In the late 1850s students at Haverford College had to pass exams in three departments: English, Classics, and Mathematics.[1] They demonstrated their mastery in these divisions through a grueling set of exams at the end of the senior year.[2] First they had to pass a battery of private exams that covered all the subjects and spanned two weeks. These private exams were followed by a set of public exams.
According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty had to determine the private exam schedule in advance and give the seniors one full week’s notice. In 1859 the seniors had to take the following test:
Week 1  Week 2  

AM  PM  AM  PM  
2nd Day  Antigone & Grk. Ex.  Differential Calculus  Dymond  Lat. Prose (Cic. & Tacit.) 
3rd Day  Kent’s Commentaries  Integral Calculus  Analyt. Geometry  Butler 
4th Day  Logic  Rhetoric  Horace & Lat. Ex.  Mechanics 
5th Day  Intellect. Philosophy  
6th Day  Political Economy  Thucydides  Optics  
7th Day  Astronomy 
Each exam was supposed to include a “series of written questions … [with] a number being annexed to each question, to represent the value assigned to a correct answer” and must include a “suitable number of questions” to test the students’ mastery. Each day students filed into the examination room where under the watchful eye of a faculty member they were prohibited from talking to each other while they took the exam. Exams lasted up to four hours.
Seemingly in an effort to reduce bias against students, the faculty had stipulated that each student should assume a motto and should sign his exams not with his name but with that motto. According to the regulations set down in 1855:
XII The papers containing the answers, must not be signed with the students [sic] name, but with a name or motto, assumed for the occasion; and a sealed envelope, inscribed with said assumed name, and containing the real one, must be handed in to the first meeting of the council, after the merit of the answers has been determined.
Predictably, some students were quite creative in the mottos they adopted, sometimes capturing, no doubt, their own anxiety about the exams:
Crocket, H. St. John, Mohawk, O!, Kit Carson, Incog., Imparatus, No Anxiety, Anxietas, √–1.
Equally predictably, others viewed it as a tedious task, choosing something trite—Greek letters were common, e.g., Omega and Beta were common.
Some of the mottos reflect the prominence of the classics in Haverford’s early curriculum:
Aeneas, Tyro, Hesperus, Ajax, Hector, Themistocles, Ὄνομα, Ἑρμῆς, Ξένος, Παραδειγμα, Φευ φευ.
Finally, and most interesting to me, some mottos seem to reflect a growing interest in astronomy, e.g., Regulus, Hipparchus, and most bluntly Telescope.
In 1859 eight students took the private exams.
The Haverford College Catalogue lists the books seniors studied and the faculty who taught the various course. From the list of books and the public lectures faculty agreed to give, we glean some idea of what seniors were supposed to have learned. In the late 1850s Moses Stevens was responsible for teaching the mathematics, which was divided into three subjects: mechanical philosophy, optics, and physical and practical astronomy. For the first two subjects, students were assigned a book by Olmsted, perhaps Dennis Olmsted’s An Introduction to Natural Philosophy (1844)). For astronomy, they read a book by Robinson, probably Horatio Robinson’s A Treatise on Astronomy, Descriptive, Physical, and Practical (1850).
Although we don’t have Stevens’s lecture notes, we do have copies of the exams he gave the students in 1859 along with the students’ answers and marks on each section.[3] Stevens divided mathematics into six areas and tested the students on each: Analytical Geometry, Differential Calculus, Integral Calculus, Mechanics, Astronomy, Optics. The first three the students learned as juniors; the second three they studied as seniors.
Although all the exams—both the exams for the various mathematical subjects and the different students’ exams in each subject—would repay study, here I’ll look at just one student’s responses to the astronomy exam. The student, “Katabasis”—Benjamin H. Smith[4] was his real name—was an average student. He performed slightly better than average on the astronomy exam, but overall he was slightly below average.
When Katabasis walked in to examination room on the morning of the seventh day of the first week of exams he confronted nine questions that asked him to identify astronomical instruments and their parts, define astronomical terms, and carry out a range of calculations:
Astronomy
 Name the varities [sic][5] of eyepieces in common use and describe each. Val 5.
 Describe the transit instrument. Val 6.
 How do we compute the correction for to the time of transit, for inclination of axis, for collimation and for meridian? [Val] 20.
 Given the R.A. and Dec. of two stars to find their distance apart. [Val] 8.
 Give a method for finding the lat. of a place. [Val] 10.
 How can we find the position of the equinoctial points? [Val] 10.
 What is meant by the angle of the vertical and how may it be computed? [Val] 8.
 Give the method of computing Rad. of earth at any point. [Val] 12.
 Define the parallax of a heavenly body, and show how to computer the par. of moon in R.A. [Val] 21.
Unfortunately, there’s no indication how long Katabasis and the other students had to complete the exam, though a couple of them remarked that they didn’t complete a question because “time fails.”
Although the three years of astronomy courses at Haverford used Robinson’s textbook, when Moses Stevens taught the course he had to supplement this material. For example, Robinson’s textbook said nothing about varieties of eyepieces or transit instruments. Katabasis’ answer to question one seems to have come from Elias Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy, which the college assigned a couple years later as the astronomy textbook. The order, the drawings, the terminology, and even the underlining in Katabasis’ answer echo that found in Loomis’s textbook.[6] Perhaps equally telling, the unnecessary information and detail Katabasis added, e.g., when he described how to “find the power of the telescope,” is exactly the detail that follows Loomis’s discussion of eyepieces.[7]
It is easy to imagine one of two scenarios: First, Stevens turned to Loomis’s textbook to fill in important information he thought was missing from the assigned text. Haverford had, after all, built and equipped a new observatory that it prided itself on and required students to use. In such a case, basic, practical knowledge of the instruments would be useful. Second, Katabasis had for one reason or another not learned the information in class. To make up his deficiency he had consulted Loomis’s text during his six weeks of review prior to the exam.[8]
Although the college boasted that its students had plenty of opportunity to do astronomy in its new observatory, only the first two questions gave the students a chance to demonstrate their experience working with astronomical instruments. And even these two questions don’t require working with instruments so much as being able to describe their parts—neither required the tacit knowledge that students might gain only from working with instruments. Most of the exam asked students to explain how, in principle, to carry out certain astronomical calculations. Surprisingly absent from the exam were problems that asked the student to carry out astronomical calculations.
Again, Katabasis’ answers to these latter questions seem to owe a debt to Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy rather than Robinson’s text. For example, question 7 asks to define the “angle of the vertical” and show how to calculate it. This term is found nowhere in Robinson’s textbook. However, in Loomis’s text this problem is explained in terms remarkably similar to Katabasis’ answer, including the diagram that illustrates both Katabasis’ exam and Loomis’s textbook.
On closer inspection, it turns out that most of the questions are found in Loomis’s textbook but not in Robinsons. Question 6, e.g., asked how to find the equinoctial points. Whereas Robinson’s text says nothing about this problem, Loomis’s textbook discusses the issue and works three examples. Unfortunately for Katabasis, he did not recall either the discussion or the examples. For question 6 he noted, simply, “Non reminiscor.”
The astronomy exam and Katabasis’ answers give us a glimpse of Haverford’s astronomy curriculum in the mid–19th century. Together they help us see beyond the prescribed curriculum and texts—in this case, his answers suggests that the prescribed text was not the primary resource used to teach astronomy. The exam questions also give us a chance to see what the college considered valuable astronomical knowledge. Considered alongside the other students’ exams and Katabasis’ own diary, we can perhaps begin to piece together a detailed picture of astronomy education at Haverford College in the mid–19th century.[9]

These departments resemble our current divisions. Mathematics, for example, included mathematics as well as mechanics, optics, and astronomy. English was divided into “Ethics etc.” and “BellesLettres.” ↩

During the same period the class known as “second junior” (what we now call sophomores) took a set of exams. Before long Haverford did away with it idiosyncratic “second junior” and “third junior” terms and adopted the more common (and now standard) sophomore and freshman. ↩

Unfortunately, I have not located copies of Stevens’s lecture notes, so we don’t have a clear sense of what he tried to teach the students. We do have Samuel Gummere’s lecture notes from a few years later, after he took over the teaching of mathematics. I’ve looked briefly at Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus, but his entire set of notes merit further attention. ↩

I have just noticed that we have a copy of B.H. Smith’s diary while he was a student here at Haverford—it is also in this collection Call# 910H, which is a treasure trove of diaries, lecture notes, and other source material (it also includes another set of lecture notes by Samuel Gummere (see Samuel J. Gummere’s Lecture on Copernicus for a set of notes from Call# 910F)). I didn’t have a chance to look at it before writing this post but will look read through it as soon as I can. ↩

The slight variations and minor spelling mistakes in the questions across student papers suggests that the students had to copy the questions from a blackboard (one student didn’t write out the questions to the astronomy exam, just his answers, so it seems unlikely that students wrote down questions as they were read aloud at the beginning of he examination). ↩

Although the description of eyepieces is sufficiently generic to cast doubt on finding Katabasis’ source, the underlining in his answer that corresponds to the italics in Loomis’s text certainly suggests a close link between the two. I’m not implying any malfeasance on Katabasis’ part. Just looking for sources for his information. ↩

It is interesting to see students in the 19th century doing what students still do today and perhaps have always done: bulking up answers with unnecessary information. Perhaps this practice comes from not yet knowing (or being confident that you know) what a good answer would include. Perhaps it comes from a general anxiety about having left something out. Perhaps it comes from a mistaken notion that more is better or at least not worse. Whatever the source, it’s comforting to know that what I no doubt did as a student and what I see students doing now has a long pedigree. ↩

According to the regulations established in 1855, the faculty gave the seniors and second juniors a sixweek reading period to prepare for exams:
II. The Senior and 2d Junior Classes, will be allowed the six weeks next preceding the examination, for a general review of their studies….
Haverford’s current oneweek reading period seems paltry in comparison ↩ 
If only we could find a copy of Moses Stevens’s lecture notes for this period, we would be set. Samuel Gummere’s notes from a few years later might also be helpful, especially because by that point Loomis’s An Introduction to Practical Astronomy was the prescribed textbook. ↩
One reply on “The Astronomy Exam at Haverford College in 1859”
[…] Darin Hayton: The Astronomy Exam at Haverford College in 1859 […]