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COLLECTION Identifier: UAV 630.220

Drawings of the Comet Donati by George Phillips Bond


The Comet Donati or Donati's Comet is a long-period comet named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati who first observed it on June 2, 1858. After the Great Comet of 1811, it was the brightest comet to appear in the nineteenth century. The drawings in this collection by George P. Bond illustrate telescopic views of the Comet Donati as it appeared in 1858. Descriptions of the observations made of the comet's tail, nucleus, and envelope are written on the back of each drawing.


  • Creation: [circa 1858]


Researcher access

Open for research.


1.40 cubic feet (4 flat boxes)
20 drawings

The drawings in this collection by George Phillips Bond illustrate telescopic views of the Comet Donati as it appeared in 1858. Descriptions of the observations made of the comet's tail, nucleus, and envelope are written on the back of each drawing. The illustrations showcase Bond's attention to accuracy and detail in characterizing the comet and tracing its history before photographic techniques were used to track astronomical phenomena. In addition, the drawings document how sketches were used in the nineteenth century to visually illustrate astronomical occurrences that could be challenging to describe in writing alone, especially in establishing a complete and accurate record of a comet's evolution. The illustrations also highlight the Harvard College Observatory's role in comet discovery and formulating of a theory explaining their movements, courses, development, and physical properties.

Bond’s drawings appeared in Account of the Great Comet of 1858, the third edition of the Annals of the Observatory of Harvard College, in 1862. Published versions of the drawings are noted in the folder list.

Historical note on the Harvard College Observatory

In 1839, the Harvard Corporation appointed William Cranch Bond, the first Astronomical Observer, to the University, thereby taking the first step in establishing the Harvard College Observatory, after which the first telescope was installed in 1847. Scholars and students had studied astronomy at Harvard since the seventeenth century, but it wasn't until a large comet sparked public interest in 1843 that donors began donating funds to build an observatory. During the tenure of the Harvard College Observatory's first three directors, William Cranch Bond (1839-1859), George Phillips Bond (1859-1865), and Joseph Winlock (1866-1875), the Observatory's research focused on lunar photography and chronometric activities. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under the direction of Edward C. Pickering (1877-1919), research shifted from celestial mechanics and positional astronomy to astrophysics. As a result, the Observatory developed into a major research institution, focusing on photographic star surveys and spectroscopic analysis, culminating in the publication of the Henry Draper Catalogue, with spectroscopic classifications for 225,300 stars. During Pickering's tenure, many women astronomers, including Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and Williamina Fleming, performed essential research at the Observatory.

During the next several years, the Observatory became an important center for astronomical training and research. Harlow Shapley, director from 1921 to 1952, inaugurated a graduate study program in astronomy. Mandating that public education be a part of the Observatory's mission, Shapley required students in the Harvard program to present lectures on astronomy to public school children. Donald H. Menzel (1952-1966) arranged a cooperative relationship with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (founded in 1890) and its relocation to Cambridge in 1955. Financial support for the Observatory expanded under Leo Goldberg (1966-1970), and in 1973 George B. Field (1972-1983) created an administrative umbrella organization, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to coordinate the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory's programs. Today, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics continues studies in astronomy, Earth and space sciences, and science education, while the Harvard College Observatory supports Harvard's Department of Astronomy.

History of the Donati Comet and George Phillips Bond's role in its investigation

The Comet Donati or Donati's Comet (formerly designated C/1858 and 1858 VI) is a long-period comet named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Donati who first observed it on June 2, 1858. After the Great Comet of 1811, it was the brightest comet to appear in the nineteenth century and also the first comet to be photographed. The comet became visible to the naked eye in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres between September 1858 and March 1859. It will take another 1600 years for the comet to revisit Earth.

Comet seeking was a major component of astronomical research at the Harvard College Observatory in the early nineteenth century. Comet findings provided cutting-edge observational study, strengthening Harvard's connections with the American and international astronomical communities, and keeping the Harvard College Observatory in the spotlight. In addition, there was a popular demand from the public for information regarding new and brilliant comets. Hence, the early members of the Observatory gave considerable attention to comet seeking. By 1851, astronomer George Phillips Bond, the son of Harvard College Director William Cranch Bond, had discovered eleven comets, nine telescopic. Horace P. Tuttle, a watcher at the Harvard College Observatory, unintentionally found Donati's Comet on June 28, 1858. Although on June 2, Giovanni Battista Donati, in Florence, Italy, discovered it first using a telescope, it had not yet been observed in the United States. The comet would become visible to the human eye in another month and grow a bright tail and coma structure. The discovery led to a rise in public interest in the Harvard College Observatory.

Astronomers worldwide examined Donati's Comet, and their findings were presented in detail, including George Phillips Bond who incorporated his observations and those of other astronomers into the 1862 monograph, An Account of the Great Comet of 1858. This was Bond’s most important scientific work and in recognition, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, becoming the first American to receive the award. The medal was formally presented at a Society meeting in February 1865, although Bond was not formally notified of the award until a few days after his passing in Cambridge. However, Bond’s London acquaintances had informed him of the award's impending presentation prior to his death.

Bond's account was illustrated with 51 engravings of the telescopic and naked-eye appearance of the comet's head and tail. An extensive collection of data about the comet was also included from other observatories and astronomical sources. Of the fifteen chapters, ten were devoted to studying the tail and three to the nucleus and envelopes of the comet. Bond's work on the Donati Comet received general approval in the United States and abroad. The volume revealed that Bond was not only as an exact observer of celestial phenomena but also was a skilled artist. Bond's work accurately portrayed the comet with sketches and illustrations and was regarded as the most comprehensive compilation of observations on Donati's Comet. The volume received high praise from astronomers and was used as a model for subsequent works on comets.

Donati's Comet was the first comet to be successfully photographed in addition to being drawn. The comet was first photographed by William Usherwood, a portrait photographer in England, on September 27, 1858. Unfortunately, Usherwood's photograph has not survived. Subsequently, the comet was photographed on September 28 at the Harvard College Observatory by George P. Bond, the first comet photographed through a telescope, using the 15-inch refractor. Bond's photograph, which shows the head of the comet, is the oldest image of Donati's Comet.

Donati's Comet was one of the brightest comets observed in the nineteenth century, making an impression on artists and the public. The comet helped cultivate a general enthusiasm for astronomy among the general public, and traces of its appearance were published in magazines and used for commercial illustrations, household objects, children's books, and other objects until the early twentieth century. A major news story at the time, several graphical (paintings, watercolors, sketches) and poetic (lyrical and satirical) renderings of the comet's sword-like tail were inspired by its striking visual impact. In addition, reports of Donati's Comet are found in diaries and letters of the famous and obscure. Interestingly, on September 14, 1858, the night before his third debate with Stephen Douglas regarding the future of slavery in America, Abraham Lincoln, who was running for the United States Senate at the time, sat up on the porch of his hotel in Jonesboro, Illinois, to view Donati's Comet.


The drawings are arranged chronologically.

Acquisition Information

The Harvard University Archives received the drawings of the Comet Donati by George Phillips Bond before 1980.

Related Material

In the Harvard University Archives
  1. Account of the Great Comet of 1858 in the Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College, vol. 3 by George P. Bond (HUF 165.804):
  2. Papers of George Phillips Bond, 1851-1865 (HUG 1224.803 and HUG 1224.805):
  3. Records of Harvard College Observatory Director George Phillips Bond, 1845-1865 (UAV 630.6):
  4. Records of the Harvard College Observatory Director William Cranch Bond, 1818-1819, 1840-1864 (UAV 630.2):
In the John G. Wolbach Library
  1. Project PHaEDRA: Preserving Harvard's Early Data and Research in Astronomy: contains material produced during the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th century by researchers at the Harvard College Observatory, including logbooks related to the Comet Donati:


  • Bailey, Solon I. The History and Work of Harvard Observatory 1839 to 1927. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1931.
  • Bond, George Phillips. An Account of Donati's Comet of 1858. United Kingdom: John Bartlett, 1858.
  • Gasperini, Antonella, Daniele Galli, and Laura Nenzi. "The worldwide impact of Donati's comet on art and society in the mid-19th century." In The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture: Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union No. 260, 340-345. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, January 2009.
  • Holden, Edward S. Memorials of William Cranch Bond, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, 1840-1859 and of his son, George Phillips Bond, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, 1859-1865. San Francisco: C.A. Murdock and Company, 1897.
  • Newcomb, Simon. Astronomy for Everybody: A Popular Exposition of the Wonders of the Heavens. New York: McClure Phillips and Company, 1902.
  • Pasachoff, J. M., Olson, R. J. M., & Hazen, M. L. (1996). “The Earliest Comet Photographs: Usherwood, Bond, and Donati 1858.” Journal for the History of Astronomy, 27 (2), 129–145.
  • Schmidt, Richard F. "The Tuttles of Harvard College Observatory: 1850-1862." The Antiquarian Astronomer 6 (January 2012) : 74-104.

Processing Information

Drawings of the Comet Donati by George Phillips Bond were processed in November 2022 by Dominic P. Grandinetti.

Processing included rehousing materials in appropriate containers and creating this finding aid.

Folder titles were transcribed from the titles appearing on the drawings. Dates supplied by the archivist appear in brackets.

Alma ID


Harvard College Observatory. Drawings of the Comet Donati by George Phillips Bond, [circa 1858]: an inventory
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Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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