Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Captain T. J. J. See: "The Sage of Mare Island"

Captain Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, “the Sage of Mare Island,” was born on this date in 1866. Captain See was an internationally known astronomer, mathematician, author, philosopher, and lecturer, who spent much of his career in charge of the chronometer and time station at Mare Island’s naval observatory. See attained a degree from the University of Missouri and later received a doctorate in astronomy at the University of Berlin in Germany. Returning to the United States, See worked closely with renowned astronomers George Ellery Hale and Percival Lowell, among others. He later worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. and taught mathematics at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. See’s inability to work within the strict confines of military discipline ultimately led to his transfer to the then-remote Mare Island Navy Yard in 1902, where he served for nearly thirty more years.

Although Captain See was acknowledged as one of the most prominent and accomplished astronomers of his time, many of his theories ran counter to the theories popular among his contemporaries. Most notably, Captain See had a long-standing and bitter feud with Albert Einstein. Over time, however, Einstein’s theories gained wider acceptance while See’s theories were dismissed among main-stream astronomers. A contributing factor to these intellectual battles was See’s own personality. He stood well over six feet tall, with an intense disposition and an outspoken disdain for those not up to his intellectual standards. Captain See not only outlived his own theories, but also outlived most of his contemporaries, dying at age 96 in 1962.

 For many years Mare Island’s time station signaled the exact instant of noon each day by dropping a time ball from a tower on the observatory hill. Navigators in the channel used this signal to check the accuracy of their chronometers. Later, this synchronization was set by radio signal from Washington, D.C. rendering Mare Island’s time station obsolete. The observatory was torn down in the 1930s.