HAD AAS

History of the American Astronomical Society

3. Politics and Practice in the Early AAS

by Brant L. Sponberg and David H. DeVorkin

The Society was born out of concerns for disciplinary and professional identity as well as a shared interest in establishing a political voice. Someone had to speak for the interests of the astronomer. For instance, at the first Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists, Hale presented a resolution requesting colleges with observatories to limit the teaching hours of their directors to no more than five hours a week. Hale reasoned that this would improve both teaching and research. Although the assembled body never voted on the resolution, 24 astronomers and astrophysicists did sign the resolution after the Conference (Hale, "Astronomical Research and Teaching," 532-534).

Within its first two decades of life, the Society faced a number of critical issues. Here are three examples that illustrate the range of concerns.

The Society, even before it was fully formed, involved itself in affairs concerning the governance of astronomical institutions; the first dealt with the control of observatories. During the Second Conference, a committee was formed to solicit opinions and forward recommendations on the reorganization of the U.S. Naval Observatory, in keeping with the growing feeling among scientific groups in the 1890s that there was good reason to question the ability of the U. S. government to manage scientific activities (Plotkin, "Astronomers versus the Navy," 1978, provides a full history of this episode; Snyder, 461).

From the time of its origin under Matthew Fontaine Maury in the 1840s the Naval Observatory had been at odds with the American scientific community, not only due to particular problems stemming from Maury's fierce independence but from the fact that for its first twenty years of existence there were more astronomers employed there than anywhere else in the nation (Dupree, 105-106; Rothenberg, "Observers and Theoreticians," p. 31). In the mid-1890s, for instance, the Naval Observatory had received unsatisfactory reviews of its performance, both from the government and from the scientific community. Simon Newcomb, feeling stung because his own Nautical Almanac Office had been absorbed by the USNO in 1894, had been doing his own bit of agitating for change for quite some time, and played a critical role in raising astronomers' ire that the USNO was governed by a uniformed fleet officer rather than a scientist (Moyer, p. 196). He felt this would never change as long at the observatory was in the Navy's hands. Unlike many vocal critics, however, Newcomb defended the government's ability to manage science; the question for Newcomb was, what part of the government was appropriate to manage astronomy? (Dupree, p. 300).

Newcomb was constantly plagued by the problem of governance and oversight of the USNO, which had been festering since the 1880s at least (Plotkin, 1978, "Astronomers versus the Navy," 387--389). The status of the observatory staff was a matter of keen concern. For instance, in early 1897 he wanted to hire two junior astronomers away from the Lick Observatory, W. W. Campbell and R. H. Tucker, both of whom had backgrounds in practical astronomy. Edward S. Holden, the Lick director and a Newcomb protégé, informed his old mentor that he doubted that either astronomer would leave Lick for the Naval Observatory unless the Naval Observatory was reformed. In a rambling probe that among other things revealed his considerable personal ambition, Holden queried Newcomb about the USNO:

Will it even be reformed? And how, if you had the power? If you have your mind made up I wish you would tell me how...But how to "secularize" it? I wish you would tell me. In a few years more Stimson J. Brown will be the head professor. At odd times I have thought that I might be willing to be reinstated in the Navy with my old rank and date-but I don't think that such a bill would pass. And, anyhow, the place should be reformed. Why don't you take the Directorship of it, if it can be "laicised?" [sic] (Holden to Newcomb, 24 Feb. 1897).

Newcomb, as Holden well knew, was at the center of the fray, and had been trying all sorts of maneuvers with allies in the Navy and in Congress to press for reform. In the early 1890s he had already solicited the aid of leading American astronomers, like Hale and Pickering, and though constantly out-maneuvered, stuck to his guns. In 1896 he drew up a petition to have the USNO governed by a professional astronomer, and sent it both to Pickering and Hale as well as to friendly members in Congress. He redoubled his efforts in 1897 when William McKinley and his Republican party gained control over the White House and Congress, seeking the greater sympathies of McKinley's new secretary of the Navy, John D. Long. Newcomb's complaint in all of this was that the USNO was not treating the Nautical Almanac Office right. Specifically, it was not providing critical data in a timely manner (Plotkin, 1978, p. 393).

Newcomb, of course, knew of Hale's Conferences of Astronomers and Astrophysicists and viewed this body as an additional vehicle for support. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Newcomb's interest in forming a professional society of astronomers in America stemmed from his institutional problems. He needed allies. In confidence Newcomb told George Ellery Hale about his newest plan, and Hale asked if it could be presented at the Second Conference. Because Pickering was organizing the Second Conference, Hale also suggested that if Pickering presented the plan in his official capacity, this would not offend the staff at the Naval Observatory. Newcomb would remain anonymous, even to Pickering (Hale to Newcomb, 21 July 1898). Newcomb did not share Hale's concern for anonymity; he had been at the throats of both the superintendent and the scientific director of the USNO for years.

Shortly before the Second Conference, Newcomb pleaded with Hale to present his plan personally. Hale wrote to Newcomb again, claiming that he did not want to take a prominent part in urging reform at the Naval Observatory. As Holden predicted, Stimson Brown was emerging as its next Director and had his own plan for the Naval Observatory's revitalization and most of the Observatory's staff supported Brown, according to Hale (Hale to Newcomb, 2 Aug. 1898). Brown and Newcomb's plans differed in one key respect: Brown's plan kept the Naval Observatory under the U.S. Navy's control while Newcomb's plan would have placed it under civilian control, specifically in the Department of Commerce. Hale, manipulating behind the scenes as always, did not want to waste his own valuable political ammunition in this fight. Instead, he again asked Pickering to present the plan as the neutral organizer of the Second Conference.

Hale merely did not want to appear as the primary instigator. He had no problems when Pickering gained the Conference's approval to appoint a committee consisting of Hale, Pickering and George C. Comstock to consider the Naval Observatory's reorganization. They sent around a circular letter to over 50 leading American astronomers, and found them nearly unanimous that the organization of the USNO be changed, that the USNO be under the direction of a professional astronomer, and that a visiting committee be appointed (Plotkin, 1978, p. 394). These results supported Newcomb, and so he urged Comstock to bring the issue before the new Society at its first meeting (the third Meeting of Astronomers and Astrophysicists). (Comstock to Newcomb, 27 Mar. 1899).

At the first official meeting of the Society, the ad hoc Committee on the Naval Observatory reported on the circulars it had sent to members requesting their opinions on the Observatory. By then, Secretary Long had already acted on one of the recommendations by appointing a Board of Visitors to inspect and report on the Observatory (Plotkin, 1978, p. 394; Frost, 849). Hale, Pickering and Comstock served on the Board of Visitors with Senator Chandler, and after making their inspections and deliberating at the Navy's expense, they reported that though the USNO had the largest budget among American astronomical institutions, it was relatively unproductive. It recommended that all the astronomers on staff be civilians and professionally trained, and this would include the director as well. It also called for the creation of a permanent board of visitors, but did not, to Newcomb's consternation, recommend that the observatory be taken away from Navy control.

To say the least, Newcomb's allies and confidants were not pleased with the last of the Committee's recommendations. As Holden, by 1900 forced out of the Lick directorship, wrote to Newcomb:

I was disappointed in the report of the Committee on U.S. Naval Obsy. and I note that Brown is the Director! The absurdity of the system could have no more glaring and obvious proof (Holden to Newcomb, 31 Jan. 1900).

Although Long supported the Committee's recommendations and Chandler introduced them as a bill in Congress, internal pressure from the present USNO staff, made known to Congress, generated so much heat that Chandler's bill did not pass. So the desired reforms, such as the civilian status of all astronomers and the creation of a visiting committee, were thrown out with the onerous ones. Nothing had changed (Plotkin, 1978, 395; Hale to Newcomb, 8 Mar. 1900).

Ten years later, the Society tried again by passing a resolution supporting another bill in Congress that would place the Naval Observatory under civilian control. This time they felt that they had the sympathies of President Taft, who had acknowledged its receipt by writing "I am pressing this Naval Observatory bill as hard as I can" (Schlesinger, 887). In the end, though, the Society's efforts failed again as the U.S. Naval Observatory and its offices remains under the Navy's control to this day. In "Astronomers versus the Navy" Plotkin analyzes the many causes for the astronomers' failures, seeing them as mainly due to naval solidarity and political clout, to an indifference in Congress to the conduct of science, and to the disorganized and clearly personal motives of the primary astronomical antagonists. To these we might only comment that the existence of a professional society seemed to make little difference at the time. Nevertheless, the fact that the framers of the Society used it as a platform even before it was fully formed helps to better appreciate the motives and drives that brought it into existence.

The early Society also deliberated over whether it should play the role of "spin doctor." Percival Lowell, the wealthy and successful amateur astronomer who founded his own research observatory, was obsessed with observations of Mars and wrote public discourse about the possibility of Mars being inhabited by intelligent living beings; the now well-known "canals" of Mars being, of course, the source of these suppositions. At the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Society in 1904 at the Flower Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania, Lowell presented a paper entitled "The Canals of Mars: An Investigation of Their Objectivity" (Littell, 407). Partly as a result of Lowell's remarks, but due as well to a host of others freely speculating on the matter and proposing grand schemes, his hypotheses, shared by many, fueled a growing journalistic interest in the planet and its imagined inhabitants. One issue raised time and again was the possibility of communicating with the red planet, and at a point in 1909, when Mars was due for a favorable opposition, the Society felt compelled to pronounce its collective judgment on such an enterprise (Berendzen, 38). At the Tenth Meeting in August 1909 at Yerkes Observatory, the Society voted for a resolution against an attempt to communicate with Mars. Pickering sponsored the resolution which read:

As the public, through misrepresentation of the views of certain astronomers, have formed the impression that communication with other planets is at present possible, the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America desires to express its belief that, in the present state of science, any expenditure of money with that direct object in view is highly undesirable (Hussey to Parkhurst, 3 July 1909).

Pickering, of course, as historian Michael Crowe has noted, was reacting against a growing fervor for communicating with Mars that had been building for years, and included the likes of Camille Flammarion, Francis Galton, Nikola Tesla, and most recently, and far too close to home, W. H. Pickering, Edward's younger brother. W. H. Pickering had just called for the building of a gigantic cluster of 5000 10-foot mirrors to signal Mars, at a cost of some $10 million. Pros and cons of his proposals, and counter proposals from the physicist R.W. Wood and others were then being debated in the pages of Scientific American (Crowe, 394--400).

Despite Edward Pickering's deep desire to muzzle his younger brother, or because of it, the vote was not unanimous, which was unusual for the tightly run Society. Dissenters were, however, neither Lowellian nor Pickerian partisans but were members who thought the idea so absurd that it should not be given any credence by Society whatsoever. Making a public statement on the subject would only draw attention to it. Generally the Society fell into one of two camps. The first camp, being for the resolution, was fearful that if enough of the public actually believed the newspapers then precious astronomical resources would be wasted in an attempt to communicate with the planet, and astronomers would be implicated in the effort if they remained silent. This camp was composed of Henry Crew, R. T. Crawford, H. A. Howe, David Todd, R. W. Prentiss, E. D. Roe, E. E. Barnard, F. H. Seares, Ormond Stone, John Tatlock, Milton Updegraff, John F. Hayford, S. B. Barrett, J. A. Parkhurst, E. B. Frost, H. R. Morgan and Sebastian Albrecht ("Concerning Proposed Mars Resolution"). At least one among them, Todd, was an avowed Lowellian, taking his Amherst refractor to Peru to view Mars at the opposition. He was quoted in the papers as proposing to communicate with Mars via balloon-borne wireless telegraphy (Crowe, 399; DeVorkin, 37--53).

The totally skeptical camp saw the subject of communication with Mars being beneath the dignity of the Society. Many interesting comments were made in writing by members of this group, which consistently reflected a lack of faith in the press and public. W. J. Humphreys was blunt as always:

I doubt if anything would be gained by making a statement through the press in regard to our knowledge of Mars. . . . If the papers really wanted the truth, and respected the opinions of scientific men the case would be very different, but sensation is the thing that "sells" and science isn't sensational.
The paper that heaped contempt upon Langley, and ridicules the Wrights solemnly published an account of the success of a wonderful genius who flies through the ringing of bells - which process, it is explained, counteracts gravitation! The same paper editorially call[ed] Pasteur an "upstart," and elsewhere speaks of "Peruna" as a God-given blessing to suffering humanity! And this is a good paper, as papers go - the best that I know.
I admit that a lot of nonsense has been written about Mars, but I fear our newspapers can hardly be brought to serve as reliable astronomical journals ("Concerning Proposed Mars Resolution").

W. A. Cogshall also felt that the Society should not acknowledge the newspapers' assertions for fear that it would only inflame speculation:

I should hesitate to dignify the idiotic suggestions of the yellow press by any reference to communication. Some people seek that kind of notoriety and if the Society takes a definite stand many people will at once think there is "something in it" ("Concerning Proposed Mars Resolution").

John R. Eastman shared Humphreys' and Cogshall's low opinion of the press and public, but searched for some way to take a responsible stand:

I will say that the expounders of the ways and means of communication with other planets have held the center of the stage so long and have talked so much nonsense mingled with plain assertion that I fear the statement of one scientific society would have little weight with the public that enjoys the sensation of being humbugged. If, however, it be found that there are conditions which could be really improved by such a statement, I am heartily in favor of such action. It looks now as if modern popular astronomy was fast approaching the methods of yellow journalism ("Concerning Proposed Mars Resolution").

Even rank and file members who had not otherwise spoken up about anything took a strong stand against Pickering's proposal. G. S. Isham represented their feelings when he argued that "The Society can not afford to take up in any way anything so utterly ridiculous ("Concerning Proposed Mars Resolution").

What seemed to be common among most who were moved to speak, on either side of the issue, was that they felt the public could not be trusted to make the right decision, either on their own, or even when counseled by the experts. Even though there was no evidence that anyone had actually taken an opinion poll, all the astronomers assumed that the public was accepting what sensationalistic journalists fed them. Some argued that the Society's expertise and clout was needed to bring the situation around.

In the record, only one member gave the general public the benefit of the doubt. The mathematical astronomer Ernest W. Brown of Yale thought Pickering's resolution was:

...open to criticism because it makes a statement which I think the majority of intelligent people would consider somewhat untrue as concerns themselves. I do not believe that the intelligent public - mainly those who read the papers - have any such impression ("Concerning Proposed Mars Resolution").

Brown also thought the resolution's barb, presumably at the Lowellians, reflected poorly on the Society as a whole as "the 'misrepresentation of the views of certain astronomers' is a criticism on the inability of astronomers to express themselves clearly." Brown ultimately opposed the resolution too on the basis that astronomers should "leave the subject severely alone [as] the newspaper paragraphs will die natural death from want of food" ("Concerning Proposed Mars Resolution").

The dissenters remained a minority largely due to Pickering's influence and the Society thus went on record formally opposing any attempt to communicate with the possible inhabitants of Mars. [Note: this study is incomplete: It remains to be determined if the resolution had any impact on the media, or even upon astronomical readers.]

During the course of the First World War, the ancient and beautiful instruments that were the heart and soul of the classical Peking Observatory Tower were appropriated by the German army and shipped to the grounds of the Sans Souci (the Kaiser's palace) in Potsdam as ornaments of war. These instruments, including a large armillary sphere, were well known to westerners. Before the war, John A. Brashear, the venerable telescope maker from Pittsburgh, John R. Freeman and Ambrose Swasey visited the observatory tower at Peking, and in early December 1918, Freeman, the instruments still on his mind, wrote to Brashear, Swasey and Hale to pressure the German Minister in Peking to take restorative action. He especially hoped Brashear would act because Brashear had "a personal acquaintance with President Wilson" (Freeman to Brashear, 7 Dec. 1918). Hale then took up the task of getting the Society to take action on the Chinese instruments and wrote to Pickering on New Year's Eve (Hale to Pickering, 31 Dec. 1918). Pickering agreed heartily with Hale, and asked him to meet with the Chinese Minister in Washington, since Hale was still in residence at the National Research Council and had all the right connections. Pickering also sent Hale a resolution for the Society to endorse which read:

Resolved, that, in the opinion of the Council of the American Astronomical Society, the necessary steps should be taken to insure the return of the Chinese astronomical instruments transferred by the German Government from Peking to Potsdam (Pickering to Hale, 3 Jan. 1919).

Hale realized that "a stronger word than 'transferred' might be used," but hesitated to use "stolen" because it "would at once create antagonism." Action then stalled as the Society waited for the Chinese Minister to endorse the resolution. Pickering died in the interim and his second at Harvard, S. I. Bailey, took up the resolution, prompting Secretary Joel Stebbins to bring it to a vote at the first possible opportunity. A mail ballot was completed by the end of February which included an amendment to substitute the word "taken" for "transferred." Most of the surviving replies preferred the stronger word (Mitchell to Stebbins, 26 Feb. 1919).

Anti-German sentiments, as many historians have observed, drove resolutions of this kind, and in this regard the Society reflected much larger forces then at play within the world of organized science that called for the exclusion of the former Central Powers countries from international scientific society (Kevles, 1971). American, and especially British and French astronomers were among the most vocal. Thus Edwin B. Frost was "much impressed with the scandal of such a public exhibition of thievery for which the Kaiser was directly responsible" (Frost to Stebbins, 21 Feb. 1919). Campbell saw "no reason why the Astronomical Society should thus let the culprits down easily." Campbell also noted that he had written to Secretary of State Robert Lansing in November 1918 to urge the Peace Conference to take up the matter of the Chinese instruments. Campbell told Lansing that:

The financial value of the instruments is small, but the moral value of the incidents is far from insignificant. It seems to me that the subject might be brought to the attention of the Peace Conference and of the whole world in such a way as to make it teach an extremely valuable lesson in morality and idealism (Campbell to Stebbins, 25 Feb. 1919).

In December 1918, Third Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long told Campbell that "the matter is receiving the attention of the Department." [Note: This study is still incomplete--the process of returning the instruments and the broader implications of this episode need further attention from historians.]

As these brief vignettes show, from the first years of its existence the Society felt empowered to express its will over a wide range of issues that impacted both the discipline and the profession of astronomy, ranging from the governance of institutions to release time for research to the funding of astronomy and to the public perception of science. That such activities took place so early in the Society's life implies strongly that its very formation and development took place with these kinds of actions in mind. This conclusion is strengthened when one looks as well at the growth of committees the Society fostered in its two decades of existence, where matters ranged from preparing for solar eclipses and comet passages to deliberations over daylight savings time and other wartime measures. Other resolutions not described here, such as asking the U. S. Congress to reinstate its financial support of the International Geodetic Association, are sprinkled throughout the Society's early records (Pickering to Sec. of State Bryan, 22 Sep. 1914 and Hussey to Mrs. Nellie O. Fisk, 14 Oct. 1911). They all demonstrate an early eagerness on the part of the Society's members to exercise scientific authority. Most definitely in its early years the influence of the Society upon external affairs was minimal. Further studies will explore how this lack of influence changed over time.

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by JST
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