I don't have to worry about!).
So Gilliss was largely self-taught in astronomy, at a time when there was not a single fixed astronomical observatory in the United States, and very little formal instruction. Gilliss made the best of astronomy books from England, many of which are still here in our collection.
In 1838, when Charles Wilkes left for the famous South Seas Exploring Expedition, Gilliss became officer-in-charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments, forerunner of the U. S. Naval Observatory. Gilliss's astronomical observations made during this time in connection with determining longitude differences with the Wilkes Expedition, resulted in the first star catalogue published in the United States, the beginning of a long tradition of star catalogues here at the Naval Observatory.
The Depot, located at that time 1000 feet North of the Capitol Dome, was on Wilkes' property, and when the rambunctious Wilkes returned and demanded his property back, Gilliss was prepared. The close proximity to Congress had allowed him to make many contacts, and in 1842 he managed to push through an appropriation of $25, 000 for a new Depot in Foggy Bottom. By the way, that included the building, instruments and books. Foggy Bottom was perhaps not the best site for an Observatory, but that Depot quickly became the U. S. Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office, the ancestor of the present Naval Observatory and of the Oceanographer of the Navy, now housed together in this building. The Foggy Bottom site, by the way, is now a National Historic Landmark, occupied by the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. We remained there until moving to this site in 1893. The exhibits at the opposite end of this building highlight that period.
Even as the building was being constructed at the Foggy Bottom site, the SecNav dispatched Gilliss to Europe to obtain instruments and books, the basis not only for the library, but for the entire Observatory. The Superintendency of the Observatory, however, went not to Gilliss, but to Matthew Fontaine Maury, beginning a long rivalry. Maury the scientist retained his position as Superintendent until 1861, when Maury the Virginian headed South at the beginning of the Civil War. During the time of Maury's Superintendency, Gilliss did not remain idle. He was an active and respected member of the fledgling American scientific community. He headed the Naval Astronomical Expedition to Chile, and published 5 historic volumes about his work and Chile itself. (One of those volumes is on display here). He is considered not only the founder of the U. S. Naval Observatory, but also of the Chilean National Observatory.
Upon the departure of Maury, Gilliss served as Superintendent of the Naval Observatory during the Civil War years. During that time he reinvigorated the astronomical activities of the Observatory, and also played a crucial role in supplying charts and instruments for some 250 Union vessels. In January 1865 when the Smithsonian castle caught fire, Gilliss rushed by horse and buggy to help his friend and colleague Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian. Despite their effort, the upper floors of the building were destroyed. Two weeks later his son James returned from a Confederate prison. On the next morning, Gilliss must have been looking forward to getting reacquainted with his son, but when the elder Gilliss arose he collapsed and breathed his last. He died of a stroke at the age of 53.
Today, Gilliss and Maury are still friendly rivals. They face off at each other here in the Library. I guess you could say that Gilliss wins one today, when the Library is named after him. Maury and his many fans can take comfort in the fact that the Oceanography Library in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi is named the Maury Library.
Were Gilliss here today (and in a sense he is in the form of his descendants), I am sure he would be astonished at what his library has become, one of the best astronomy libraries in the world, and surely, as David has said, a jewel in the scientific holdings of the U. S. Navy. This Library is truly a symbol of Gilliss's fondest wish that science in the Navy be first class.


Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command | 1100 Balch Blvd. | Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529

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