He was born at Sherburne, New York, and graduated from Yale in 1850. The Mathematics Genealogy Project lists his advisor as Michel Chasles. In 1855, he was appointed professor of mathematics at Yale. The study of the laws of meteors and of comets and their interrelation was his chief labor. He attempted to contribute to the theory advanced by Professor Olmsted of Yale in 1833 that meteors were a part of a mass of bodies moving round the sun in a fixed orbit.
In 1861, he supervised the work of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in regard to the August and November meteors. He became a worldwide authority on the subjects of meteors and comets. He won the Smith gold medal from the National Academy of Sciences, was elected an associate of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1885), and was foreign member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.