Skip to main content

David Peck Todd papers

Call Number: MS 496B

Scope and Contents

One of the major characteristics of the David Peck Todd Papers is the extensive collection of printed matter, newspaper clippings and memorabilia that accompany the more conventional core of the collection: i.e., the correspondence and manuscript material. The papers have, accordingly, been organized into seven series that reflect the nature and variety of this material. Detailed notes on the contents and arrangement of each series are at the beginning of each section of the register in which is listed the contents of that series.


  • 1862-1939


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Existence and Location of Copies

Newspaper and magazine articles on astronomical subjects and Amherst College are available on microfilm (1 reel, 35mm.) from Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, at cost. Order no. HM67.

Conditions Governing Use

Unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by the creator(s) of this collection are in the public domain. There are no restrictions on use. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, in 1970.


Arranged in six series: I. Correspondence, Pre-1922. II. Scientific Subjects and Expeditions. III. Writings. IV. Teaching and Lecturing. V. Post-1922 Correspondence and Papers. VI. Personal and Financial.

Related Material

Loomis-Wilder Family Papers, MS 469A; Mabel Loomis Todd Papers, MS 496C; Millicent Todd Bingham Papers, MS 496D; Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, MS 496E; Todd-Bingham Memorabilia Collection, MS 496F.


52.0 Linear Feet (127 boxes, 1 folio)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Correspondence, writings, records of astronomical expeditions, diaries, notebooks and scrapbooks of David Peck Todd, astronomer and teacher at Amherst College from 1881 to 1917. Between 1882 and 1914 Todd conducted nine expeditions to various parts of the world to study solar eclipses. The notes, photographs, drawings and memorabilia of these expeditions make up a significant portion of the papers. He was also a fertile inventor, and plans and drawings for many devices, some related to solving technical problems encountered on his expeditions are included in the papers.

Biographical / Historical

David Peck Todd was born on March 19, 1855, in Lake Ridge, New York, the third child of Sereno Edwards and Rhoda Peck Todd. Through his father's line, he was descended from Jonathan Edwards, although, unlike their famous ancestor, his own father and grandfather were farmers. Sereno Edwards Todd was interested in scientific agriculture, and in addition to farming he wrote steadily for popular magazines and newspapers. He also published three books: The Young Farmer's Manual, The Apple-Culturist, and Todd's Country Houses. The uncle, on his mother's side, for whom David Peck Todd was named was a minister in Sunderland, Massachusetts.

When David Todd was still a child, the family moved to Brooklyn where he began his education. In 1870 he entered Columbia College, but after two years, at the urging of his uncle, he transferred to Amherst College, which was a few miles from Sunderland. He took his B.A. degree at Amherst in 1875. By this time his early work on astronomy, including an article on Jupiter's satellites published in the Astronomische Nachrichten in 1875, had attracted the attention of Simon Newcomb, head of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington. When Newcomb offered Todd a temporary post as an assistant at the Observatory, he accepted it, and went to Washington in August 1875 to begin work. In 1878, Newcomb moved to the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac and Todd followed him to that office as his chief computing and printing assistant. In his new post he met Eben Jenks Loomis, whose daughter, Mabel, he married on 5 March 1879.

In 1881, President Seelye of Amherst College invited Todd to return to the college as an instructor in astronomy and as Director of the Observatory. Todd accepted and brought his wife and their year-old daughter, Millicent, to Amherst for an eventful stay of nearly forty years. After living for a few years in rented houses, they finally built their own house, "The Dell," in 1888. (The specifications for this house are in Series VI.) The young couple rapidly became important, if controversial, members of the community, with Mabel Todd's involvement with the Dickinson family providing the family both with enduring fame and temporary notoriety. In 1890, Mabel Todd, in collaboration with Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, brought out the first published volume of Emily Dickinson's poems. She had transcribed and arranged these over a period of years from the scraps entrusted to her by Emily Dickinson's sister, Lavinia. Significant as this event was in literary history, it was overshadowed in Amherst by Mabel Todd's affair with Emily Dickinson's brother, William Austin Dickinson, an affair which ran its curious course almost from their first meeting until Austin's death in 1895.

During his years at Amherst, David Todd erected one permanent monument to his stay there—the New Observatory. Although he had originally been told on his accepting the Amherst appointment that funds had been promised for a new observatory, the expected donor did not, in fact, leave Amherst the bequest it had expected. Todd, therefore, set about raising the money himself and in 1905 had the satisfaction of seeing the Observatory opened, as well as "Observatory House," a residence for himself and his family built nearby.

His major astronomical interest was in eclipses of the sun, and in pursuit of the best viewing spots for these phenomena he mounted nine expeditions between 1882 and 1914, some to distant parts of the world. (For reports, photographs, memorabilia, see Series II.) To solve the problem of getting many photographs of the eclipse in rapid succession during the brief period of totality, he devised a system of cameras operated by a foot pedal and perforated tape that made possible several hundred pictures during the few critical minutes. This apparatus was first used on his expedition to Japan in 1896, but conditions were so cloudy that the device did not get its real test until the eclipse of 1905 in Tripoli.

On all but two of these expeditions he was accompanied by his wife, who may have been responsible for helping to accumulate the great number of photographs that are part of this collection. In addition to the scientific photographs, the Todds brought back "picturesque" photographs of local people, views of scenery, street scenes, and buildings wherever they went. From the perspective of 19th century United States, North Africa, the East Indies, Peru and Japan were little known and rarely visited, and both Todds took advantage of their opportunities to see and record what they could of those places. On their return to the United States, both lectured professionally on their travel experiences which, from a popular point of view, loomed even larger than their scientific findings.

Unfortunately, Todd was dogged by ill-luck on his expeditions, four of which were ruined by heavy clouds at the moment of eclipse. A fifth, the expedition to Pernambuco, Brazil, in 1919, was a total loss because the ship carrying the party broke down and was delayed so long that the expedition did not get to its site until one month after the eclipse. For all the expeditions, however, there was one constant—the problem of transporting and installing sophisticated and delicate equipment in primitive sites, under unforeseeable conditions. This called for a kind of mechanical ingenuity that Todd delighted in displaying, e.g., improvising apparatus for moving heavy telescopes, building encampments, and recruiting and integrating local labor with his imported team of specialists. While many problems had to be solved on the spot, others raised questions that Todd tried to solve at leisure. His designs for a compressed air tank for use at high altitudes, for example, grew out of his own experience with altitude sickness in Japan and Peru. The possibilities of new kinds of telescopes and mountings continually interested him, and he published his proposals in a number of learned journals. In considering ways of overcoming the atmospheric disturbances that had ruined so many of his expeditions, Todd began to think of photography from the air, which had the double advantage both of being above the clouds, and also of extending the period of time available for observation. Todd's experiments in this field began in 1910 with a series of balloon ascents, and went on with attempts in later years to use the airplane to carry photographic equipment.

These immediate interests represented only a part of his abiding fascination with technology, industrial development, and anything that might come under the rubric of "progress." Although many of his inventions never got past the planning stage, his notes and drawings reveal a broad range of interests outside his profession. He worked on more or less detailed schemes for dredging machines, track-laying devices, electric organs, schemes for high-speed urban transport, and even a program for eternal life called "Vital Engineering." Indeed, he continued to devise new mechanical ideas and new schemes—designs for cities, world government, peace plans—until the last years of his life.

During his years at Amherst, Todd was a popular teacher, well-known for his easygoing, humorous style and his frequent compassionate interventions on the part of students in difficulties. He was often called upon by alumni groups to address them at reunion dinners where he was known as an entertaining speaker. He was also a voluminous writer and published three popular handbooks on astronomy. His New Astronomy for Beginners, which first appeared in 1897, went through twenty-five editions and was translated into Japanese and Hungarian. In addition to his articles in scientific journals, he also wrote frequently on astronomy for the popular press and contributed science notes regularly to the Nationbetween 1881 and 1915.

By 1917, however, signs of oncoming mental illness had grown too serious to ignore, and the Board of Trustees of Amherst College decided to retire him at full pay rather than let him serve out his term of tenure to 1920. In 1922, his erratic and excitable behaviour had become so serious that his family arranged to have him hospitalized. Except for brief periods, he remained in one or another nursing home or hospital until his death on June 1, 1939.

In this last period of his life, he continued to carry on correspondence with friends, family and publishers; he wrote interminable notes, poems, and observations on politics, interested himself in various land-development schemes, and continued to draw designs for new machines. He also continued his astronomical interests, and for the 1925 eclipse in New York, arranged to have an Army plane make photographs under his direction. These photographs were successful and copies are in the collection. As late as 1932, he went to Maine with his daughter and a party of friends for a rather playful observation of the eclipse of August 31 of that year.

His personal papers, memorabilia, and correspondence are at Yale University Library (Manuscripts and Archives), together with the papers of his wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, and of their daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham.

For a chart outlining the genealogical relations of the David Peck Todd, please consult the Genealogical Chart.

Separated Materials

Photographs and glass plates were been incorporated in the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Ms. Group No. 496E.

Processing Information

This finding aid was revised in 2021 to address outdated and harmful descriptive language. During that revision, a racist descriptor in a folder title in Series II was removed and replaced with currently accepted terminology (i.e., “Chinese laborers”).

Previous versions of this finding aid may be available. Please contact Manuscripts and Archives for details. If you have questions or comments about these revisions, please contact the Manuscripts and Archives. For more information on reparative archival description at Yale, see Yale’s Statement on Harmful Language in Archival Description.

Guide to the David Peck Todd Papers
by Ruth Gay
May 1976
Description rules
Finding Aid Created In Accordance With Manuscripts And Archives Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Revision Statements

  • September 2021: Finding aid revised to replace racist and harmful descriptive language. See the processing note for more information.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

Yale University Library
P.O. Box 208240
New Haven CT 06520-8240 US
(203) 432-1735
(203) 432-7441 (Fax)


Sterling Memorial Library
Room 147
120 High Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours