William Frederick King was born in 1854 at Stowmarket (Suffolk) in England. His family immigrated to Canada in 1862 and settled down at Port Hope, Ontario. In 1875, he obtained his bachelor’s degree with high distinctions from the University of Toronto, and he also earned the university’s gold medal in mathematics. He spent his free time at the university performing complex mathematical calculations for personal amusement. Later during his career, the University of Toronto awarded him an honorary doctoral degree for his work in astronomy in 1904.

King published many scientific articles on astronomy. Without doubt, the most significant was his classic article The Geometry of Orbits in which he described a new method for calculating the orbits of binary stars. The relative obscurity of his scientific career is more than compensated by his famous achievements as astronomer and administrator for the Canadian Government. It was under his guidance that astronomy really took off in Canada, developing first at the national scale and then rising to international stature.

King entered the Canadian Government as a land surveyor and topographer in 1872 at the Read More
William Frederick King was born in 1854 at Stowmarket (Suffolk) in England. His family immigrated to Canada in 1862 and settled down at Port Hope, Ontario. In 1875, he obtained his bachelor’s degree with high distinctions from the University of Toronto, and he also earned the university’s gold medal in mathematics. He spent his free time at the university performing complex mathematical calculations for personal amusement. Later during his career, the University of Toronto awarded him an honorary doctoral degree for his work in astronomy in 1904.

King published many scientific articles on astronomy. Without doubt, the most significant was his classic article The Geometry of Orbits in which he described a new method for calculating the orbits of binary stars. The relative obscurity of his scientific career is more than compensated by his famous achievements as astronomer and administrator for the Canadian Government. It was under his guidance that astronomy really took off in Canada, developing first at the national scale and then rising to international stature.

King entered the Canadian Government as a land surveyor and topographer in 1872 at the age of 18. He worked on federal lands in western Canada where his knowledge of astronomy was an asset during mapping as it allowed him to determine the longitudes and latitudes of many locations. He rose step by step through the government echelons until his nomination as Chief Inspector of Surveys for the Department of the Interior in 1886.

In 1887, King began to pressure the government into creating a federal astronomical observatory. In 1890, he founded the Astronomy Division of the Department of the Interior with the help of Edward Gaston Daniel Deville and Otto Julius Klotz. He became its first director that same year and built a small wooden observatory on Cliff Street.

King was nominated seven times as Commissioner of the International Boundary Commission between 1892 and 1908, and he thus helped establish the Canadian-American border. The world longitude network across the Pacific Ocean was also completed under his direction. In 1908, he was named Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his work.

The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa.In 1900, he became founding president of the Ottawa Centre for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a position he maintained until his death in 1916. His efforts to create a large and permanent astronomical observatory bore fruit in 1905 with the inauguration of the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa. The observatory was equipped with 38-centimetre astronomical telescope and King became its first director.

In 1909, he succeeded where many before him had tried and failed: he founded the Geodetic Survey Division of Canada and became its first director. Using a variety of methods, including astronomical measurements, the Division managed to precisely determine the position and elevation of many reference points throughout the country, which greatly assisted in the making of geographic maps.

In 1910, only five years after the creation of the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, King was in charge of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory near Victoria, British Columbia, but died before its inauguration.

In 1911, King was elected President of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest scientific distinction in Canada at the time. He passed away in Ottawa in 1916 at 62 years old.

© 2006 An original idea and a realization of the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

Black and white photo of William Frederick King

William Frederick King (1854-1916).

The Observatory, vol. 39, p.342

© The Observatory, vol. 39, p.342


Sepia photo of the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa

The Dominion Observatory in Ottawa.

Canadian Science and Technology Museum/Dominion Observatory

© Canadian Science and Technology Museum/Dominion Observatory


John Stanley Plaskett was born in 1865 on a farm in Hickson, Ontario. His Father
died when he was about 16, and as the eldest child of a large family, he spent the next five years working on the family farm. He began working at the Edison Company (which later become General Electric) in 1886 where he gained experience in mechanics and electricity.

In 1890, Plaskett was hired as foreman of the physics workshop at the University of Toronto. He also worked as an assistant in courses given by Charles Augustus Chant, which helped foster his growing interest in science. Determined to obtain a university education, he enrolled in the bachelor’s program in 1895 and earned his diploma four years later in 1899 at the age of 33. Plaskett received four honorary doctoral degrees from Canadian and American universities during his career.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Plaskett taught as a lecturer in the physics department at the University of Toronto. He conducted several experiments in photography during this time and became highly accomplished in the field. His photography skills would prove to be a real asset to his work in astronomy.
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John Stanley Plaskett was born in 1865 on a farm in Hickson, Ontario. His Father
died when he was about 16, and as the eldest child of a large family, he spent the next five years working on the family farm. He began working at the Edison Company (which later become General Electric) in 1886 where he gained experience in mechanics and electricity.

In 1890, Plaskett was hired as foreman of the physics workshop at the University of Toronto. He also worked as an assistant in courses given by Charles Augustus Chant, which helped foster his growing interest in science. Determined to obtain a university education, he enrolled in the bachelor’s program in 1895 and earned his diploma four years later in 1899 at the age of 33. Plaskett received four honorary doctoral degrees from Canadian and American universities during his career.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Plaskett taught as a lecturer in the physics department at the University of Toronto. He conducted several experiments in photography during this time and became highly accomplished in the field. His photography skills would prove to be a real asset to his work in astronomy.

In 1903, William Frederick King hired him as part of the Astronomy Division of the Department of the Interior to help design and construct instruments for the new Dominion Observatory in Ottawa. Plaskett became an invaluable addition to the team thanks to his experience in electricity, mechanics and photography.

Plaskett made his first real foray into astronomy in 1905 at the age of 39. William Frederick King assigned him the responsibility of astrophysical work at the Dominion Observatory. During his first research project, he was responsible for studying a total eclipse of the Sun that would be visible from Labrador. Despite a cloudy sky that prevented him from observing the eclipse, Plaskett impressed his colleagues by the care with which he prepared for his observations and wrote his scientific report.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria.In 1907, after working for two years on a new spectroscope of his own design, Plaskett attached it to the telescope of the Dominion Observatory. He mainly used it to measure the radial velocities of stars (the speed at which the star is moving away or toward the observer), and managed to collect several thousand spectrograms over the following years. It quickly became evident, however, that the observatory’s 38-centimetre telescope was not efficient enough for the purpose.

In 1910, Plaskett proposed to William Frederick King that a new giant telescope be constructed. King was enthusiastic about the idea and the two astronomers began pressuring the Canadian Government to make it a reality. In 1913, Parliament freed up funds and Plaskett worked for the next five years on the design of a 1.83-metre telescope – the biggest in the world – for the new Dominion Astrophysical Observatory to be built in Victoria, British Columbia.

The new observatory was inaugurated in 1918. Plaskett became its first Director and for several months it housed the largest operating telescope in the world. Plaskett continued his work on the radial velocities of stars. In 1922, he discovered a binary star and the larger of the two still holds the record as the most massive known binary star; it is known today as “Plaskett’s Star”.

John Stanley Plaskett at workBetween 1928 and 1935, Plaskett published a series of articles with Joseph Algernon Pearce on the radial velocities of stars and confirmed that our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates. In fact, he was the first to measure the size, mass and rotational speed of the Milky Way. He also established that the Sun is located at 2/3 of the distance from the centre of our galaxy, and that our solar system takes approximately 220 million years to complete one galaxial rotation.

He took his retirement in 1935 and died in 1941 in Esquimalt, British Columbia at the age of 75.

Plaskett received numerous national and international awards for his work. In addition, asteroid 2905 is named in his honour and that of his son, also an astronomer. In 1988, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the Canadian Astronomical Society created the Plaskett Medal, awarded each year to the author of the best doctoral thesis in astronomy or astrophysics at a Canadian university.

© 2006 An original idea and a realization of the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

Black and white photo of John Stanley Plaskett

John Stanley Plaskett (1865-1941)

National Research Council of Canada

© National Research Council of Canada


Black and white photo of Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria.

National Research Council of Canada
Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics/Dominion Astrophysical Observatory

© National Research Council of Canada


Black and white photo of John Stanley Plaskett at a desk

John Stanley Plaskett at work at the University of Toronto.

Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

© Royal Astronomical Society of Canada


Clarence Augustus Chant was born in 1865 at Hagerman’s Corners, Ontario. He finished high school in 1884 and taught for three years at a school. He enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1887 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1890. He secured a job with the Department of Finance in Ottawa, but only stayed for two years.

Chant was determined to obtain a university post, and in 1892, he was hired as a lecturer for the physics department at the University of Toronto. In 1898, he spent the summer in Germany to study the theory of light, and in 1900 he received his Master’s degree while continuing his role as lecturer. He left Toronto for Harvard University in the United States and returned the following year, doctoral degree in hand.

His interest for astronomy began in 1892 when he was hired by the physics department of the University of Toronto. He joined the Physics and Astronomy Society of Toronto, which changed its name to the Astronomical Society of Toronto in 1900, and again to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 1902. Chant acted as President from 1904 to 1907.

In 1904, Chant suggested that the University of Toron Read More
Clarence Augustus Chant was born in 1865 at Hagerman’s Corners, Ontario. He finished high school in 1884 and taught for three years at a school. He enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1887 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1890. He secured a job with the Department of Finance in Ottawa, but only stayed for two years.

Chant was determined to obtain a university post, and in 1892, he was hired as a lecturer for the physics department at the University of Toronto. In 1898, he spent the summer in Germany to study the theory of light, and in 1900 he received his Master’s degree while continuing his role as lecturer. He left Toronto for Harvard University in the United States and returned the following year, doctoral degree in hand.

His interest for astronomy began in 1892 when he was hired by the physics department of the University of Toronto. He joined the Physics and Astronomy Society of Toronto, which changed its name to the Astronomical Society of Toronto in 1900, and again to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 1902. Chant acted as President from 1904 to 1907.

In 1904, Chant suggested that the University of Toronto increase the number of astronomy courses offered by the physics department. His proposal was well received and six courses were added to the program in 1905.

Until a second professor was hired in 1926, Chant was the sole Canadian professor to train professional astronomers. It was his role of having taught virtually all the original Canadian astronomers that earned Chant his reputation as the “Father
of Canadian astronomy”. No less than five of his former students went on to become directors of astronomical observatories.

The David Dunlap Observatory.In 1906, the lack of a large telescope in the Toronto region prompted Chant to campaign for an astronomical observatory that would be the property of the University of Toronto or the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Meanwhile, in the absence of a suitable telescope, he focused his research on total solar eclipses.

In 1907, during his last year as President of the Royal Astronomical Society, he created the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the Observer’s Handbook. He would remain the editor of both publications until his death in 1956.

The astronomy department of the University of Toronto was officially established in 1920 and Chant became its first chairman. The physics department consequently ceased to offer astronomy courses.

In 1921, Chant met David Dunlap, a lawyer and mining entrepreneur, and got him interested in the idea of building a large telescope observatory for the Toronto region. Unfortunately, Dunlap died in 1924 and seemingly with him any chance of realizing Chant’s goal. In 1926, however, Chant suggested to Dunlap’s widow Jessie Donalda Dunlap that they create an observatory in the memory of her husband, and the two worked on the project for the next ten years.

Clarence Augustus ChantChant led an expedition to Australia in 1922 to observe a total eclipse of the sun and to verify Einstein’s theory of relativity concerning the deflection of light by a body as massive as a star. It proved to be one of the first verifications of Einstein’s theory.

In 1928, Chant published Our Wonderful Universe with enormous success, and the book was translated into five languages.

In 1935, the David Dunlap Observatory of the University of Toronto was inaugurated on the same day that Chant celebrated his 70th birthday, received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Toronto, and took his retirement. At the time of its inauguration, the observatory housed the second largest telescope in the world, measuring 1.88 metres across.

Chant died in 1956 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, at the age of 91. He published many scientific books and articles, and received numerous awards. Asteroid 3341 is named in his honour, and in 1940, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada created the Chant Medal, awarded each year to a Canadian amateur astronomer in recognition of their work in astronomy.

© 2006 An original idea and a realization of the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

Black and white photo of Clarence Augustus Chant

Clarence Augustus Chant (1865-1956).

David Dunlap Observatory/University of Toronto

© David Dunlap Observatory/University of Toronto


Colour photo of the exterior of David Dunlap Observatory

The David Dunlap Observatory.

Don Fernie/David Dunlap Observatory/University of Toronto

© Don Fernie/David Dunlap Observatory/University of Toronto


Black and white photo of Clarence Augustus Chant reading a book in a library

Clarence Augustus Chant in the library of the David Dunlap Observatory.

Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

© Royal Astronomical Society of Canada


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • identify recent contributions, including Canada’s, to the development of space exploration technologies;
  • describe in detail the function of Canadian technologies involved in exploration of space;
  • draw a solar system with all its components;
  • establish the link between atoms and light using different instruments.

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