Mount Diablo Surveyors Historical Society


In Memorial


George Davidson (86)

Geodesist, Astronomer, Geographer, Surveyor and Engineer

Born May 9, 1825, Died December 2, 1911

Click for larger photo image*

Click for larger photo image**



George Davidson - geodesist, astronomer, geographer and engineer - was born in Nottingham, England, on May 9, 1825. In 1832 he came to the United States with his parents, who settled in Pennsylvania. Upon graduation from Central High School, Philadelphia, he was appointed magnetic observer at Girard College Observatory.


In 1845 he began his career with the United States Coast Survey as clerk to Superintendent Alexander D. Bache. Requesting duty in the field in 1846, he spent the next four years almost constantly on the move. He was sent to California in 1850, in charge of the party that was to survey the Pacific Coast, and, with the exception of the period from 1860-1866, he spent the rest of his years in the West. His great work, the study and survey of the California and Pacific Northwest Coast, was embodied in the many Coast and Geodetic Survey charts and in the Coast pilots.


At the outset of the Civil War, he was assigned to the Atlantic Coast, where he assisted in fortifications for the defense of Philadelphia, and was detailed for special naval service along the Florida coast. Before returning to the West Coast, he undertook two important assignments in 1867--the survey of the Isthmus of Darien to determine the feasibility of a canal and the preliminary geographical reconnaissance of Alaska.


In 1868 Davidson was placed in general charge of the Coast Survey work on the Pacific Coast, a position he retained until June 1895. His reputation in the scientific world was such that he was frequently called to serve upon commissions (the Irrigation Commission of California in 1873, the Mississippi River Commission in 1888, the Advisory Harbor Improvement Commission for San Francisco, and the United States Assay Commissions of 1872 and 1884) and was appointed member in charge of the American Transit of Venus Expedition to Japan in 1874 and a delegate to the International Geodetic Convention at Paris in 1889. He served as president of the California Academy of Sciences and the Geographical Society of the Pacific, and was an acknowledged authority on the early history of the Pacific Coast. It was largely through his influence that James Lick decided to build and endow the Lick Observatory. Davidson's own private observatory in Lafayette Park, San Francisco, was one of the first in California, and he made its facilities available to fellow scientists and interested laymen.


Davidson was closely identified with the University of California, serving as honorary professor of geodesy and astronomy from 1870, as a regent, 1877-1884, and as professor of geography, 1895-1905. On June 30, 1905, he retired from active teaching, and devoted increasing time to his studies on early Pacific Coast navigation despite his failing eyesight. He died on December 2, 1911.


Scope and Content of collection:

The Davidson collection was given to the University of California by Miss Ellinor Davidson, his daughter, in 1945. A portion of it - some books, pamphlets and maps - came to the Bancroft Library in 1947, and his personal papers, in 1953. The papers consist of letters (personal and official Coast and Geodetic Survey correspondence); letterbooks; diaries; biographical sketches; personalia; clippings; financial records; manuscripts of his writings, published and unpublished; notebooks; lecture notes for his geography course; computations and work sheets; subject files; photographs; sketches; maps; transcripts and translations of reports and documents dealing with a wide variety of subjects; miscellaneous reports and papers; and printed material. Most of the books, pamphlets and other printed material have been cataloged separately. Cards for these are on file, as a unit, in the manuscripts collections of The Bancroft Library. Portrait photographs removed from the papers have been cataloged in the portrait file.


Included also with the collection are papers of his wife, Ellinor (Fauntleroy) Davidson; his children, Ellinor, George and Thomas; and papers of and relating to the Fauntleroy and Owen families.


*Portrait from Biographical Memoir of George Davidson, by Charles B. Davenport, National Academy of Sciences, v. 38, 1937.

**Portrait from NOAA people collection, George Davidson image id theb3433,

The above Biography and Scope and Content of the collection was taken in its entirety without any changes from the online Archives of California. © 1997, 2010, The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.


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Finding Aid to the George Davidson papers, 1845-1911

Collection number: BANC MSS C-B 490

Processed by The Bancroft Library staff

The Bancroft Library.

University of California, Berkeley

Berkeley, California, 94720-6000

Phone: (510) 642-6481

Fax: (510) 642-7589



© 1997, 2010

The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.


Additional links/information about George Davidson

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