Hough, G. W. (George Washington), 1836-1909

Alternative names
Birth 1836-10-24
Death 1909-01-01

Biographical notes:

Astronomer; Director, Dearborn Observatory, 1879-1909.

From the description of George W. Hough Papers, 1855-1909. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 82559319

George Washington Hough, an engineer and astronomer, was the Director of the Dearborn Observatory and Professor of Astronomy at the University of Chicago. Hough organized the transfer of the Observatory to the control of the Astronomical Society and the location of Northwestern University in 1887. Hough maintained a broad area of research interests, including comets, solar eclipses, and double stars, and was considered the leading expert on Jupiter. He was also a major figure in the technological advances made in astronomical and meteorological instruments.

Hough was born near Albany, New York, the son of William and Magdalene Selmser Hough, on October 24, 1836. He was educated in the Waterloo and Seneca Falls, New York public schools and earned a Bachelor of Arts in the scientific course from Union College in Schenectady, New York in 1856. After serving two years as a school principal in Dubuque, Iowa, Hough did graduate work in mathematics and engineering at Harvard University. He received a Master of Arts degree from Union College in 1861.

In 1859 Hough became Assistant Astronomer of the Cincinnati Observatory under Ormsby McKnight Mitchel. In 1860 Mitchel took over the directorship of the Dudley Observatory in Albany, New York; bringing Hough with him as his assistant. Mitchel died of fever in 1862, while serving as a major general in the Union Army, and Hough succeeded him as Director of the Dudley Observatory.

Hough left Dudley in 1874 to enter the scientific machinery business in Riverside, Illinois, where he developed a number of instruments including self-recording barometers, anemometers, and chronographs. In 1879 he accepted the position of Director of the Dearborn Observatory in Chicago which had begun observations in October 1865. Located on the campus of the original University of Chicago at 3400 South Cottage Grove Avenue, the Observatory and its Director were supported and administered by the Chicago Astronomical Society. As Director, Hough held a professorship in astronomy at the University.

Beginning in 1881 the University experienced increasingly severe financial problems, until it was forced to cease operations in 1886. After securing title to the 18 inch refractor and other scientific instruments for the Astronomical Society in 1887, Hough planned and executed the removal of the Observatory to the Evanston campus of Northwestern University at the behest of Northwestern and Astronomical Society trustee Oliver Horton in early 1888. A building was constructed with a gift from University Trustee James Hobbs and on September 1, 1889 Hough was able to recommence observations. In addition to his directorship of Dearborn, Hough served as Professor of Astronomy at Northwestern from 1888 until his death in 1909.

Hough's research interests were broad. At the Dudley Observatory he studied comets, solar eclipses, and double stars. During his tenure at Dearborn he used the refractor, which had been used to discover the first double star, to discover over 250 double stars, and to measure a total of 550. He used the Observatory's meridian circle to chart star fields as part of several cooperative celestial mapping projects. Shortly after he came to Dearborn he began his systematic study of the planet Jupiter. He made the first accurate observations and measurements of the planet's red spot and various bands, and at the time of his death he was regarded as the foremost authority on Jupiter.

In addition to his astronomical observations, Hough was a major figure in the technological advances made in astronomical and meteorological instruments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the prephotographic era of astronomy he developed a mechanical star charter that produced colored dots on a chart according to the settings of the telescope. He invented or refined recording and printing barometers, thermometers, evaporators, anemometers, and meteorographs. He developed wet and dry thermometers and recording and printing chronographs (time clocks). He used the latter inventions to raise revenue for the Observatory by selling the correct time to the Chicago Board of Trade and the Elgin Watch Company. He was awarded a gold medal at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 for his printing barometer. He invented the revolving dome that is still being used for the Dearborn equitorial and an observation chair that moves in synchronization with the telescope. Hough also improved electrical instruments such as transmission dynamometers and electrical controls for the equitorial drive clock, and photographic equipment such as sensitometers and plate holders during the period that electricity and photography became widely used in astronomy.

Hough received an honorary LL.D. from Union College in 1891 and was elected a foreign associate of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1903. He was also a member of the Astronomische Gesellschaft in Leipzig and the American Philosophical Society.

Hough married Emma C. Shear in 1870, and they had two sons: George and William. Hough died in Evanston on January 1, 1909.

From the guide to the George Washington Hough (1836-1909) Papers, 1855-1909, (Northwestern University Archives)


Loading Relationships


Ark ID:


  • Astronomical observatories--United States
  • Astronomical observatories
  • Astronomy--Observations
  • Astronomers--United States


not available for this record


  • United States (as recorded)