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History of the Historical Astronomy Division

The Historical Astronomy Division (poster presented at the August 2018 IAU General Assembly)


The Historical Astronomy Division
by Katherine Bracher

[This article first appeared in The American Astronomical Society’s First Century, David H. DeVorkin, ed. (Washington, DC: The American Astronomical Society, 1999), pp. 277-286.]

"Dear Colleague,” the letter read, “We have reason to believe that you may be interested in becoming a ‘charter member’ of the new Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS)…” Dated April 24, 1980, it went on to describe the goals of the new Division, how to join, and was signed by Kenneth Brecher for the Organizing Committee. A year and a half later the HAD boasted 267 members and held the first of its (so far) 23 successful meetings. But this newest Division of the AAS had been in the planning stages for more than a year before the Council approved it and it began to solicit members.

The original impetus for the founding of a Historical Astronomy Division came from conversations between John A. Eddy, Owen Gingerich, and Kenneth Brecher during the fall of 1978, when Eddy was on leave from the University of Colorado and spending some time at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. [1] Each of the three had interests in the history of astronomy, and they began to realize that these interests were shared by other members of the AAS. Gingerich had already published extensively in traditional history of astronomy, especially on Copernicus. Eddy had investigated historical records of sunspot activity (rediscovering what is now known as the Maunder Minimum) and was also interested in the Native American medicine wheels as possible astronomical constructions. Brecher’s interests lay in the areas of supernovae and stellar evolution (such topics as the reported red color of Sirius in antiquity). But main-stream astronomers, by and large, regarded such topics as marginal to their concerns.

At the Mexico City AAS meeting in January 1979, Brecher organized a session on archaeoastronomy, which was attended by approximately 200 people. At this session, he circulated a petition to find members who might be interested in the formation of a Division concerned with the history of astronomy and with archaeoastronomy; over 80 people signed this document. Brecher, Eddy, Gingerich, and others discussed this project further, and felt that this indicated a strong interest within the AAS; they also felt that if (as was the case with other divisions) people could be affiliate members without belonging to the AAS, substantially more members might come from the ranks of historians of science and archaeologists. [2]

As a result of these discussions, Eddy, Gingerich, and Brecher became a self-appointed steering committee to begin the process of forming a division. The name Historical Astronomy Division was chosen, rather than History of Astronomy Division, because, as Owen Gingerich recalls, they “wanted to include uses of historical evidence for modern astronomy as well as archaeoastronomy,” in addition to the more traditional history of astronomy. [3] The Division has continued to maintain this broad range of interests, although archaeoastronomy has been less prominent in recent years.

The steering committee prepared a draft set of bylaws for the new division, which they sent to the AAS in May 1979. [4] These bylaws were modeled closely on those of other divisions, with an opening statement of purpose:

“The Division shall exist for the purpose of advancing interest in topics relating to the historical nature of astronomy. By historical astronomy we include the history of astronomy; what has come to be known as archaeoastronomy; and the application of historical records to modern astrophysical problems. Meetings shall be organized to promote adequate discussion among participants and shall attempt to provide a forum for discussion of recent developments in these areas. The Division will assist the Society in the commemoration of important historical anniversaries and in the archival preservation of current materials of importance to future historians of astronomy.”

These bylaws went to the AAS Council at their meeting in the summer of 1979, along with a request for the formation of a new division.

The Council determined that it was necessary first to appoint an organizing committee; they selected Eddy, Brecher, Gingerich (as chair), P. Morrison, R. Berendzen, and W. Sullivan. This group reworked the bylaws, adopted them on October 31, 1979, and submitted them to the AAS in November. [5] With a few minor changes in wording to avoid gender bias, the bylaws were adopted by the AAS Council at the San Francisco meeting in January 1980, and the new Division was formally approved. The bylaws specified the election of a Chair, Vice-Chair, and two Council members, each to serve 2-year terms, and a Secretary-Treasurer to serve a 4-year term. Gingerich continued as Chairman pro tem of the Division until an election could be held, and Brecher was Secretary-Treasurer. Brecher’s first official duty was the letter soliciting members, quoted above.

In early November 1980, Gingerich sent a letter to all those who had joined by that time, inviting them to contribute papers for the first meeting of the HAD, scheduled for Monday, January 12, 1981 as part of the Albuquerque AAS meeting. The response was excellent; in addition to nine invited speakers, 11 contributed papers provided for two full sessions. The morning session was devoted to more traditional historical topics, such as Gingerich on Copernicus, W. A. Donahue on Kepler, J. Lankford on photography in America with long-focus refractors, and A. M. Heiser on E. E. Barnard’s unpublished treatise on Mars. The afternoon session dealt predominantly with native American archaeoastronomy, and included papers on Fajada Butte (K. Frazier), Skidi Pawnee cosmology (V. Del Chamberlain), and Pueblo Indian sun watching (R. A. Williamson).

Another feature of this first meeting, the first of several such ventures, was a field trip on the Sunday preceding the meeting. Organized by Michael Zeilik, this all-day trip took interested astronomers on a 4-hour drive to Chaco Canyon, where they visited Casa Rinconada and Pueblo Bonito. Many also took the two-mile hike to see the Penasco Blanco pictograph of the 1054 supernova. All who participated agreed that this was a very successful outing, and boded well for the future of the HAD.

In December 1980, a mail ballot had been sent to the membership, and the first elected officers took over at the January 1981 meeting: Eddy as Chair, Gingerich as Vice-Chair, and J. B. Carlson and D. H. DeVorkin as members of the HAD Council. Brecher continued as Secretary-Treasurer. These officers planned the second HAD meeting in conjunction with the AAS at Boulder, Colorado, in January 1982. Since that time, the Division has met at least once a year, for a total of 23 times, as of early 1998.

From its inception the HAD has considered itself somewhat different from the other divisions of the AAS, since its interests are not directly scientific. Its membership includes not only astronomers who belong to the parent society, but also affiliate members from areas including the history of science, anthropology, and archaeology. At present these members are listed in the AAS directory, may present papers, and may vote in Division elections, but may not hold office. The HAD also negotiated with the AAS, in the Division’s early years, so that members presenting a scientific paper might also present a paper in a HAD session. The usual AAS time limit of five minutes for oral papers was also increased to ten minutes for contributed HAD papers. HAD sessions at AAS meetings have been popular with other members of the AAS, who frequently come to hear the oral papers and sometimes to contribute their own recollections on more recent topics.

The Colorado meeting in 1982 included a special workshop on “The Use of Archaeoastronomy in Astronomy Teaching,” chaired by John Carlson and Von Del Chamberlain. This was the first of a number of topical sessions held at HAD meetings. In addition to this workshop there were three sessions of invited and contributed papers: one on archaeoastronomy, one on general historical topics, and one on modern history. Owen Gingerich presented an invited AAS lecture on “The Galileo Affair in Contemporary Perspective.” Every few years since then, an invited talk by a Division member to the full Society has taken place, and these have been well-attended by AAS members. [titles of all papers, with links to abstracts]

Archaeoastronomy continued to be a focus of the Division, and most meetings through 1990 had one session whose principal focus was on this area. But the topic was controversial, and in 1993 at the Phoenix meeting there was a special afternoon session on critical problems in archaeoastronomy. A panel discussion included archaeoastronomers and a professional archaeologist, and the exchanges among panelists and members of the audience were lively and provocative. A consensus grew that those interested in this area need to communicate better with the archaeological community, which by and large does not think archaeoastronomy deals with questions that they care about. Archaeologists are interested in what they can learn about cultures and societies from the available evidence; they are less interested in whether ancient people observed the sky but in how this activity influenced their society. Some archaeoastronomical research, particularly concerning the possible alignments of buildings or tombs towards astronomically significant directions, is seen by archaeologists (and many others) as on the fringe of legitimate interpretation of the evidence. If archaeoastronomers are to be taken seriously, they need to persuade archaeologists that they have something important to contribute, and they need to present their work in the language of archaeology in order to do this. [6]

The energetic discussions led Steven Dick, HAD Chair in 1993, to appoint an Archaeoastronomy Committee to facilitate communication with other disciplines. This committee has been largely inactive, although its new chair, David Diadevaia, hopes to revitalize it. [7] Since 1993, archaeoastronomy has been conspicuous by its absence in HAD paper sessions. Efforts to find an archaeoastronomer willing to run for a position on the HAD Council have also proven unsuccessful. It is not clear what the future of this subject and its role in the Division may be.

The HAD officers considered, almost from the beginning, the possibility of holding occasional meetings at places and times that were not connected with an AAS meeting, although there was concern that not enough members would be able to come, given the exigencies of funding for travel. By 1992, however, they decided to try it, and the HAD held a special joint meeting with the Division for Dynamical Astronomy (DDA), at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. (This was an effort at furthering relations with other divisions.) The meeting was a resounding success. The DDA held a day of papers of its own, followed by two days of primarily HAD papers; the latter covered topics ranging from archaeoastronomy to early twentieth century computer technology. A total of about 60 people attended, with about 25 from the HAD. Chairman John Lankford noted that attendees could “listen to a series of invited and contributed papers and engage in informal discussions, unconstrained by the pressures of the larger AAS meeting.” [8] In addition, participants had the chance to visit the fine collection of astrolabes at the Adler Planetarium, as well as other exhibits on early navigation. A banquet at the planetarium topped off the events.

The following year another meeting was held separately from the AAS, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. This took place a few days after the AAS meeting in Berkeley in June 1993. On June 13 some 25 people participated in a tour of the Mount Wilson Observatory, including the historic 100-inch Hooker telescope and the solar telescopes. On June 14 and 15, three sessions were held at the Huntington. Owen Gingerich gave an invited paper on Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in retrospect; Gale Christianson gave an invited talk on Edwin Hubble at Oxford; and the contributed talks dealt with some of the early work at Mount Wilson, as well as other topics. An exhibit at the Library entitled “Constructing the Heavens: 450 Years of Astronomy” drew the rapt attention of the 50 participants. This marked only the second time the Division had met in a location distinctly separate from the full AAS meeting; but attendance was good and interest was high, due to the appeals of both the Huntington Library and the proximity of Mount Wilson.

In addition to these events, it has become quite common for the HAD to schedule a special session on a day immediately prior to the regular AAS session. This practice began with an invitation to hold a special session at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, June 9, 1984, two days before the AAS meeting in Baltimore. Members were able to visit the Museum early in the morning, before it was open to the public and before the paper sessions began. Talks in the morning focused primarily on American astronomy, while those in the afternoon ranged more widely. A reception in the late afternoon at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History allowed members to see some of the historical astronomical instruments on display there. On Sunday morning, a number of visitors participated in a tour of the old Naval Observatory; then members made their own way to Baltimore, where sessions resumed on Monday. Since that auspicious beginning, special sessions have usually taken place whenever a local host or a member of the local organizing committee has invited us.

Among these special sessions, one which stands out was entitled “Astronomy and the State: US and CIS Perspectives,” and was held in Washington on January 11, 1994. This session grew out of a concern expressed to the AAS as early as 1992: that astronomers in the former Soviet Union needed help. Severe funding cuts due to major economic problems in the former Soviet republics had led to the cancellation of astronomical journal subscriptions in all Russian libraries, and the Soviet Astronomical Society asked for assistance from the AAS. The result was a committee which solicited money from AAS members to support a small grant program in the former Soviet Union; this plea resulted in some $47,000 being collected in just a few months.

Robert McCutcheon of the HAD brought the plight of Russian historians of science to the Division’s attention, and an International Relations Committee was appointed to determine what the Division could do. The special paper session grew out of this as the organizing committee sought funds to support the participation of four historians from the former Soviet Union. Thanks to grants from the Smithsonian and from the International Research and Exchanges Board, three were able to do so (the fourth had a visa problem). Alma Eremeeva outlined the repression of Russian astronomers in the 1930s, the arrests of many, and the 1937 execution of B. P. Gerasimovich, director of the Pulkovo Observatory. Alexander Gurshtein described the postwar rebuilding of Pulkovo as a symbol of the importance of science to Communism, and he lamented that no one was doing oral history interviews in Russia, due in part to a lack of the necessary equipment. Victor Abalakin gave an invited talk to the full AAS; he described KGB documents which indicated the fates of astronomers “purged” under the Stalin regime, and discussed the difficulties Russian scientists had in obtaining visas for international meetings. In addition to the Russian historians, several Americans gave talks on the politics of U.S./Soviet astronomy in the 1950s (Ron Doel) and on other aspects of political repression and state support for astronomy. [9]

In another special session in June 1990, the HAD met at the University of Michigan’s 1854 Detroit Observatory, which was being restored. On the afternoon before the regular AAS meeting, five invited talks were presented in the Observatory, related to the Observatory and to astronomy at the University of Michigan; these drew about 25 members of the Division. The Observatory’s 12-inch Fitz refractor and a beautiful meridian circle by Pistor and Martins were featured attractions. Special sessions have also been held in Seattle (1991) on “The Opening of the Electromagnetic Spectrum,” in Tucson (1995) on “History in Astronomy Education,” and in Washington, D.C. (1990) on “National Observatories,” among others. [10]

The Historical Astronomy Division has had several important issues to which it has devoted time and energy. An early concern, raised in 1981, was the preservation of historical astronomical materials for the use of future historians. In particular, many observatory publications from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are deteriorating due to the acid in the paper on which they were printed. The Division expressed an interest in seeing this material preserved, perhaps on microfilm; but this would cost money. A subcommittee of the HAD, consisting of David DeVorkin and Brenda Corbin, was appointed to look into this matter. This Committee on Preservation produced a report which was sent to members in November 1982, and the issue was discussed at the business meeting of the HAD in January 1983 in Boston and also in June 1984 in Baltimore. The Committee identified sources of about $25,000 for micro-filming; but noted that this was not enough to begin such a large project. Several HAD members also pointed out that new electronic technologies for copying materials seemed to be imminent, and that it might be wise to wait and see what developments occurred on this front. The Division concurred with this at its 1984 meeting.

Since that report, progress has been slow. It seems now that the most effective way to deal with much of this material will be to preserve it electronically; but there is little consensus yet on the proper electronic format. Most historians and archivists still prefer microfilm whereas astronomers believe in electronic storage. An informal consortium of members from such organizations as NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory is pursuing the project of scanning observatory reports, but the work has not yet begun. The HAD has continued to write endorsements for this cause, and Brenda Corbin is particularly active in working with those who are interested.

Perhaps the most visible of HAD projects, to the AAS membership at large, has been the publication of obituaries of astronomers in the Bulletin of the AAS (BAAS). This program, first suggested by John Lankford in 1984, [11] was proposed again in 1989 by Steve Dick and others, who pointed out that there was no longer any mechanism for noting the passing of members of the astronomical community. Well-known figures would of course have obituaries in such places as Physics Today; but astronomers of lesser renown might pass from the scene unnoticed. This presents a problem for future historians who may be interested not just in the seminal figures but in what the rest of the astronomical community was doing. At the January 1989 meeting in Boston, an ad hoc committee chaired by Dick was appointed to look into this matter and make recommendations.

A year later, at the January 1990 meeting in Washington, Dick’s committee recommended that obituary notices should be published in the BAAS. They also encouraged members to support the program when they responded to the AAS Survey which had been distributed to all the program members. The Bulletin seemed the appropriate place for such accounts to appear, since it is the official journal of record for the AAS; it was anticipated that no more than 25 pages or so annually would be devoted to obituaries. The committee further recommended that page charges should be waived for this purpose, and they suggested that the HAD could provide assistance, perhaps in the form of an editorial board for obituaries. The HAD membership endorsed these recommendations to the AAS Council.

The AAS Council accepted the idea and voted that the HAD should establish a committee to oversee the task of producing these obituaries for the BAAS, with page charges to be covered by the AAS. When this was announced at the Philadelphia meeting in January 1991, the Division voted to set up an Obituary Editorial Board chaired by the HAD Vice-Chair, including two HAD members, plus a member appointed by the editor of the BAAS and another by the president of the AAS. Obituaries would be published for all deceased AAS members, and they might range from a brief notice to as much as two pages, the length to be determined by the Board.

The first set of obituaries appeared in 1992 for 14 astronomers, including William A. Hiltner, John S. Hall, and Harlan J. Smith. In 1996 the obituaries recorded the passing of 22 astronomers, including S. Chandrasekhar and Gerard de Vaucouleurs, but also outstanding teachers, such as Sarah J. Hill and Robert Chambers, and longtime AAVSO Director Margaret W. Mayall. This service to the astronomical community has been welcomed by many astronomers both outside and inside the HAD. [index of all obituaries]

In 1994, Woodruff Sullivan proposed establishing a HAD Prize for work in the history of astronomy, broadly interpreted. After a few years of talking about it, such a Prize was approved by the members at the HAD business meeting in San Antonio in 1996. This Prize is to be granted biennially, to an individual who has significantly influenced the field of the history of astronomy, either by a recent publication or by a career-long effort. Soon after the Prize was approved, the HAD suffered a grievous loss in the death of its Secretary-Treasurer and long-time active member, LeRoy Doggett, of the U.S. Naval Observatory. A generous donation in Doggett’s memory became the initial endowment for the HAD Prize, which was then renamed the LeRoy E. Doggett Prize for Historical Astronomy. A Prize Committee was appointed to make the selection, and the first Doggett Prize was awarded in 1998 to Curtis Wilson. [Doggett Prize recipients]

Another of the Division’s interests has been the commemoration of significant anniversaries in astronomical history. The first such occasion was the sesquicentennial of the Harvard College Observatory and the centennial of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which were celebrated by a joint symposium in Cambridge on January 7, 1989. A full day of invited papers on the topic “Astronomy at Cambridge” was held at the Harvard College Observatory, attended by approximately 150 people. Three sessions dealt with Harvard’s many contributions to astronomy, including the Pickering and Shapley eras, the women who worked for them, and Harvard-encouraged projects such as the American Association of Variable Star Observers and Sky & Telescope magazine. An afternoon session covered the founding and early years of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Washington and its subsequent move to Cambridge. [12] In connection with the meeting, receptions on the afternoon of January 8 opened two special exhibits celebrating astronomy on the Harvard campus. A display at the Pusey Library showed letters and early astronomical photographs from the Archives related to astronomy at Harvard since colonial days. At the Science Center the curator of Historical Scientific Instruments presented an array of astronomical clocks and instruments for time-keeping.

Most recently, the HAD has been involved in planning for the centennial of the AAS, to occur in 1999. On the HAD’s recommendation, the AAS appointed a Centennial Committee chaired by Donald Osterbrock (a former HAD Chair); this Committee came up with several ideas, including the present volume on the history of the AAS’ first century. HAD member Sara Schechner Genuth led another effort, to arrange a historical exhibit for the 1999 Chicago AAS meeting, which might then travel around the country to other astronomical centers. Historical talks at the meeting, and a probable field trip to the Yerkes Observatory, are also being planned. The HAD is actively involved in all these efforts.

The HAD Newsletter, which has appeared three or four times a year since 1985, has been the Division’s principal means of communicating with its members concerning meetings, dues, elections, etc. However, it has included other material as well. By far the most valuable part, in the view of many historians of astronomy, is the series of bibliographies prepared by Ruth Freitag of the Library of Congress. The first of these appeared in April 1988 and listed recent books and articles related to the history of astronomy. Since that time the bibliography has been a regular feature of most Newsletters, and has grown from three pages in 1988 to 22 pages in 1996. Articles in languages ranging from English and French to Polish, Russian, and Chinese are included, sometimes with a one-sentence summary; topics span millennia from ancient Egypt to modern times. For anyone planning a historical project, Ruth’s bibliography is now an indispensable resource.

Another recent feature of the Newsletter is a column entitled “Class Notes,” in which various authors have set forth brief anecdotes suitable for use in teaching classes which include historical material. In the first of these, in November 1993, David DeVorkin discussed the Indian astrophysicist Meghnad Saha. Others have dealt with Hertzsprung and Russell, with the naming of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, and with Kepler’s laws. The Division actively recruits members to contribute such columns from time to time.

The Historical Astronomy Division has had a strong and dedicated membership of between 200 and 300 for its 18 years of existence. It seems that many astronomers (particularly as they get older) develop an interest in the history of their science, and some pursue it actively as a secondary research area. The opportunity to interact with professional historians of science is a very valuable one, for both astronomers and historians, and the diverse membership of the Division makes this possible. We look forward to even more cross-disciplinary work, with an increased interest in the uses of historical astronomy in education as well as in archaeology, ethnographic and international studies, and other areas limited only by one’s imagination.


1. J. A. Eddy to K. Bracher, 30 July 1996.

2. K. Brecher to L. W. Frederick, 22 January 1979.

3. O. Gingerich to K. Bracher, 24 July 1996.

4. K. Brecher to L. W. Frederick, 27 May 1979.

5. O. Gingerich to L. W. Frederick, 3 November 1979.

6. L. Doggett, in HAD Newsletter No. 26, 6, February 1993.

7. D. Diadevaia to Bracher, 1997, private communication.

8. J. Lankford, in HAD Newsletter No. 24, 1992.

9. These papers were published as a special edition of the Journal for the History of Astronomy, guest-edited by Robert McCutcheon, Ron Doel, LeRoy Doggett, and David DeVorkin, JHA 26, pt. 4 (November 1995).

10. “National Observatories” also appeared as a special issue in JHA 22, pt. 1 (February 1991).

11. J. Lankford, BAAS 16, 560-564, 1984.

12. The papers were published as a special issue in JHA 21, pt. 1 (February 1991).