HAD AAS

History of the American Astronomical Society

1: The Origin of the American Astronomical Society

by Brant L. Sponberg and David H. DeVorkin

Astronomy was well-established as a discipline by the 1890s, but not as a profession. Most astronomers were college-level teachers and most therefore spent the bulk of their efforts teaching. In the early 1890s a few research institutions existed where teaching was not a priority, such as the U. S. Naval Observatory, Lick Observatory, the Astrophysical Observatory of the Smithsonian Institution, and the Harvard College Observatory. Nevertheless, by the late 1890s American astronomy had its institutions as well as a few young journals, such as the Astronomical Journal and the Astrophysical Journal, Popular Astronomy, and the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; only the newly reorganized Astronomical Journal was more than a decade old, however.

The 1890s were a time when great pressures to organize the sciences existed in America as specialization in science grew at a rapidly accelerating pace. But as well there was a growing tendency to develop national identities within each specialty and to create social groupings around specific technical practice (Bates, Chapter 3). Up to the 1890s American science generally had been loosely organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1848) and by the elite but somewhat stodgy National Academy of Sciences (1863). There were also venerable societies centered in Philadelphia (the American Philosophical Society - 1769) and Boston (The American Academy of Arts and Sciences - 1846), as well as numerous regional and state societies (Reingold, 1991). But discipline-based professions were a relatively new player. Following the American Mathematical Society (1888), the American Chemical Society (1876) and the Geological Society of America (1888), emerging disciplines in the physical sciences were rapidly forming by the end of the Century. Astronomers and astrophysicists were not alone in their zeal to organize, therefore, but they keenly knew that their playing field was far from level.

Organizing is hard work. It does not come easily and requires coalition building and politicking. The effort involved can never be taken for granted in any historical account. Unusually highly motivated people are sometimes found at the core of organizational efforts. In this characteristic, American astronomy can boast one of America's quintessential organizers.

George Ellery Hale was a builder. In parallel with creating the Astrophysical Journal and building the Yerkes Observatory, he set about to organize American astronomy and to redefine it by centering as much of it as possible within the realm of physics. In the 1890s Hale knew well that the physical sciences in America were becoming professionalized and, to some extent, redefined as their leaders established boundaries and agreed on standards of practice. For Hale, those standards included not only the application of the ideas and methods of modern physics, but the adoption of the theory-based problem-solving perspective of the physicist by the practicing astronomer. Hale hoped to turn that part of astronomy called astrophysics away from being a highly descriptive naturalistic endeavor to one incorporating not only the principles but the practice of the physical laboratory.

The steps leading to the formation of the Society and Hale's role in the effort have been examined by Donald Osterbrock (1985) and by Richard Berendzen (1974), upon which much of the earlier portion of this essay is based. Berendzen points out, in "Origins of the American Astronomical Society," written in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the AAS, that the idea of a national professional society was first suggested to Hale by Simon Newcomb (Berendzen, 35). Hale himself wanted people to believe this, but it is also clear that Hale already had the organizer's spirit long before Newcomb wrote him. It is well known that Hale created the Congress on Mathematics and Astronomy which was held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition (Wright, 1966, 104--110). In "America's First World Astronomy Meeting: Chicago, 1893," Donald Osterbrock concludes that the Congress "provided the model which Hale followed when he organized the scientific sessions held four years later in connection with the dedication of the Yerkes Observatory . . . and the gathering led to the founding of the American Astronomical Society in 1899" (Osterbrock, 1980, "America's First World Astronomy Meeting," 185).

The link must remain circumstantial until additional evidence is uncovered, but from the nature of his correspondence with James Keeler after Newcomb's suggestion, it is clear that forming a society was not a new idea. But forming a new society at the time of the Yerkes dedication may have been Newcomb's idea. Hale and Newcomb both saw the advantage of organizing at a time when so many American astronomers would be gathered in one place, then a rare event, but both of them also knew that the popularity of a society among astronomers depended upon its breadth. If it was too parochial, as previous attempts to form organizations had been, it would be doomed from the start. Nonetheless, although Hale and Newcomb agreed on necessity, they differed over the details of the organization, especially about the title of the proposed society and what that title implied about professional astronomy. The evolving differences between the emerging field of astrophysics, a profession Hale was attempting to organize and legitimate, and the traditional field of gravitational and positional astronomy, Newcomb's disciplinary home, expressed themselves in Hale and Newcomb's correspondence about the name of the Society, an argument that was not fully settled for almost two decades.

As Berendzen and Osterbrock have noted, after the success of the Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists at the Yerkes dedication in 1897, where James E. Keeler and Newcomb both gave speeches that neatly delineated the disciplinary schism between astronomy and astrophysics, Hale wanted to hold a second meeting, again at Yerkes, to launch the Society. Hale, just shy of 30 years of age but very savvy, also realized that other astronomers were concerned about his control over any future astronomical society, just as he knew, apparently, that there were those in American astronomy who feared Newcomb's dominance (Berendzen, 35). To deflect the criticism, Hale wrote to Edward C. Pickering, Director of the Harvard College Observatory, asking him to host the Second Conference, supposedly to attract astronomers on the eastern seaboard. Hale claimed that "in planning for conferences at the Yerkes Observatory during the coming summer it was not my intention, as some who have replied to my letter seem to suppose, to bring about the formation of a regular society," even though his earlier correspondence with Keeler and Newcomb shows that he indeed had such purposes in mind (Hale to Pickering, 26 March 1898, quoted in Berendzen, 36).

Pickering sensed that a movement was afoot and that he must be a part of it. Newcomb, predictably, dominated the proceedings during the Second Conference at Harvard, during a particularly severe heat wave. Discomfort aside, he led the decision to form an astronomical society (Wright, 1966, p. 146). Those who attended in Pickering's salon elected a committee to write a constitutional draft and arrange for the next conference. George C. Comstock of the Washburn Observatory, Hale, the physicist Edward Morley, Newcomb and Pickering caucused and drafted a constitution which was ratified within a day. They called for a special meeting at M.I.T. at the close of the Conference for those who had signed on to join the new society. At this special meeting, Hale made sure that others were asked to join the committee to balance out the specialties: four people were added: the Johns Hopkins physicist Joseph Ames, Dudley Observatory's Lewis Boss, the Smithsonian's Samuel P. Langley and the University of Chicago physicist A. A. Michelson. Thus disciplines were carefully balanced with three classical astronomers, three astrophysicists and three physicists, though one might well argue that those sympathetic to the centrality of physics in astronomy were in the majority.

The committee became known as the Executive Council and was endowed with temporary powers to organize the new society. With these new participants, Hale and Newcomb were joined in their wrestling over the name of the future Society. Pickering and Newcomb preferred the simpler, modern name, American Astronomical Society. Hale went into the discussions hoping to co-opt physics into the new society and argued for the title American Astronomical and Physical Society. Langley pressed for the American Astrophysical Society, and Keeler, although he was not a member of the Executive Council, supported a compromise title, American Astronomical and Astrophysical Society. Membership questions were also raised by Keeler who wanted to exclude amateurs and create a totally professional organization (Berendzen, 37).

The Executive Council settled these arguments in Washington, D.C. a month before the Third Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists at Yerkes Observatory on 6 September 1899. The Council, with Hale's sponsorship, had settled on Keeler's compromise for the Society's title. Keeler did not get his way in regards to membership requirements, however, as the Executive Council agreed that members only be capable of producing an acceptable paper pertaining to some astronomical subject. The Third Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists, which became the first meeting for the new Society, then officially adopted the Society's Constitution, Bylaws and its first name, the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America (A.&A.S.A., changed slightly from the Executive Council's decision, to prevent confusion with the A.A.A.S.). The Naval Observatory's William Harkness presided over the Third Conference and the first officers of the Society, a veritable who's who of leading astronomers at the turn-of-the-century, were elected as follows:

  • President, Simon Newcomb
  • First Vice-President, Charles A. Young
  • Second Vice-President, George Ellery Hale
  • Secretary, George C. Comstock
  • Treasurer, Charles L. Doolittle
  • Councilors (Two Year), E. C. Pickering and J. E. Keeler
  • Councilors (One Year), Edward W. Morley and Ormond Stone
  • Members also voted to publish reports of the meetings and abstracts of their papers in Science, membership dues were set at two dollars annually, and 19 papers were presented. Thus the Third Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists became the First Annual Meeting of the A.&A.S.A. (Osterbrock, "The Minus First Meeting," 108-118). Although only 50 astronomers attended the Third Conference, 114 astronomers drawn from those who had signed on at both the Second and Third Conferences joined the Society in its first year (Frost, 785-795, 841-849). This was a good showing, but it still constituted only half of the known professional astronomers in the United States (Rothenberg, 1981, 310).

    Although he had to compromise on his vision of the Society, Hale had taken another step to organize his discipline and profession. Hale's Conferences had been the organizing focus needed to form the first enduring astronomical society in America, but he was never to hold the presidency of the Society. In later years, Hale became involved in organizing on larger scientific and international scales (the National Academy of Sciences, the International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research and finally the International Astronomical Union) and also suffered from health problems throughout his life which forced him to turn down many activities and posts. The immediate reasons, however, for Hale not holding the first presidency of the Society were Simon Newcomb's status as America's preeminent astronomer, Hale's relative youth and his clearly partisan views. Whether he ever desired to hold the post is not known, but he seemed contented enough with the second and later the first vice-presidencies, knowing that it was wiser to have Newcomb as an ally rather than as competitor.

    The original Constitution and By-Laws of the Society were imprecise about succession and term limits. Therefore Newcomb served from 1899 to 1904, and Pickering, his successor, served practically for life, from 1905 to his death in 1919. Pickering's term was marked by steady growth and a broadening mandate for the Society, but his own impact centered on improving the lot of the professional astronomer. Pickering discussed his objectives in a speech during the 8th Annual Meeting of the Society wherein he argued for the incorporation of all aspects of the astronomical enterprise under the aegis of the A.&A.S.A. He wanted the Society to organize networks of observatories in cooperative research programs that were beyond the resources of any single observatory. He also hoped the Society would provide the means by which old and young astronomers could share methods and knowledge.

    Cooperative research and centralized funding were major Pickering themes throughout his career, and more than once he used the Society as a platform for his views to attract the support of philanthropy. In distinction to Hale, Pickering felt that astronomy was best served through cooperative coalitions of all astronomical resources. At the 10th Meeting of the Society, in his Presidential Address, he called for a program of small grants, not exceeding $1000, to fund routine work at small observatories, including amateur observatories, to deal with the vast workload attending to programmatic research -- the watchword of the day for the typical American astronomer. Pickering's seemingly egalitarian views, repeated time and again, gained him great favor in the Society which were one reason for his re-election year after year until his death. It was true that he was intent on utilizing every available astronomical resource for the advancement of the discipline, but what vexed other observatory directors is that Pickering always believed that the best way to handle the collective coalition was to funnel the funds through the Harvard Corporation. This did not gain favor from people like Hale (Plotkin, 1978, "E. C. Pickering. . ."). Pickering also supported a proposal to change the name to the American Astronomical Society. The defeated resolution was sponsored by William Wallace Campbell, the Lick Observatory Director, and opposed by William Jackson Humphreys, a physicist cum meteorologist in the U.S. Weather Bureau.

    Pickering held distinct views on the role of amateurs in the Society. When the Society considered bifurcating its membership into a professional or full membership and an amateur or associate membership in 1916, Pickering actively opposed the efforts. In the face of Pickering's opposition, Frank Schlesinger's ad hoc Committee on Associate Membership never came to a consensus, deciding that there was "no reason for trying to have two classes of members" (Minutes of the Executive Council, AAS, 30 Aug. 1917). Pickering was also a member of the Committee on Meteors which was largely responsible for organizing the efforts of the American Meteor Society, another amateur astronomical organization whose research program was geared towards aiding professional research programs. Pickering supported the Society as a home for all astronomers but did so for the benefit of professional research.

    Although Pickering was perhaps the one professional in the Society who most appreciated and encouraged amateur membership, he also proposed programs to directly aid the professional astronomer in his career. Pickering outlined the first of these at the 2nd Annual Meeting of the A.&A.S.A. from 26-28 June 1900 at Columbia University. Pickering's wanted to create job bank in which astronomers desiring positions (especially those just graduated from degree programs) would register, vacant positions would be compiled and the two matched up (Comstock, 27 July 1900, 129). The Society's members expressed a desire not to undertake such work, and the job bank was instead run by Harvard College Observatory. (As is true in the profession today, there was an overflow of applicants for the positions available; thirteen applicants for four positions with only two being filled during the first year.)

    Whether it was the union of astrophysics and astronomy, the amateur and the professional, the young astronomer or the old, Pickering's long term of office is perhaps most marked by his efforts to expand the Society's domain and build an organization capable of incorporating all the aspects of the astronomical enterprise.

    At the first meeting of the Society in September 1899 at Yerkes Observatory (also called the Third Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists), 114 astronomers joined the Society with roughly half that number actually in attendance. The meeting did not go unnoticed and in fact drew negative comment from John A Hayford, Secretary of Section A (then the Mathematics and Astronomy Section), of the A.A.A.S. He was none too happy with the fact that both the American Mathematical Society and the A.&A.S.A. had chosen meeting dates and locales that had made it "inconvenient" to attend the Columbus meetings of the A.A.A.S. He called for better coordination of meeting dates and argued that "It seems obvious that many benefits must accrue to each of the three organizations from such cooperation, for they have many common members and common interests" (Hayford, 333).

    The Society soon saw the wisdom in Hayford's remarks; even though Section A's offerings in astronomy at Columbus had been weak, the astronomers decided that they should agree to meet with the larger organization wherever practical, for no other reason than the A.A.A.S. acted as the meeting organizer. Further, as Hayford intimated, Newcomb at the time was the mathematics editor and Pickering the astronomy editor for Science, so there were many points of contact. But astronomy, astrophysics, physics and mathematics were all becoming more specialized and diverging; they would not confine themselves exclusively to the A.A.A.S. venue for very long.

    At the Second Meeting, 43 new members joined the Society bringing total membership to 157. Admittance numbers to the Society were not to remain so high. Although 17 new members joined at the Fourth Meeting during the holiday season in 1902-03, the influx dwindled to five in 1904 and four in 1906, hardly, as Rothenberg has pointed out, a resounding mandate for the new Society from the astronomical community. Alarmed by these numbers and the dominance of the Harvard, Yerkes, University of California and governmental observatories at the meetings (approximately one-third of total membership hailed from these institutions), in January 1909 the Secretary of the Society, Michigan's William J. Hussey, asked for opinions on how to increase membership. Pickering had lists drawn up of potential members and invitations were sent out. Much of this recruiting drive was targeted at older astronomers who had balked at joining the Society and at young astronomers fresh from degree programs. The results were startling. From only nine new members admitted at the Ninth Meeting in 1908, the number of admitted members jumped to 34 in 1909 and 29 in 1910. Although historian Marc Rothenberg has argued that observatory staffs continued to be polled for recruitment, Hussey and Pickering's drive was a temporary effort, and new membership numbers dropped off just as dramatically as they had risen over the next five years (Rothenberg, 1981). A second membership drive, one targeted at amateurs and led by Frank Schlesinger, was canceled in 1916 because it would have created a stratified membership. Despite Schlesinger's failure at passing a resolution creating an associate membership, there was another dramatic increase in membership in 1914-1916. After 1916, largely due to the growing war, new membership numbers remained low and never demonstrated the wildly varying waves of registration that characterized the earlier years of Pickering's tenure.

    Membership drives were one of two forces that shaped the membership growth of the early Society. Another was attendance at meetings. Simply put, more new members were proposed and admitted when more of the old membership attended a meeting. Attendance, in turn, was closely tied to the geographic location of the meeting. In these years transportation across the country to meetings in inaccessible or uninteresting locations limited attendance at some ill-placed sites. Most of the early Society's members resided in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic or Upper Midwest portions of the U.S. and thus meetings in those regions of the country were highly attended while meetings held in inaccessible southern portions of the U.S. were much less well attended. Two meetings in particular bear this out. Only twenty members attended Fifth Annual Meeting, held at Central High School in St. Louis. Numbers double and equal to that attendance were admitted at the two previous meetings held in Washington, D.C. Eleven members attended and two new members were elected at the Sixteenth Meeting at the Georgia Technical College in Atlanta, Georgia. Quadruple and triple both those numbers were in attendance and admitted to the two previous meetings held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cleveland, Ohio. The number of papers presented at a meeting was also connected to the attendance and location of the meeting and thus almost all of the Society's early meetings were held in the Northeast, Midwest or Mid-Atlantic states. Out of the first 32 meetings of the Society, only four of them deviated from these three locations: two were held west of the Rocky Mountains, one in a southern state and one in Canada, typically outlying meetings were held in conjunction with the A.A.A.S.

    Finally, although the data are missing for many years, women and foreign members made up a significant portion of the Society's membership in the early years. At the Eleventh Annual Meeting in 1910, the first year for which there is information, new female and foreign members each made up one-sixth of the total admitted membership. These were somewhat large portions in comparison to later years, however, mainly due to this meeting being held at the Harvard College Observatory just before the meetings of Hale's International Solar Union in Pasadena. Harvard had many women astronomers and was near women's college's, and the International Union meeting obviously drew many foreign astronomers. Meetings in later years continued to have smaller numbers of women and foreign members admitted, although notable here is the Society's first meeting held outside the U.S., at Dominion Observatory in Ottawa, Canada at which five Canadian astronomers were granted membership. Also notable is the Tenth Meeting in 1909 during which the Society reemphasized that its use of the word "America" in its title included South American astronomers. Non U.S. members came from Japan as well as South America, and although they probably did not hold citizenship in the Americas, the Society's Constitution did not prevent their full membership. Lastly, during the 14th meeting in 1912, the Society's constitution was amended to allow for the election of one honorary member each year which went exclusively to eminent, European astronomers.

    Just as the Society's formation was due to the organizing efforts of a handful of leading professional astronomers, likewise these men brought before the Society external matters for deliberation and for action. In the first two decades of the life of the Society, there were numerous organizing efforts ranging from preparing for the passage of Halley's Comet or a solar eclipse, to the formation of committees to deal with standards of practice, or even to the governance of observatories and the rights of national patrimony. Being able to exert scientific authority over a range of political matters had been a primary goal in the formation of the Society for astronomers like Hale, Pickering and Newcomb. Although the Society's majority usually agreed with the conclusions of these leaders and all astronomers benefited from the power they found in the Society's numbers, the agenda was usually set by the leaders of the Society.

    There were several significant attempts to modify the Society's Constitution during the Pickering years. In 1909, Campbell tried to change the Society's name from the "Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America" to the American Astronomical Society. The arguments were again bound up in professional and disciplinary concerns about the independence and relationship of astrophysics and astronomy. Although Pickering himself favored the name change, a spirited defense of the old name mounted by William J. Humphreys prevented the switch. A second attempt, this time successful, was again made by Campbell in 1914, although Campbell had to be prodded into action by Secretary Hussey. A fuller treatment of both debates is detailed in "How did the A. A. S. get its name?"

    The other major constitutional change took place after Pickering's death in 1919 and was a reaction to his and other officers' long terms of office. From the formation of the Society to Pickering's death, officers were elected on the last day of every annual meeting but there were no limits on the number of terms one could hold office. Nominating ballots were sent out well before the annual meetings and votes were counted in succession (from lowest to highest office) for different offices. Nominees for higher offices could also be candidates for the offices below them. The system had a strong tendency to retain officers once they were elected the first time. Pickering himself only became President after Newcomb retired, and the lack of turnover in the vice-presidencies and even in the position of Secretary and Treasurer pointed to the need for a new system. For example, Campbell held one or the other of the vice-presidencies for a combined total of fifteen years, George C. Comstock served as Secretary for seven years and Annie Jump Cannon was Treasurer for six. Although powerful and activist astronomers were in office, there may have been others who wished to lead the Society (Further research is required here to determine if there were actual slates of candidates for each office).

    Ernest W. Brown took the lead in reforming the Society's election system in 1919. He wanted a mechanism whereby the membership could get "good men into office but also make sure that they got out again" (Stebbins, 408). Under Brown's new procedure, nominations were prepared by a committee that considered factors such as the geographical home, age and astronomical specialization of the candidates. Continuity for fund-raising and other purposes was paramount but limiting the terms of office was also a major objective. Thus it was decided that the President should serve for three years, vice-presidents for one and the Secretary and Treasurer for one with the possibility for re-election assuming they had carried out their duties appropriately. Although the Secretary and Treasurer still tended to remain in office for long terms, the term limits obviously and immediately produced a higher turnover in the Executive Council.

    The Pickering years were marked by the gradual, though not always steady, enlargement of the Society's membership, committees and activities. They were also marked by Pickering's own incorporation of all possible astronomical resources under the umbrella of the Society's organization, especially amateur resources. Astronomy and astrophysics were also fused, at least in name if not in practice, in the renaming of the Society. The Society also involved itself in many issues that, although external to the discipline of astronomy, nonetheless elicited the expertise and opinions of the membership. And finally the Society managed to correct its own sleepy election machinery shortly after Pickering's death. These were to be the building blocks upon which the American Astronomical Society would build and expand in the years ahead.

    [Note: This essay is in part an extension of the history of the origin of the Society by Richard Berendzen, and profits as well from Donald Osterbrock's studies of its pre-history and Marc Rothenberg's examination of its membership and amateur component, all cited in the bibliography.]


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