Born Milford, Pennsylvania, USA, 24 May 1820
Died Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, 13 December 1870
William Chauvenet, who was instrumental in founding the United States Naval Academy and later served as chancellor of Washington University, introduced many American students to astronomy, mathematics, and navigation through his widely used textbooks and journal articles.
Chauvenet’s father, William Marc Chauvenet, who was born in Narbonne, France, in 1790, left France after the defeat of Napoleon to come to the United States, where he met and married the former Mary B. Kerr of Boston. They briefly farmed near Milford, Pennsylvania, where William was born. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1821. After receiving his preparatory education there, Chauvenet attended Yale University from 1836 to 1840, studying mathematics and classics, and graduating with high honors. Chauvenet worked briefly for Alexander Bache making magnetic observations at the Gerard College Observatory before accepting, in 1841, an appointment as professor of mathematics in the US Navy. Because of requirements of the time, Chauvenet served for a few months aboard the steamer USS Mississippi. In 1842 he became head of the Naval Asylum, a shore-based school for naval officers in Philadelphia. Chauvenet convinced Naval Secretary George Bancroft and the US Congress to move the school to Annapolis, Maryland, in 1845 and reestablish it there as the US Naval Academy [USNA]. In 1851, the USNA course of study was expanded from its former duration of only 8 months to 4 years that would precede sea service.
At the Naval Academy, Chauvenet served first as a professor of mathematics and astronomy, and later of astronomy, navigation, and surveying. During his tenure there, he refused professorships in mathematics and in astronomy and natural philosophy at Yale University. In 1859 Chauvenet left the Naval Academy to become chair of the Mathematics Department at Washington University in Saint Louis. Three years later he became chancellor of Washington University. After a long illness, Chauvenet died.
Chauvenet’s three texts on astronomy, mathematics, and navigation were widely used by American students and remained in print well into the twentieth century. He also published 15 journal articles primarily on navigation and spherical trigonometry. Chauvenet invented the great circle protractor that navigators use to find great circle routes much like Mercator projections aid in finding rhumb line routes.
Chauvenet was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and vice president of the National Academy of Science. In 1925, the Mathematical Association of America established the annual Chauvenet Prize for the best expository mathematical article. Chauvenet Hall at USNA is named in his honor. Built in 1969, renovated in 2004–2005, it currently houses the academy’s mathematics, oceanography, and physics departments.
- Chauvenet, William (1850). A Treatise on Plane and Spherical Trigonometry. Philadelphia: H. Perkins.Google Scholar
- — (1860). “History of the origin of the United States Naval Academy.” Letter to Mr. T. G. Ford, October 1860. Special Collections. Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.Google Scholar
- — (1863). A Manual of Spherical and Practical Astronomy. Vol. 1, Spherical Astronomy; Vol. 2, Theory and Use of Astronomical Instruments, Method of Least Squares. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.Google Scholar
- — (1870). A Treatise on Elementary Geometry, with Appendices containing a Collection of Exercises for Students and an Introduction to Modern Geometry. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.Google Scholar
- Coffin, John Huntington Crane (1877). “Memoir of William Chauvenet.” Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences 1: 227–244.Google Scholar
- Elliott, Clark A. (1979). “Chauvenet, William.” In Biographical Dictionary of American Science: The Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries, pp. 51–52. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.Google Scholar