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Head in the Stars and Feet on the Ground

Week of Monday, April 21, 2014

O n April 23, 1916, William Frederick King, a superb mathematician and Director of the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, died at his home minutes from the building he worked so hard to establish. King dedicated his life to making Canada a world leader in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics.

Portrait of Dr. William Frederick King
© The Observatory, vol. 39, p.342

Born on February 19, 1854, in Stowmarket, England, King immigrated to Canada eight years later with his parents, where they settled in Port Hope, Ontario. He began studies in mathematics at the University of Toronto in 1870, but left in 1872 to help delineate the Canada-United States border. He eventually graduated in 1874.

Later, King became a surveyor and developed a reputation for his exceptional surveying skills. He became the Chief Inspector of Dominion Surveys in 1886, settling in Ottawa. King was also interested in astronomy and sought to develop a proper observatory where Canadian astronomers and astrophysicists could study celestial bodies. He befriended the Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton, an influential politician who advocated for the establishment of such an institution in Canada. King's efforts proved fruitful and the Dominion Observatory, located on the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, opened in 1905. King was chosen to serve as its first director. Working with great Canadian astronomers Otto Julius Klotz and John Plaskett, he created one of Canada’s leading scientific institutions.

Dominion Observatory
© Topley Studio Fonds / Library and Archives Canada / PA-012924

King wore more than one hat as he also served as the Director of the First Geodetic Survey when it was established in 1909 near Kingsmere (Gatineau), Quebec. The purpose of the geodetic survey was to identify permanent points on the earth’s surface and mark them in order to facilitate future survey work.

William Frederick King was designated a National Historic Person for his tireless efforts in promoting the organized study of astronomy and geodesy in Canada. His greatest accomplishments, The First Geodetic Survey Station and The Dominion Observatory are a National Historic Site and a Federal Heritage Building, respectively.

Otto Julius Klotz, John Stanley Plaskett and Sir Clifford Sifton are also National Historic Persons and the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa is a National Historic Site.

To learn more about Canadian astronomers, please read The Stars Reveal Their Secrets in the This Week in History archives. For more on the Central Experimental Farm, see C.E. Saunders and the Miracle of Marquis and Honest John Carling - Brewer and Politician.

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