Davidson, George, 1825-1911

Alternative names
Birth 1825-05-09
Death 1911-12-02

Biographical notes:


George Davidson - geodesist, astronomer, geographer and engineer - was born in Nottingham, England, on May 9, 1825. In 1832 he came to the United States with his parents, who settled in Pennsylvania. Upon graduation from Central High School, Philadelphia, he was appointed magnetic observer at Girard College Observatory.

In 1845 he began his career with the United States Coast Survey as clerk to Superintendent Alexander D. Bache. Requesting duty in the field in 1846, he spent the next four years almost constantly on the move. He was sent to California in 1850, in charge of the party that was to survey the Pacific Coast, and, with the exception of the period from 1860-1866, he spent the rest of his years in the West. His great work, the study and survey of the California and Pacific Northwest Coast, was embodied in the many Coast and Geodetic Survey charts and in the Coast pilots.

At the outset of the Civil War, he was assigned to the Atlantic Coast, where he assisted in fortifications for the defense of Philadelphia, and was detailed for special naval service along the Florida coast. Before returning to the West Coast, he undertook two important assignments in 1867--the survey of the Isthmus of Darien to determine the feasibility of a canal and the preliminary geographical reconnaissance of Alaska.

In 1868 Davidson was placed in general charge of the Coast Survey work on the Pacific Coast, a position he retained until June 1895. His reputation in the scientific world was such that he was frequently called to serve upon commissions (the Irrigation Commission of California in 1873, the Mississippi River Commission in 1888, the Advisory Harbor Improvement Commission for San Francisco, and the United States Assay Commissions of 1872 and 1884) and was appointed member in charge of the American Transit of Venus Expedition to Japan in 1874 and a delegate to the International Geodetic Convention at Paris in 1889. He served as president of the California Academy of Sciences and the Geographical Society of the Pacific, and was an acknowledged authority on the early history of the Pacific Coast. It was largely through his influence that James Lick decided to build and endow the Lick Observatory. Davidson's own private observatory in Lafayette Park, San Francisco, was one of the first in California, and he made its facilities available to fellow scientists and interested laymen.

Davidson was closely identified with the University of California, serving as honorary professor of geodesy and astronomy from 1870, as a regent, 1877-1884, and as professor of geography, 1895-1905. On June 30, 1905, he retired from active teaching, and devoted increasing time to his studies on early Pacific Coast navigation despite his failing eyesight. He died on December 2, 1911.

From the guide to the George Davidson Papers, 1845-1911, (The Bancroft Library)


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  • Triangulation--Maps
  • Watersheds--Maps
  • Engineering
  • Navigation
  • Scientists--Biography
  • Shipwrecks--Maps
  • Astronomy--19th century
  • Geography
  • Geodesy
  • Irrigation
  • Water supply--Maps
  • Science
  • Indians of North America--Maps--Specimens
  • Astronomy


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  • New Mexico--Fort Selden Region (as recorded)
  • Rancho Las Bolsas (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • California, Southern (as recorded)
  • Alaska (as recorded)
  • Fort Selden (N.M.) (as recorded)
  • San Diego County (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • Southeast Asia (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)
  • Canada, Western (as recorded)
  • Humboldt Bay (Calif.) (as recorded)
  • California, Central (as recorded)
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) (as recorded)