CHARLES MESSIER (JUNE 26, 1730 - APRIL 12, 1817)
The French astronomer Charles Messier was born in Lorraine on June 26, 1730. When he was 11 his father died and being the tenth of twelve children Messier consequently had little opportunity for education. As a boy he developed an avid interest in astronomy after seeing the brilliant six-tailed comet of 1744. Even though Messier came from a poor family and had limited schooling he was hired at the age of 21 as a draftsman by Joseph-Nicholas de l'Isle, Astronomer to the French Navy. Messier soon learned to use astronomical instruments and became a skilled observer. He was promoted to clerk at the Marine Observatory at the Hotel de Cluny in Paris by the mid-1750's.
Edmund Halley had predicted that the comet of 1682 would return in late 1758 or early 1759. Using charts that de l'Isle had incorrectly prepared, Messier began searching for the comet with a small reflector. On January 21, 1759 he located the comet but de l'Isle initially refused to let Messier announce his discovery. (As fate would have it the comet was first sighted on Christmas Night of 1758 by a German farmer and amateur astronomer named Palitzch.) Undaunted by the embarrassment of the late announcement, Messier from that time onward devoted himself to searching for comets. In the coming years he held a near monopoly on comet discoveries claiming to have found 21 by 1798.
Charles Messier used over a dozen telescopes during his career but his favorite was a 7.5 inch 104x Gregorian reflector. Later when the achromatic refractor became available he used several 3.5 inch 120x achromatics.
On August 28, 1758 Messier found by chance a small nebulous (cloudy) object in the constellation of Taurus while observing a comet he had discovered two weeks earlier. This object, a supernova remnant known today as the Crab Nebula (M1), was later to become the first entry on a list of comet-like objects that eventually became the most famous catalog of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters in astronomy. Ironically, Messier became famous historically for his catalog of time-wasting "objects to avoid" when comet hunting and not for the comets he discovered.
Messier became the chief astronomer of the Marine Observatory in 1759. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1764 and the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1770.
During a seven-month period of searching for comets in 1764 Messier added 38 objects to his list including M13 (the great globular cluster in Hercules), the Swan nebula (M17) in Sagittarius and the Andromeda galaxy (M31). In January of the following year he logged M41, the open cluster southwest of Sirius. Messier determined the positions of the Orion Nebula (M42 and M43), the Beehive cluster (M44) and the Pleiades (M45) on March 4, 1769.
Messier also began compiling reports of discoveries by other astronomers. In fact, only 17 of the 45 objects in the first installment of Messier's catalog published in 1774 were discovered by Messier himself. (The first object that Messier is given credit for discovering is the globular cluster M3 which was first located on May 3, 1764.) By 1780 the number of objects in his catalog had increased to 80.
Because of Messier's undeniable success as a comet hunter King Louis XV of France nicknamed him the "Ferret of Comets". But Messier was no mathematician and relied on his aristocratic friend Bouchart de Saron who was the President of the French Assembly to compute the orbits of his comets. Messier also collaborated with the younger astronomer Pierre Francois Andre Mechain who was a successful comet hunter as well. During 1780 and 1781 he discovered some 32 new nebulous objects and reported their positions to Messier. Mechain was the first astronomer to note the profusion of nebulae in Coma Berenices and Virgo. Messier recorded 9 new nebulae in this region in a single night on March 18, 1781.
On April 13, 1781 Messier added the one hundredth object to the catalog. Three subsequent observations by Mechain were included hastily without verification and what was to be the final revision of the catalog was published in 1781. Forty of the 103 objects listed had been discovered by Messier and 27 by Mechain. In November of 1781 Messier suffered a severe fall and further work on his catalog was ended.
During his convalescence Messier was provided for by President de Saron and members of the Academie Royale. After a year of recuperating Messier made preparations to study the transit of Mercury and began observing the newly discovered planet Uranus as well as searching for more comets.
The French Revolution was a disastrous period for Messier and his compatriots. In 1794 Messier lost his Academie pension and naval salary and the navy stopped paying the rent on his observatory. President de Saron, the talented mathematician who was one of the first men to realize that William Herschel's Uranus was in fact a planet, was guillotined a few days after computing the orbit of a comet that Messier had discovered the previous year. Mechain lost his estate and all of his savings. With the coming of Napoleon Bonaparte the lives of Messier and Mechain improved greatly. Mechain was made the director of the Paris Observatory and both he and Messier were admitted to the new Academy of Sciences and the Bureau of Longitudes. Messier received the cross of the Legion of Honor from Napoleon himself.
Messier made his last discovery in 1798. He continued to observe until he suffered a debilitating stroke. Two years later on April 12, 1817 he died at the age of 86.
In the twentieth century 7 objects known to have been logged by Messier were added to the Messier Catalog. M110, the final entry, was added in 1967.
Today it is known that M40 is merely a binary star and M73 is only an asterism. M102 is thought to be a duplication of M101 but NGC 5866 is often accepted as being M102. The true identity of M91 is also questionable. Because of an error in their coordinates M47 and M48 were at one time deemed to be "lost" Messier objects.
Charles Messier was limited as a scientist but he was an astute observational astronomer who studied sunspots, eclipses and occultations in addition to discovering many comets and nebulous objects. He was so totally dedicated to astronomy that when his wife lay dying it was with the greatest reluctance that he left his telescope to be at her side. Messier's lasting legacy to amateur astronomy, the Messier Catalog, includes most of the best deep sky objects visible in the northern hemisphere.