HAD AAS

History of the American Astronomical Society

4. Committees and Projects in the Early Society

By Brant L. Sponberg and David H. DeVorkin

After the formative meetings that created the Society, where most of the attention was given over to the nature of the Society itself, subsequent meetings tended to concentrate more and more on the reading of astronomical papers. But the Society was also a forum used to achieve consensus on matters of concern to its members. The most visible portion of this organized and collective activity was the growth of both standing and ad hoc committees. Committee work became a major means by which the early Society took on projects and tried to achieve consensus on important matters. During the first two decades of Society life, all committees were supposed to be charged with their duties at the end of each annual meeting. Although some committees managed to obtain "standing committee" status, few of the committees formed during the Pickering years survived past this period.

The Executive Council was, of course, the Society's first committee. It was appointed at the Second Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists to deliberate over the Society's Constitution, to consider the name of the Society, and to plan future meetings. Two other committees were also appointed at the Second Conference. One was charged with soliciting and forwarding recommendations on the governance of the U.S. Naval Observatory, and represented the kind of committee that dealt with political matters external to the functioning of the Society itself. The third committee, to organize preparations for the 28 May 1900 solar eclipse, represented purely scientific interests that were in need of coordination.

In most cases, these committees were dominated by a small band of senior members of the Society who typically were officers. For example, Pickering and George C. Comstock, the first Secretary of the Society, were on both the eclipse and Naval Observatory committees.

The next committee to form was a Committee on Solar Research, appointed by President Newcomb at Hale's urging, during the summer of 1904. Hale was just then organizing his nascent International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research (ISU) at a Congress held in conjunction with the St. Louis World's Fair and Exposition that summer. By his design, mimicking how international societies were organized then, nations were members, represented by astronomical delegations from national societies. The National Academy of Sciences was America's official organ for such representation, but it required the expertise of the A.&A.S.A. Accordingly, the Society Executive Council made the Committee on Solar Research "permanent" at the Sixth Annual Meeting in December 1904. The duties of the committee mimicked the purposes of Hale's Solar Union.

Committee appointments were sporadic throughout the first decade of the Society. A Committee on Luminous Meteors was appointed at the Ninth Meeting in 1908. It consisted of Cleveland Abbe as Chair, with Elkin and Peck as members. At the next meeting, deliberating over Elkin's needs at Yale for meteor orbit research, the committee recommended establishing a network of photographic stations 100 miles apart for meteor observation, but this idea was only partially implemented (Hoffleit, chapter 13). The Committee on Luminous Meteors also supported Abbe's proposal to construct a device that could make a continuous photographic record of meteor paths and times (Abbe's proposal was successful). The committee was soon renamed the Committee on Meteors and remained in existence for some time.

At the eighteenth meeting in 1915, the committee reported on plans, in conjunction with the Kodak Company, to design and build a special photographic "meteor-graph." At the next Society meeting, the committee was enlarged by the addition of C. P. Olivier as Secretary, and was greatly broadened by adding E. E. Barnard, who was interested in wide-field photography, W. J. Humphreys, who was interested in what meteor trails revealed about the upper atmosphere, F. R. Moulton, the dynamical astronomer and cosmogonist, and W. H. Pickering, E.C.'s indomitable brother. During this period, the committee also began to oversee the work of the amateur American Meteor Society and in 1919 decided upon a division of labor between amateurs and professionals. At the twenty-third meeting the committee reported that henceforth, meteor work not requiring photographic apparatus would be "well taken care of by the American Meteor Society," whose members had made 2,050 observations in 1918 alone. The committee also reported that professional photographic instruments capable of accurately recording the paths of meteors were needed in order to perform trajectory analyses that would reveal their original orbits.

In the same year that the Committee on Meteors was appointed, a Committee on Comets was also formed in preparation for the return of Halley's Comet in 1910. Because Halley's Comet was a more pressing time-critical matter than meteors at the time, this committee consisted of more leading astronomers. Comstock was the Chair and Pickering, Barnard and Perrine made up the rest of the committee. Edwin B. Frost was eventually added to the committee and Barnard, Pickering and Frost each headed up photographic, photometric and spectrographic programs on Halley's Comet. The Society also decided to directly fund this work, the first time it did so, and the Committee on Comets raised $2200 on its own from the Bache Fund of the National Academy of Sciences for a Hawaiian observation post for Halley's Comet (to cover the Pacific Ocean). Ferdinand Ellerman of Mount Wilson was given charge of this expedition and both Brashear and the Lick Observatory loaned mountings and portrait lenses. After Comet Halley's visit, the committee accumulated a card catalogue of photographs of the brilliant apparition, published some of the best photographs in 1915, and finally was discharged at the nineteenth meeting in 1916.

At the Eleventh Meeting in 1910 astrometric observations came to the fore in the creation of two new committees. A Committee on Co-operation in the Measurement of Stellar Radial Velocities was formed consisting of Campbell as Chair, Frost, J. S. Plaskett and Frank Schlesinger, and it invited several foreign visitors who were then attending the August 1910 ISU meetings -- H. F. Newell and Karl Schwarzschild -- to act as corresponding members. Also formed was a Committee on the Determination of Absolute Positions of the Stars by Photography, consisting of Schlesinger as Chair, Harold Jacoby, E. C. Pickering, Frank Ross and Henry Norris Russell, with H. H. Turner a corresponding member. At Schlesinger's urging this last committee was renamed the Committee on Photographic Astrometry and devoted itself mainly to a campaign to establish photographic techniques as the standard mode of operation. Schlesinger passionately presented a resolution to the Society that detailed the types of astrometric problems that could best be solved photographically. Over the next decade, his committee also established a series of cooperative programs to conduct experiments to determine the exact polar point, to devise a method of keeping piers stationary, to experiment with wide-angle cameras and to publish a catalog of equatorial stars. In 1913 Schlesinger managed to further his agenda for establishing the practice of photographic astrometry as standard in astronomy when the committee, representing the Society, drafted a resolution that was ratified by the Astronomische Gesellschaft that summer.

The Committee on Co-operation in the Measurement of Stellar Radial Velocities was less active and did not report until 1912. After collecting reports from its members, it concluded that finding the radial velocities of large numbers of stars below magnitude 5 was impractical. No reports were made again until 1916 when the committee was discharged after it reported that cooperation between observatories in observing stellar radial velocities was impossible (not all of its members felt this way, though). It failed to achieve the close consensus that Schlesinger's committee had enjoyed.

During the twelfth meeting in August 1911, a Committee on Cooperation in the Teaching of Astronomy was appointed with C. L. Doolittle of the University of Pennsylvania as Chair. Members included Sarah F. Whiting of Wellesley, C. A. Chant of Toronto and J. A. Miller of Swarthmore. By 1912, the Committee had changed its name to the Committee on Cooperation in Improvement of Teaching Elementary Astronomy, had added Philip Fox to its roster and sent out a circular on the availability of astronomy courses in colleges and universities. The results from 80 institutions were disheartening, the committee concluded. Although the work of this committee appears to have died out shortly after the survey, it was reincarnated decades later as the Teachers' Committee.

In December 1911, at the thirteenth meeting, a Committee on Asteroids was appointed with the mathematical astronomer Ernest W. Brown of Yale as Chair. J. H. Metcalf, G. H. Peters and A. O. Leuschner were members. In April 1912 the committee met in Philadelphia and decided that it wanted to collect positional information on asteroids and that they needed to create a mechanism to secure more observations on asteroids on a uniform basis through some independent organization, possibly international in scope. This work was stalled, however, by World War I, according to the committee's 1915 report. Brown was replaced by Leuschner as Chair the next year, and in 1916, work was similarly held up by the lack of critical German data. Although there was no official discharge of the Committee on Asteroids in Society records, the committee did not continue to report after the War. Several of its members reappeared on an NRC Committee on Celestial Mechanics.

As a result of debates about the creation of an Associate Membership for amateur astronomers, a Special Committee on Associate Membership was appointed consisting of Comstock, Eichelberger and Brown at the fifteenth meeting during the Christmas holidays of 1912-13. The idea of bifurcating the Society's membership, however, was not supported by the membership at large and the matter was not brought up again until the nineteenth meeting in 1916. Frank Schlesinger pressed the issue as a means of expanding membership, and he chaired a second Committee on Associate Membership consisting of C. A. Chant, Comstock, Fox, the amateur William Tyler Olcott and E. D. Roe. Pickering opposed the efforts of this committee and it was dissolved having decided that there was no reason for an associate membership at that time.

In 1914 at the seventeenth meeting, a Committee on Stellar Parallaxes was formed out of Schlesinger's photographic astrometry committee, and consisted of Schlesinger as Chair, Adams, Comstock, Fox, Frost, Miller and Mitchell as members. Frederick Slocum was added later. It immediately set in motion a multi-institutional effort to share and compile stellar parallax determinations (there were then 1,871 stars with known parallaxes, few of them were reliable). With people like Schlesinger on active duty during the war, the committee did not publish its compilation until 1919. This effort eventually led to the Yale Parallax Catalogue.

One of the least successful committees to be created during the first twenty years of the Society was one in 1915 to consider variable star nomenclature. Only a year later, this committee was discharged when its members had "not been able to find any common ground on which to stand." Annie J. Cannon preferred the Harvard system, Russell favored the older Argelander system and Townley (with others) liked a numbering system to differentiate between variable star types. Another committee was also appointed in 1915 to consider replacing the multiplicity of old star epochs with standard epochs. This Committee on Standard Equinoxes for Use in the Publication of Star Positions came to quick conclusions, reporting at the nineteenth meeting on a scheme to reduce calculation and labor. Both of these committees, along with the radial velocity and photographic astrometry committees, represent the Society's first attempts to standardize practice in the astronomical discipline. Sometimes it worked, but many times it did not.

Ad hoc committees of this latter type were formed whenever a celestial event warranted it; the second eclipse committee the Society formed (in 1916) was to prepare for the 8 June 1918 eclipse. Representing Lick's great interest in eclipses, W. W. Campbell led the committee, with E. E. Barnard, F. B. Littell, Frank Loud, S. A. Mitchell and Edison Petit as members. Here attention was paid to a single purpose: how to address the Einstein test, which continued through the 1920s.

After the demise of the Committee on Variable Star Nomenclature, a Committee to Secure Variable Star Observations was appointed in 1916 at the twentieth meeting and consisted of Olcott as Chair, Campbell, D. B. Pickering and Russell (who had sponsored the resolution creating it). In the next year, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (A.A.V.S.O.) was created and the committee became its overseer. E. C. Pickering's staff guided the organization's amateurs toward the research goals of professionals. Some 72,000 observations had already been logged by the A.A.V.S.O. as of August 1917. At the annual meeting in 1919, the committee extolled the work of the A.A.V.S.O. and hoped that a collection of 4" or larger telescopes could be organized to allow them to make fully professional variable star observations.

When a "Daylight Savings Plan" was proposed by the Woodrow Wilson administration, the Society reacted by forming a Special Committee during the annual meeting in 1916 to consider its value. Charles Lane Poor was Chair, with Harold Jacoby, Russell, Schlesinger and Pickering as members. Schlesinger and Jacoby endorsed the plan, Poor endorsed it only as an experiment and Pickering and Russell were against the plan. In a straw vote, members of the Society as a whole voted 8 for, 7 against and 14 abstained. A second vote at the next meeting resulted in 18 favoring the plan, 22 opposed and 6 were neutral. Since astronomers presented only astronomical arguments pro and con, the country paid little attention, and adopted the plan to accommodate wartime exigencies.

At the twenty-first meeting in 1917, a vote of the general membership failed to change the beginning of the astronomical day from noon to midnight and a committee consisting of Eichelberger as the Chair, with Campbell and Frost as members, was appointed to consider the matter and report back to the Society. This was the last committee to form, and its deliberations go beyond the period we cover here.

In addition to those committees formed at Society meetings, the Executive Committee on a number of occasions created ad hoc committees to advise on issues related to the funding of science generally as well as the use of science for war. As war spread in Europe in 1914 and 1915, Pickering designated several Society members to represent the Society on a "Committee of One Hundred" of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (A.A.A.S.). This complex body, a creation of J. McKeen Cattell, was charged to assess the needs of science in America and to search out funding sources to satisfy those needs. Pickering was a pivotal agent in the A.A.A.S. initiative, since he was chairman of the committee as well as Chair of its Subcommittee on the Needs of Astronomy. Pickering managed his committees very much in the manner he had for decades as he struggled to create support for astronomy in America (Plotkin, 1978; 1990; Kohler, 1991). But these A.A.A.S. committees were soon absorbed by a new organizational instrument established by George Ellery Hale: the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which he and a small group of NAS activists formed in 1916 to organize American science for war.

Hale had coopted Pickering to become the head of an NRC committee on the needs of astronomy, a move that was both politically necessary and eminently reasonable, since, among his myriad of posts, Pickering was already Chairman of the Section on Astronomy of the National Academy, and had served on the Academy Committee on Research since 1913. Hale wanted the AAAS Committee of One Hundred efforts to be closely coordinated with those of the NRC, and expected the American Astronomical Society to be represented as well, knowing full well that Pickering represented all three bodies. Thus as a representative disciplinary body, the AAS was drawn into preparations for war, and its representatives met periodically to assess how astronomy was useful to the war effort. Both during and after the war, this committee and its members deliberated over the future needs of astronomy, forming an evaluative and organizing element that is now a very familiar activity of the Society, managed by the NAS.

(Note: Much of the information in this essay has been compiled from Society meeting reports in Science magazine and in the Society's own Publications of the American Astronomical Society. References are not provided for every report in which a committee was mentioned.)

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