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HENRY DRAPER (1837 – 1882)

Henry Draper was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, USA. His father, John William Draper, originally from England, had gained his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and was a professor of chemistry at New York University. William Draper was the inventor of photochemistry and had taken the first photograph of the moon, as well as the first portrait of a person, in 1880. He was also a pioneer in making photographs of microscope slides and his son, Henry, assisted him in preparing the photographs for his father’s lectures at NYU.

Henry Draper finished his undergraduate degree at NYU in 1857 but, being only twenty, he was too young to graduate officially, so he took a “gap” year and travelled to Ireland. Here he visited the Earl of Rosse, William Parson, who had built an observatory that housed the largest telescope in use at the time. Draper must have learnt a great deal since, on his return from Ireland, he began designing and constructing his own telescopes, as well as building an observatory at his father’s estate at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York State. Draper was determined to put his knowledge of photography to use in the context of astronomy.

Henry Draper 

Public Domain Image

After reading about the work on star spectra carried out by William Huggins and Joseph Lockyer, Draper built his own spectrograph but improved on the two other astronomer’s model by adding slits that made the elements in the spectra easier to identify. Draper was not a full-time astronomer; he was also a doctor in Bellevue Hospital, New York for eighteen months before joining the NYU teaching staff in 1860 as professor of physiology. Draper went on to teach in the medical department of NYU in 1866, eventually being appointed its Dean. He also found the time to write “A Textbook on Chemistry” in 1866!

In 1874 Draper spent three months in Washington D.C. supervising preparations for the eight US expeditions to the Far East to photograph the transit of Venus. He was unable to join one of the expeditions himself, but he did receive a congressional gold medal for his work on the project. Draper married Anna Mary Palmer in 1867, and his new wife became his assistant in his observatory. He took the first photograph of the Orion Nebula in 1880 and another, much improved photograph, in 1882. He also took the first stellar spectrum photograph of the star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, and he was the first to take a wide-angle photograph of a comet’s tail.

Orion Nebula 

The 1882 photograph of the Orion Nebula
© Henry Draper

Orion Nebula 

A 2002 photograph of the Orion Nebula taken by the Hubble telescope © NASA

Sadly, Henry Draper died in 1882 at the age of forty five. He had developed double pleurisy after a hunting trip to the Rocky Mountains. His wife donated money to set up the Henry Draper Memorial Fund that was used to finance the Henry Draper Catalogue of stars. There are now over a quarter of a million stars in this catalogue, each with an HD number. There is also a Henry Draper Medal that is awarded to astronomers who are considered to have advanced the frontier of astrophysics.

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