Charles Greeley Abbot Biography


Birthday: May 31, 1872 (Gemini)

Born In: Wilton

Charles Greeley Abbot was an American astrophysicist, best known for his research in the field of solar energy. His talent was evident from a young age; he built and invented numerous things, such as a forge to fix tools, a water wheel to power a saw, and a bicycle. After completing his education, he was hired as an assistant by the famous physicist, Samuel Langley, at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Under his guidance, he started his research work on solar radiations and gradually established the now-recognized value of the solar constant. He eventually took charge of both, the observatory and the institution, and went from being director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, to becoming Assistant Secretary, and then the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution over the course of his career. He also worked on the effects of solar activity on terrestrial weather patterns and designed some of the earliest solar-powered heaters and cookers as a visual aide for his lectures. He was the fifth Smithsonian Secretary and the first one to retire from his post after a long and successful career. Being an astrophysicist, he was involved in a lifelong project to establish the fact that the Sun’s energy output varies and it has a measurable effect on the Earth’s weather. Among his several successful contributions, the most famous one is undoubtedly his research on the solar constant, a research that led him towards the development of numerous patented solar energy devices.
Quick Facts


Spouse/Ex-: Lillian Elvira Moore, Virginia Andes Johnston

Astrophysicists American Male

Died on: December 17, 1973

place of death: Riverdale Park

More Facts

education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Phillips Academy

awards: Henry Draper Medal (1910)
Rumford Prize (1915)

Childhood & Early Life
He was born on May 31, 1872 in Wilton, New Hampshire, United States, to Harris Abbot, a farmer and his wife, Caroline Ann Greeley Abbot.
He was the youngest child in his family with an elder brother, Stanley Harris Abbot, and two elder sisters, Ella Caroline Abbot and Florence Hale Abbot.
He was an innovative child and his inventions displayed his talent. He constructed a forge to fix tools, built a water wheel to power a saw, and a bicycle.
He attended several public schools and was finally enrolled at the ‘Phillips Andover Academy’. When he was 13, he dropped out of school to become a carpenter but later returned to complete his high school, which he did in 1890.
Then he went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study chemical engineering but later developed an interest towards physics and switched to it. He completed his M.Sc. in Physics in 1895.
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In 1895, he started his career as an assistant to Samuel P. Langley, a famous physicist and inventor, at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge.
He became a researcher on solar radiations after Langley shifted his attention from solar radiations to aeronautics. He journeyed with Langley on expeditions to North Carolina and Sumatra to observe solar eclipses.
During his expeditions to Algeria, Egypt, South Africa, Australia, and other countries, he established his reputation of being a keen observer and impressed many astronomers with his talent.
After the death of Langley in 1906, he became the acting director of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) and the following year, he was appointed the Director of SAO, a post he held for almost four decades.
In 1918, he was elected as the Assistant Secretary of Smithsonian Institution and executed his duties for proper functioning of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, the International Exchange Service and the SAO.
In 1928, he was appointed as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution along with his post as the director of SAO. Being a Secretary, he participated in fundraising events for the institution and oversaw the Smithsonian's participation in ‘Works Progress Administration’ projects.
In 1929, he opened the Radiation Biology Laboratory which supported the study of radiation effects on plants, and other organisms.
Later in his research career, he turned his focus on solar energy use. Being a promoter of harnessing solar energy for various purposes, he invented the solar cooker, the solar boiler and held 15 other patents related to solar energy.
He retired as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the Director of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1944. He was awarded the Secretary Emeritus status and he continued to pursue his research work on solar energy even after retirement. .
Major Works
One of his most notable works is the research he conducted to calculate the approximate value of solar constant, the measure of the total solar radiation energy received by the Earth over a given area and time.
He also designed solar heaters and cookers to use for lectures and demonstrations to popularize the importance of solar energy. His extensive work on solar power was the basis of a wide variety of appliances that use solar energy as their power source in today’s world.
Awards & Achievements
In 1910, he was honored with the ‘Henry Draper Medal’ by the United States National Academy of Sciences ‘for his investigations in astronomical physics’.
In 1915, he was awarded the distinguished ‘Rumford Prize’, one of the oldest scientific prizes in the United States, by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1897, he married Lillian Elvira Moore. She died in 1944, after 46 years of their marriage. They had no children.
In 1954, he married Virginia Andes Johnston. They also had no children.
He died on December 17, 1973 in Riverdale, Maryland, U.S. at the age of 101.
‘Abbot Award’, named after him, is awarded every year for “significant contributions to solar energy research” by The American Solar Energy Society.

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