McCormick Museum

Ormond Stone

Ormond Stone Ormond Stone was born January 11, 1847 in Pekin, Illinois, the son of a Methodist minister, the Rev. Elijah and Sophia Creighton Stone. While attending Chicago High School, he met Professor Truman Henry Safford, an astronomer at the recently completed Dearborn Observatory and Stone became his pupil, quickly beginning his life-long interest in astronomy. In 1866 Stone enrolled at the University of Chicago, graduating with a degree of M.A. in 1870. Working his way through school, he served as an instructor in 1867-8 at Racine College in Wisconsin, then at the Northwestern Female College (which is now a part of Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois in 1869. Also that year, he participated in what would be the first of three eclipse expeditions in his lifetime. It was on this trip to Des Moines, Iowa with Professor Safford that he met astronomers from the United States Naval Observatory. He would end up being in charge of the later two expeditions, the first in 1878, when he led the USNO expedition to Colorado, and the May 28, 1900 eclipse, when he led the McCormick Observatory expedition to Winesboro, South Carolina (Samuel Mitchell was in Griffin, Georgia observing this same eclipse). Upon graduating from the University of Chicago in 1870, he accepted an assistantship at the USNO where he stayed until 1875. He was assigned to the Meridian Circle, under William Harkness. His tenure there coincided with the arrival of the 26-inch Alvan Clark refractor at the Naval Observatory. This telescope was essentially a twin to the future McCormick Refractor. In 1871, he married Catherine Flagler of Washington, D.C.

In 1875, Stone accepted the directorship of the Cincinnati Observatory, having received a recommendation from Simon Newcomb. While there, he instituted a program of discovering new southern double stars and was the first to establish standard time for an American city, and he pushed for the adoption of Standard Time Belts (or zones, as we now know them). In 1882, with Leander J. McCormick's approval, Stone was offered the position of director at the brand new observatory being built at the University of Virginia, and was accompanied from Cincinnati by John Jones and Frank P. Leavenworth. Stone oversaw the final stages of construction on the Observatory, which was completed for use in 1885, but began astronomical work almost immediately upon his arrival in Charlottesville. Stone's work focused largely on observing nebulae, southern variables and double stars. The Observatory's resources included the 67-cm refractor, a 3-inch Fauth transit, a 4-inch Kahler refractor, a sidereal clock and a meantime chronometer.

As director, Stone's responsibilities included fundraising, which he detested and did very poorly. Though the Observatory was always short of funds, he used funds donated by William Vanderbilt to establish three fellowships, $350 for a year, to pay for assistants at the observatory. The list of Vanderbilt Fellows the worked under Stone was an impressive one and included astronomers, university presidents, professors and professionals in various fields. Stone had a good-natured disposition and appreciated a joke at his expense, including the gibes that accompanied his nickname at the Observatory, "Twinkles".

Stone also had a reputation for being forgetful, as shown in this story from Vanderbilt Fellow Charles P. Olivier:

"He was a sociable man and enjoyed the companionship of friends. He was also quite forgetful, an absent-minded professor when his mind was on his work. At the time he taught there, the university grounds ended at Emmett Street, near a cemetery. Professor Stone would ride his horse down to the campus and tie it up in the cemetery while he went to teach his class. Sometimes he would get sidetracked for hours, completely forgetting about the horse. The first time this happened, some very frightened residents sent for the police and asked them to find out what was causing the dreadful noises coming from the cemetery late in the night. The police found the hose, alone and hungry, and after much searching, they found a student who recognized the horse as belonging to Professor Stone. The professor was finally found at home, sound asleep, blissfully unaware of the turmoil he had caused. After that, whenever the dreadful noises were heard in the cemetery a student would be rounded up and sent to get the horse and take it home to Professor Stone."

Stone remained at the McCormick Observatory until 1912. In his time there, he taught various astronomy courses for the University, founded the Annals of Mathematics in 1884, funded the publication with his own money, and edited the journal (with William M. Thornton, Chair of the Faculty for the first volume) until 1899 (after which he served on the editorial board), founded the Philosophical Society at UVA and spent much of the final ten years of his directorship in the cause for secondary education in Virginia. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Member: 1875; Fellow: 1876; Chair, Committee on Standard Time: 1880; Member of Committee on Stellar Magnitudes: 1880; Vice-President, Astronomy and Mathematics: 1887; Vice-President of Section A: Astrometry, of Department 11: Astronomy: 1888; Chair: 1901 Councilor, Section A, Mathematics and Astronomy: 1902-1905; Sectional Committee, Section A: 1905-1907; Emeritus Life Member: 1927), the American Astronomical and Astrophysical Society, now known as the American Astronomical Society (Councilor 1899-1909), and the American Mathematical Society (Councilor 1897), among many other academic societies. He served on the Board of Visitors (as Secretary) for the United States Naval Observatory from 1901 to 1903, served on the first Advisory Committee on Mathematics for the Carnegie Institution of Washington starting in 1902, and was a trustee of Harrisonburg Normal College (now James Madison University. He also maintained contacts with people of influence across the country, including his brother Melville Stone, the founder of the Chicago Daily News, who became well known as the General Manager of Associated Press.

He retired on a stipend from the Carnegie Foundation in 1912 to a 30-acre farm in Centreville, Virginia, with a two-story house set well back from the road and surrounded by tall poplar trees. His wife died in 1914 and he later married Mary Florence Brennan of Lansing, Michigan. He brought Mary back to Centreville along with her two sisters Grace and Elizabeth. Stone attended a local, little stone Methodist church on Braddock Road or Zion Church in Fairfax. He continued to be active in the educational, religious and social problems of his local community and the state. He was the first resident to cede land to the state for a right-of-way to build a road crossing the farms between Lee Highway and Braddock Road in Centreville, and so the road was named Stone Road (now also designated as Route 662.

He served as Vice President of the Virginia State Teachers' Association, and was a leader in the movement to improve Virginia's public school system. In 1991, a Ormond Stone Middle School was opened in Fairfax County.

In November 1929, Professor Stone (as everyone referred to him) and his friend, lawyer Thomas Keith approached the County Board of Supervisors to request space to begin a library. The County provided no funds, but a small space in an old office in the courthouse and it was the first step in the eventual establishment of the Fairfax County Public Library System. Stone spent much of his last years gathering and organizing donated books for this small library. He was tragically killed just six days after his eighty-sixth birthday when he was struck and instantly killed by a C&P Telephone Company vehicle while he was walking along the road near his farm. He was remembered by friends as a man of strong character, a distinguished scientist, and a faithful Christian gentleman. His funeral was held in the that little stone church on Braddock Road, with many distinguished scientists and countless friends and neighbors in attendance. He was buried in the cemetery at St. John's Episcopal Church on Mt. Gilead Road.