He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, son of Benjamin Apthorp Gould, the principal of Boston Latin School, which he also attended. His mother was Lucretia Dana Goddard. The poet Hannah Flagg Gould was his aunt. After going on to Harvard College and graduating in 1844, he studied mathematics and astronomy under C. F. Gauss at Göttingen, Germany, during which time he published approximately 20 papers on the observation and motion of comets and asteroids. Following completion of his Ph.D. (he was the first American to receive this degree in astronomy) he toured European observatories asking for advice on what could be done to further astronomy as a professional science in the U.S.A. The main advice he received was to start a professional journal modeled after what was then the world's leading astronomical publication, the Astronomische Nachrichten.
Gould returned to America in 1848 and from 1852 to 1867 was in charge of the longitude department of the United States Coast Survey. He developed and organized the service, was one of the first to determine longitudes by telegraphic means, and employed the Atlantic cable in 1866 to establish accurate longitude-relations between Europe and America.
After his return to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gould started the Astronomical Journal in 1849, which he published until 1861. He resumed publication in 1885. It is still published today. From 1855 to 1859 he acted as director of the Dudley Observatory at Albany, New York, and in 1859 published a discussion of the places and proper motions of circumpolar stars to be used as standards by the United States Coast Survey. In 1861 he undertook the enormous task of preparing for publication the records of astronomical observations made at the U.S. Naval Observatory since 1850. Appointed in 1862 actuary to the United States Sanitary Commission, he issued in 1869 an important volume of Military and Anthropological Statistics. In 1864 he fitted up a private observatory at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and undertook in 1868, on behalf of the Argentine republic, to organize a national observatory at Córdoba. In 1868 he became the first director of the Argentine National Observatory (today, Observatorio Astronómico de Córdoba of the National University of Córdoba). While there, he and four assistants extensively mapped the southern hemisphere skies using newly developed photometric methods. On June 1, 1884, he made the last definite sighting of the Great Comet of 1882. The need of astronomers for good weather prediction spurred Gould to collaborate with Argentine colleagues to develop the Argentine National Weather Service, the first in South America.
Gould's measurements of L. M. Rutherfurd's photographs of the Pleiades in 1866 entitle him to rank as a pioneer in the use of the camera as an instrument of precision; and he secured at Córdoba 1400 negatives of southern star clusters, the reduction of which occupied the closing years of his life. He remained in Argentina until 1885, when he returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1883 and the James Craig Watson Medal in 1887. Astronomers continue to investigate the astrophysics of a large scale feature of the Milky Way to which he called their attention in 1877, and honor him with its name, The Gould Belt. A crater on the Moon is named after him. He died at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1896.
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