Exclusive Excerpt: How Astrophysics Helped Washington Win the Revolutionary War

Posted by Cybil on September 11, 2018


In their highly anticipated Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, acclaimed astrophysicist and 2017 Goodreads Choice Award-winner Neil deGrasse Tyson along with writer-researcher Avis Lang examine how the methods and tools of astrophysics have been enlisted for centuries in the service of war, spanning early celestial navigation to satellite-enabled warfare.

The following exclusive excerpt from the book examines George Washington’s military use of a spyglass, an early astronomy tool, during the American Revolutionary War.


Arming the Eye



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In colonial America, almost anyone who wanted a telescope—or, indeed, almost any scientific instrument—would have ordered it from London or Paris. Many of the men shelling out pounds sterling for a telescope constructed by the esteemed English instrument makers John and Peter Dollond had been born or educated in Great Britain or identified with British interests in the colonies. Others were rebels, members of the Continental Congress, officers of the Continental Army, signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1776 at King’s College (forerunner of New York City’s Columbia University), for instance, while the president, most of the faculty, and half the students declared themselves loyalists, the college’s Irish-born librarian and tutor Robert Harpur, an astronomer, joined the rebels.

Gradually the study of astronomy, geography, mathematics, and physics in the colonies gained ground. Usefulness—“an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family,” as Benjamin Franklin put it—became a major goal of education and scientific inquiry. In 1743 in Philadelphia, Franklin and fellow enquirers founded the American Philosophical Society, dedicated to the pursuit of “all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniences or Pleasures of Life.” Four decades later in Massachusetts, a similarly enquiring crew founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (whose seal features Minerva, the Roman goddess of both war and wisdom) to “advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” Franklin, Washington, and other founding fathers soon joined their ranks. And if all that doesn’t make you yearn for yesteryear, consider this: the fourth US presidential election, in 1800, pitted the serving president of the American Philosophical Society against the serving president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Before that, of course, there had to be a first presidential election, which was preceded by George Washington’s taking command of the Continental Army in 1775. One of Washington’s early initiatives was the collection of military equipment for use in the field. Clothing and tents were big concerns; spyglasses for his officers were another. As the campaign for control of New York drew near, he also set his sights on getting a powerful telescope through which to observe British camps on Long Island and British ships in the Hudson River. The only one he knew of anywhere in the colonies was at King’s College.

New Yorkers were pleased to cooperate. The records of the New-York Convention of August 1776—one month after the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and ratified the Declaration of Independence—include the following resolution:

Whereas his Excellency General Washington is in want of the use of a good Telescope; and whereas a good Telescope is absolutely necessary for the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, to discover the arrangements and operations of the enemy:

Resolved, That the Chairman of the General Committee of the City of New-York, with such other members of that Committee as he may think proper, take and deliver to His Excellency General Washington, for his use, the Telescope which belongs to, and is part of the apparatus of the College of New-York.

No. 2. Resolved, That the Convention of this State of New-York will indemnify the governours of the College at New-York, for any injury, loss, or damage, that may happen to the Telescope belonging to the said College.



By August 7, the instrument had been delivered to Washington’s headquarters in New York City. Soon afterward, Washington wrote to Brigadier General George Clinton (who would soon become the governor of New York State and eventually Jefferson’s and Madison’s vice president): “By intelligence received and movements observed of the enemy, we have the greatest reason to believe a general attack will be made in the course of a few days.”

Of course, the mere possession of a telescope to provide intelligence is no guarantee of victory. At the end of August, the British routed the Revolutionary Army on Long Island, and the remaining soldiers escaped to Manhattan Island in the dead of night. On September 5 Washington wrote to Major General William Heath, advising him how to conduct his operations under the dangerous conditions at hand:

As everything in a manner depends upon obtaining intelligence of the enemy’s motions, I do most earnestly entreat you and General Clinton to exert yourselves to accomplish this most desirable end. Leave no stone unturned, nor do not stick at expense to bring this to pass…

Keep, besides this precaution, constant lookouts (with good glasses [that is, spyglasses]) on some commanding heights that look well on to the other shore (and especially into the bays, where boats can be concealed), that they may observe, more particularly in the evening, if there be any uncommon movements…I should much approve of small harassing parties, stealing, as it were, over in the night, as they might keep the enemy alarmed, and more than probably bring off a prisoner, from whom some valuable intelligence may be obtained.



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The advice was excellent (the CIA and various writers deem George Washington a first-rate intelligence chief and spymaster), but the results were mixed. By mid-November the British and their mercenaries had taken over all of Manhattan, and Washington’s forces had retreated to New Jersey. By mid-December the much-defeated Revolutionary Army was running out of resources, soldiers, time, and morale. Nevertheless, five thousand or so hungry men and a handful of women under Washington’s command, many of them sick, some of them barefoot, reached the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River before the worst of winter set in. To make the journey, they had seized every heavy wooden cargo boat they could lay their hands on. Soon the remnants of a couple of other divisions joined them.

On the windy, sleeting night of December 25, 1776, more than two thousand soldiers made it back to the New Jersey side of the river. At dawn they took the enemy by surprise at Trenton. It was a remarkable turnaround. Emanuel Leutze’s heroic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware—honoring both the imminent victory and the newborn nation—depicts a line of rowboats stretching almost to the horizon, with Washington standing tall and determined in the foremost boat, his right leg planted on the bow as the multi-ethnic crew of revolutionaries struggles with poles and oars in the ice-choked river and light begins to flood the morning sky. At the commander’s left side hangs a saber; in his right hand is a telescope.

Excerpted selection of “Arming the Eye” from Accessory to War by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. Copyright © 2018 by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military is now available. Add it to your Want to Read shelf here.




Top Image: Washington Crossing the Delaware (1871), by George Caleb Bingham.

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Bhawesh (new)

Bhawesh Pant Some thing about both history and science , need to read it as soon as possible


message 2: by Sauod (new)

Sauod Almutawa Must read!


message 3: by Jane (new)

Jane History + Science = Take my money and let me read!!!


message 4: by Antar (new)

Antar Must read!


message 5: by Joy (new)

Joy My interest is stirred, I will have to keep this one in mind.


message 6: by Rohit (new)

Rohit Definitely a must read.


message 7: by Abby (new)

Abby Mcdowell I found that excerpt very dry. Anyone else?


message 8: by Suhas (new)

Suhas G M Nice to read..!


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