Clues to Early Maryland, #13 – Maryland’s First Scientist

Who was the first person we would call a scientist in Maryland? The answer is a little known person named Arthur Storer. A talented astronomer, he is almost completely forgotten today but has a remarkable story which I will summarize here.

Arthur Storer was born in Buckminister, Leicestershire, England in early 1645, just a few months after his father died. His mother remarried to a William Clarke and they moved to Grantham in Lincolnshire, where Clarke ran an apothecary shop. Young Arthur had training in the pharmacology of that era but also received an well rounded education at the Grantham Grammar School. Among the childhood friends of his mother, Katherine Storer Clarke, was Hannah Newton. Grantham Grammar was the best school in the area but the Newtons lived 8 miles away, making a daily trip to and from the school for her young son unrealistic. The solution they found was to have him board with the Clarke family, and thus a young Isaac Newton came to live with them.

For seven years, Newton resided there, become good friends with the Clarkes and Storer children. He used William Clarke’s extensive library, as did Arthur and they learned Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Land Survey, and Religion. Newton received some medical training and learned about the apothecary art from Clarke. There were 10 children in the house so Newton, an only child, had many new experiences. And as children will do, he occasionally engaged in disputes with the others. This included fighting with Arthur for which Newton later wrote that one of his sins was “Beating Arthur Storer.” Nevertheless, they all became friends and remained so for life.

Maryland’s First ScientistIsaac Newton in the 1680s, as Storer would have known him

We know nothing of Arthur’s later education but he may have followed Newton to Cambridge University. Storer’s uncle Humphrey Babbington was Senior Fellow at Trinity College and it was he who arranged the admission of Isaac Newton to the University. It is possible that Arthur took classes there with Babbington’s assistance, but he never matriculated. He probably practiced as an apothecary for a time but developed a strong interest in astronomy, which he shared with Newton.

In 1669, Arthur’s sister, Ann Storer Truman came with her husband James Truman, a physician, and their family to Maryland. They were probably influenced to do so by his brother, Thomas Truman, who had come to the colony in 1651 and fought for Lord Baltimore at the Battle of the Severn. Afterward, he received a patent for 1000 acres of land along the Patuxent that he named Trent Hall. He later acquired another nearby parcel that was named Indian Creek. The Truman holdings are indicated by Augustine Hermann when he drew the 1670 map of Maryland. Religion may have also had a role because the Truman’s and Storer’s were non-conformist in religion, being of a sect called Independents. Maryland’s policy of religious freedom may have also been a factor in their migration.

Maryland’s First ScientistAugustine Hermann’s 1670 map of Maryland and Virginia showing the Patuxent River and the Truman holdings on it.

Dr. Truman and family apparently lived at Indian Creek. It is from that plantation that Ann Storer Truman wrote the April 1671 letter that I discussed in the first of this “Clues to Early Maryland” series. James died the following year. While we do not know if Arthur Storer came with the Trumans in 1669, he was in Maryland in 1672 because he served as a witness for James Truman’s will. Arthur returned to England at some point afterward but returned in late 1678. Ann remarried to a Robert Skinner and she moved to his plantation called Old Reserve along Hunting Creek on the Calvert County side of the Patuxent. Ann lived there for the rest of her life, dying at age 74 in 1714, and was buried on the plantation near what is now Prince Frederick.

Arthur Storer was in England in 1678 and several of his letters to Isaac Newton survive. Storer sent Newton astronomical data about the north star and other observations, and was clearly developing his interest in the night skies. It is likely that Storer visited Newton at Cambridge and saw the new reflecting telescope that Newton had invented. Storer sailed back to Maryland on a Tobacco Fleet ship from London in October and November of 1678, and arrived at his sister’s plantation on the Patuxent. He brought with him a “pocket piece”, a prospective glass (refracting telescope), a quadrant, and a forestaff, all for observing and making astronomical measurements. The prospective glass was copied from Galileo’s original telescope and one can be seen in this 17th-century Dutch engraving.

Maryland’s First ScientistA Prospective Glass in Use

The quadrant allowed the altitude and azimuth of stars to be calculated and the forestaff permitted the angle between two stars or other objects to be assessed. Storer also acquired a “Universal Double Ring Dial”, also called an “Astronomers’ Ring”, that allowed time to be determined and measurements made on celestial objects. A period example is seen here.

Maryland’s First ScientistLate 17th-Century Double Ring Dial or Astronomer’s Ring from Germany, similar to what Storer would have used in Maryland

It is unclear what the “pocket piece” was. It might have been a small reflecting telescope identical to the six inch long example Newton had made and presented to the Royal Society. Alternatively, if could have been a small astrolabe for star measurements. These were relatively crude but effective tools for making astronomical observations. Soon after his arrival, Storer began spending countless nights scanning the skies and making astronomical observations that he shared with Newton by letter.

We know this because some of the letters he sent to Isaac Newton and Uncle Humphrey Babbington still exist and contain tables of measurements and other information. Unfortunately, only a few of these have survived in the Newton and Babbington papers. Here is an example of one of his letters with the numerical observations recorded in a table.

Maryland’s First ScientistLetter from Arthur Storer to Isaac Newton with Astronomical Observations 1678

Newton specifically noted the accuracy of Storer’s observations and appreciated having such data. In those letters, Storer provided observations and measurements on solar and lunar eclipses, conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, and comets. In particular, he described and measured two comets, especially one in 1682-83. It is discussed in a letter from Indian Creek and turned out to be the first North American record of Halley’s Comet. Edmund Halley later used Storer’s data in his effort to establish the periodicity of that celestial visitor, and of course, then attached his name to it.

In April 1681, Storer described the comet as follows:

It “was a very great amazement to many and likewise to myself to see such a long bright stream then in the form like a sword streaming from the horizon about 30 degrees in altitude…”.

Maryland’s First ScientistHalley’s Comet during its 1910 Appearance

All this data that Storer sent was kept by Newton and placed in his files. Observations by Storer likely continued after 1683 but those letters have not survived. The last one known is dated 20 April 1683. Arthur Storer became sick in late 1686 and was dead by January 1687. He was probably buried at the plantation where his sister Ann lived, near Prince Frederick. Just a few months later, Isaac Newton published his groundbreaking book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

Story - Maryland’s First ScientistThe First Edition of Newton’s Principia Mathematica 1687

This volume is of huge significance in the advancement of science, for it introduced the law of universal gravitation, and Newton’s three laws of motion which are:

  1. that a body remains in its state of rest unless it is compelled to change that state by a force impressed on it;
  2. that the change of motion (the change of velocity times the mass of the body) is proportional to the force impressed;
  3. that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This book has been called one of the most important single works in the history of modern science. Gravity, the laws of Motion and the new method called Calculus which Newton devised together laid the foundation for physics, and eventually space exploration. And notably in several places in Principia Mathematica, Newton specifically quotes and acknowledges Arthur Storer as providing significant data which allowed those discoveries. Storer is the only person in North America to be so recognized by Newton. As such, Storer is clearly the first scientist in America, he had a role in one of the tremendous advances of knowledge and is unique in his direct connection to one of the most famous scientists in human history.

Storer made those astronomical observations in the skies around the Patuxent river. His letters mention being near Hunting Creek on the Patuxent and at Mr. John Hunt’s house at Indian Creek. As noted earlier, the Truman family had plantations called Trent Hall and Indian Creek on that river and Arthur also lived at Old Reserve Plantation that was along the upper reaches of Hunting Creek. All of these are in the vicinity of the Patuxent River bridge at Benedict, Maryland and remarkably, those same names endure in the nomenclature of the area today, as this topographic map shows. So if you travel Route 231 over the Patuxent, you are seeing the area and something of the landscape known to Arthur Storer.

Story - Maryland’s First ScientistNames dating to Arthur Storer’s time around Benedict that remain a part of the modern Maryland landscape. Hunting Creek is about a mile above the Benedict Bridge on the Calvert County Side.

Although he made important contributions, Arthur Storer has been almost completely forgotten. Only in the 1980s did two Calvert Country teachers Lou Rose and Michael Marti prepare and publish a biography of him entitled Arthur Storer of Lincolnshire, England, and Calvert County, Maryland: Newton’s Friend, Star Gazer, and Forgotten Man of Science in Seventeenth-Century Maryland. It has long been out of print. However, their work inspired the state to erected a roadside historical marker to Storer, as seen here, and a planetarium was built at the Calvert High School to honor him. In 2014, English historian Ruth Crook published Arthur Storer’s World: Family, Medicine and Astronomy in Seventeenth Century Lincolnshire and Maryland in England. It provided valuable new details about the English side of Storer’s story.

Story - Maryland’s First ScientistHistoric Marker to Arthur Storer in Prince Frederick, Maryland

Despite these two publications, Arthur Storer remains virtually unknown today. Nevertheless, he was a remarkable practitioner of the new field of scientific astronomy and the first we know of in America. With articles such as this, it is hoped that we can begin returning him to memory. So when you cross the Benedict Bridge, perhaps remember the star gazer Arthur Storer and his unique contributions in the advancement of human understanding.

About the Author

Dr. Miller is a Historical Archaeologist who received a B. A. degree in Anthropology from the University of Arkansas. He subsequently received an M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Michigan State University with a specialization in historic sites archaeology. Dr. Miller began his time with HSMC in 1972 when he was hired as an archaeological excavator. Miller has spent much of his career exploring 17th-century sites and the conversion of those into public exhibits, both in galleries and as full reconstructions. In January 2020, Dr. Miller was awarded the J.C. Harrington Medal in Historical Archaeology in recognition of a lifetime of contributions to the field.