Friday, September 4, 2015

Ephraim Niles Byram - Astronomer of Sag Harbor

I've been intrigued by Ephraim Niles Byram since discovering a character based on him in a ghost story.  The Astronomer's House by Val Schaffner reimagines the life of a mysterious astronomer in a tower house near a cemetery. I am grateful for this story, without it I would never have ventured to uncover the true story of the astronomer. 
This is what I know so far....
Ephraim Niles Byram by Orlando Hand Bears
photo by Tim Gihring via MIA
Ephraim Niles Byram (1809-1881) grew up in Sag Harbor during the height of the whaling industry. Mostly self educated, he was a voracious reader and accumulated one of the town's largest libraries. He wrote and bound his own books as well as consistently maintaining a bookbinding business throughout his entire life. Through interaction with the captains and crews of the whaling ships in Sag Harbor's international port, he became interested in problems of navigation and began repairing navigational instruments which included making his own tools. He became an expert in compasses, telescopes and other ship's gear. At 26, he won a gold medal from the American Institute for building a Universal Planetarium (an orrery) which he took on tour, giving lectures on astronomy and the solar system using a magic lantern, an early type of projector.
The Award
Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Society Collection
From the Journal of the American Institute, October 1836
"Mr. B. is a self-taught young man, of twenty-six years of age. The movement of this instrument is effected by clock-work, by means of which, the various planets, with their sattelites, are made to revolve in their appropriate spheres around the sun, at the same time performing their diurnal revolutions. An illuminated glass globe, about twelve inches in diameter, represents the sun, by which the various changes of the seasons, eclipses, are accurately shown. Its superiority over other orreries of former construction is, that its movements are effected without the confusion of machinery, the planets being suspended by small wires, and the machinery placed above the line of vision. The mind of the observer is occupied by nothing but the silently moving bodies performing their revolutions, apparently suspended in open space, with great synodic precision.  The workmanship is neatly executed, and the whole would confer honour upon those whose advantages have been far superior to those of the inventory and constructor of this beautiful instrument." Pages 143-144, Journal of the American Institute, October 1836 via 
18th Century Orrery
Royal Observatory at Greenwich London image via
An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system that illustrates the relative motions of the planets.  I went searching for a photo of an orrery of the time that would fit the description of, "planets being suspended by small wires, and the machinery placed above the line of vision" and found one (depicted below) built into the room of a house in the Netherlands.
Netherlands, built from 1774 - 1781 via
Or perhaps it looked something like this:
Orrery by Thomas H. Barlow
1854, 18 feet wide
photograph Nathan Latil via
Sadly Byram's orrery is missing, considered lost. It brought him great acclaim as an astronomer and "tech guy" of his day and was the beginning of his renown as a genius and inventor. 
The Portraits
Ephraim Niles Byram by Orlando Hand Bears 1834
Private Collection
Smithsonian Institution image via
Byram, the son of a master builder and cabinetmaker, constructed a celestial globe with which he poses in one of the portraits by Orlando H. Bears. Bears, a painting prodigy, Byram, a mechanical genius. Both of them were in demand to create goods for a community flush with the economic success of the whale fishery. I can imagine Bears and Byram discussing the artwork on the celestial globe. In Bear's painting of Byram you get a hint of the globe's original cerulean hue. I wonder if it looked something like what Holbein painted in The Ambassadors.
detail from Holbein's The Ambassadors via
Celestial Globe made by Ephraim Niles Byram
Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum
Ephraim Niles Byram 1834 
by Orlando Hand Bears 
Private Collection 81" x 41"image via
It amazes me that Byram has two portraits by Orlando Bears painted in the same year. Both men were in their mid 20s at the time. I would love to know more about their relationship. I am still in early days of researching Orlando Hand Bears. It is believed that he was a student of Hubbard Latham Fordham. Orlando Bears died young, at age 39 and is buried in the family plot in Oakland Cemetery near Byram along the property edge nearest Byram's home.
Ephraim Niles Byram by Hubbard Latham Fordham (1794 - 1872)
Sag Harbor Whaling Museum Collection
Hubbard Latham Fordham, was a successful Sag Harbor portrait artist who also had studios in Manhattan, Springfield, Massachusetts and New Haven, Connecticut. Fordham was a prolific portraitist. The Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum has a number of his works in their collection. More research is required to determine what year Fordham's portrait of Byram was painted.
Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum Collection
The Tower Clocks
To us, a tower clock seems like an expensive adornment. During Byram's time owning your own time piece was still a luxury. If you were well enough off to own a clock it was more likely to be a case clock for your home rather than one that you carried on your person. The common man still looked to town clocks for the correct time of day. 
Sag Harbor, Long Island (view from the north)
close up/partial view of a lithograph by Daniel Wright Kellogg
from a lost painting by Orlando H. Bears c.1840
Connecticut Historical Society Museum, Hartford
The Methodist Church on Madison Street
Courtesy John Jermain Memorial Library
"In 1838, the board of Sag Harbor's Methodist Church asked Byram to construct a clock for their steeple. it represented a giant step from his experience with chronometers, but within the range of a man who could make anything mechanical that he set his mind to. In accepting the challenge and delivering on it, he became Long Island's first and only known tower clock maker." - Frederick Shelly NAWCC Bulletin 1996. The Methodist Church was moved to a new location on Madison Street in 1863. Both its steeple and Byram's clock were lost in the 1938 hurricane. The former church is currently a private property.
The former Methodist Church today.
Presbyterian Church (Old Whaler's)
Byram's second tower clock was for the Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor in 1845. They found that its tall spyglass-like design swayed in the wind, throwing the clock's pendulum out of beat. Unable to stabilize the clock in order for it to keep accurate time, Byram had it moved, which saved it, since the Whaler's church steeple was also lost in the 1938 hurricane. The clock was moved to the East Hampton Presbyterian Church where it kept good time until it was gutted and electrified in 1969. New York City Hall and West Point Academy are two other well known Byram accomplishments. Unfortunately, Frederick Shelly's list of Tower Clocks has very few of Byram's clocks avoiding fire and wind to survive to the modern age. 
The Whaler's Church as it appears today.
One clock that survived and that we can visit when the library renovation is complete, is a tall case clock that he made for his own home in 1869 which was donated to the John Jermain Memorial Library in 1943 by Ephraim Byram's daughter Loretta Sophia. 
A Byram Case clock face 
private collection
1854 Map published by Wall and Forrest
In 1850 Byram formed a partnership with John Sherry and built a brass foundry and clock factory on Byram property. A tower was constructed at the Oakland works to be used for Byram's astrological observations. The 1854 map above shows the location of the Oakland works, cemetery and Byram property.
The Oakland Works from an 1854 map
Courtesy John Jermain Memorial Library
The Entrepreneur
This advertisement for book binding was in The Corrector numerous times. Byram became famous for his large and extensive library. Many of the books bound by him.
The leaf of the mulberry (mores muldicaulis) was required for raising silk worms. From 1835 - 1838 there was wild speculation that you could make a fortune on silk by buying the trees and raising silk worms. By fall of 1839 the market had crashed. The above ad shows that Byram was involved at the end, with his father Eliab possibly to help out his brother Henry, an agricultural scientist. (More about the Morus bubble here)
The golden era of the whale fishery was from 1820 - 1850. During that time Byram was invaluable as a supplier and repairer of nautical instruments. His relationship with the sea-faring community was profitable as well as serving as a source of information on the natural world. Byram was said to have a huge collection of sea shells, mounted, catalogued and labelled. A true renaissance man.
A page out of a journal by historian Russella "Bab" Hazard (1897-1973) listing some of the ships that  Byram had serviced. from the John Jermain Memorial Library
Home and Family
What about romance? Byram remained single until the ancient age of 45, when he met and married 18 year-old Cornelia Pierce, a student at Cooper Union. I would love to know how they were introduced. Byram installed his tower clock in City Hall about that time. She was a gifted musician and artist. The couple had three children, Henry Eliab, Ivan Clinton and Loretta Sophia. There is supposedly a collection of letters that he wrote his family while on the road installing tower clocks which I am seeking for further insight.
Ephraim Byram's "Oakland Cottage" c 1852
Peter Davies collection
undated photograph of the Byram house with horse called "Fan"
 John Jermain Memorial Library Collection
Byram home today.
The Byram family rests next door to his former home in Oakland Cemetery.
Byram family plot at Oakland Cemetery
Rest in peace dear creative soul.
Links and Sources
Ephraim Niles Byram Long Island's Only Tower Clockmaker by Frederick Shelley, National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors here
Art Market + Design More Than A New Name Sag Harbor Press here
Sag Harbor The Story of an American Beauty by Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski
Keeping Time in Sag Harbor by Stephen Longmire
Byram of Sag Harbor by Doris Halsey 4/18/1972
Hampton's Bohemia by Helen Harrison here
Design: An Italinate Villa East Hampton Star here
I am beginning my research on Orlando H. Bears. Fact checking is a challenge! The Corrector of February 12, 1851 lists the death of Orlando H. Bears on February 10th 1851 at the age of 41. His gravestone in Oakland Cemetery lists his age as 39. A history mystery. The investigation continues.


  1. Your research is admirable:)
    Interesting that you wanted to know more about him..and found out so much more;)Interestingly if you Google his are thr first to pop up..undeniably tied to the mystery now:)

    My dining room very similar in craftmanship as that piece/part of furniture you show..
    have a beautiful weekend.

    1. Your dining room must be amazing! It was funny how researching took me down so many different pathways.... "what is an orrery?" the more I found out the more questions I had. So interesting!

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