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Earlier American Astronomical Societies

by Brant L. Sponberg

Prior to the formation of the Society, two groups attempted to call themselves the "American Astronomical Society," which somewhat complicated the early deliberations over name. The first of these was the "Cambridge Branch of the American Astronomical Society," formed in 1853-54. Its membership included astronomers from the faculty of Harvard College and from the staffs of the Harvard College Observatory, the Nautical Almanac and the United States Coast Survey, then all based in Cambridge. From its full title, the Cambridge Branch obviously hoped to become a national organization, but the organization became dormant in October 1854. The next and last meeting was held in December 1857.

In "Organization and Control: Professionals and Amateurs in American Astronomy, 1899-1918," Marc Rothenberg reasons that "personal and professional conflicts within the Cambridge astronomical community may have played a major part" in the Cambridge Branch's downfall (Rothenberg, 1981, 307). According to Rothenberg, the Harvard Observatory staff did not enjoy good relations with the rest of the membership, particularly with Benjamin Pierce, the Perkins Professor of Astronomy and Mathematics at Harvard College. Supposedly in reference to Pierce, William Cranch Bond, then the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, stated in 1858 that he would only support an American Astronomical Society if it was free of the "individual partialities such as heretofore exercised so baneful an influence on similar associations" (William Cranch Bond to C.H.F. Peters, 20 Aug. 1858). As early as 1858, the proto-astrophysicists who were using photographic methods at the Harvard College Observatory were clashing with their more traditionally oriented brethren at the College and in federal government agencies. Although Bond was never a member of the Cambridge Branch, without his or his observatory's support, there was little chance for the success of an "American Astronomical Society" starting then in Cambridge.

The second attempt to form an American Astronomical Society was slightly more successful. An amateur organization with that name was established in 1883 in Brooklyn, NY. Although this amateur AAS had invited professional astronomers to join its ranks (some did) and even published a Proceedings of the American Astronomical Society, Simon Newcomb "considered the amateurs to be arrogant in adopting such a title for their organization, and refused to join or assist" (Berendzen, 35). The amateur AAS went defunct in 1888, in part due to a lack of professional support.

Rothenberg identifies the central conflict that caused the collapse of these early societies:

The failures of the initial attempts to establish professional astronomical societies in America were due to the perception that these societies would be biased in favour of a particular research camp at a time in American astronomy when hostility and jealousy between practical and physical astronomers was rampant. Reputations and jobs [for professional astronomers and astrophysicists alike] were at stake and an organization controlled by either of the two specialties would jeopardize the future of the other (Rothenberg, 309).

The Cambridge Branch of the AAS succumbed to the struggle between institutions and methodologies while the amateur Brooklyn AAS surrendered to the demands of professionalization. Both of these factors would play a significant part in the deliberations that would occupy the first two decades of the American Astronomical Society's history.

[Note: The essay is an adaptation of Rothenberg, cited in the bibliography.]