Biographical Memoirs: Charles Greeley Abbot

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  • In this annual journal of the American Philosophical Society, the author offers a biography of Charles Greeley Abbot, the fifth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. After receiving a master's degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he began his life-long connection with the Smithsonian Institution in June of 1895, when he was hired as an assistant in the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory (SAO), America's first publicly funded observatory devoted to astrophysical work. In 1907 Abbot succeeded Samuel Pierpont Langley (who was also the third Smithsonian Secretary) as director of the SAO, a position Abbot held until 1944. From 1918 to 1928 he served as assistant secretary, and from 1928 to 1944 as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Abbot remained an active Smithsonian research associate until his death in 1973 at the age of 101.
  • Abbot was first and foremost an observational astronomer. Under his direction the SAO established four solar-observing stations around the world to fulfill one of its primary tasks: study of the solar constant, which is the intensity of solar radiation above the earth's atmosphere. Abbot perfected equipment needed to measure and study the constant, and worked to discover its influence on earth's weather patterns. The first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, was a scientist who believed that scientific principles were of higher importance than their practical results, and wrote in 1850 that it would be beneath his dignity as a scientist to patent applications of his discoveries; Abbot believed differently, however, and during his career obtained at least sixteen patents, the majority dealing with the utilization of solar energy.
  • One of the challenges facing Abbot during his tenure as Secretary was directing the Smithsonian during the Great Depression years when, instead of working to institute new programs, budgetary constraints called for Abbot to develop new funding sources to maintain existing programs. To lead this effort, he edited and help write the profitable Smithsonian Scientific Series; he was also able to obtain a new art collection, organize a deep sea expedition, and establish a new Smithsonian division during his years as Secretary. Abbot published many scientific and technical writings, received a number of honors and awards, and contributed to other scientific efforts during his long life.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Abbot, C. G (Charles Greeley) b. 1872
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography

Contained within

The American Philosophical Society Year Book 1975 (Annual Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Observatories
  • Astrophysics
  • Weather forecasting
  • Secretaries
  • Solar energy
  • Solar constant
  • Astronomy
  • Biography

Physical description

pgs. 111-116

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