2013 Workshop

The History of Amateur Astronomy: Current Research, Future Prospects was a workshop held in Stockholm in September 2013. Hosting organization: Center for the History of Science, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; organizing committee: Johan Kärnfelt, Gothenburg University, and Gustav Holmberg, Lund University; venue: the Observatory Museum; funding: the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation. Eleven papers were given (abstracts below), and Professors Simon Schaffer, Cambridge, and Sven Widmalm, Uppsala, were commentators.

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From left: Simon Schaffer, Pedro Ruiz-Castell, Gustav Holmberg, Johan Kärnfelt, Klaus Staubermann, Patrick McCray, Charlotte Bigg, David Aubin, Wolfgang Steinicke, Otto Sibum, Gary Cameron, Xavier Roqué and Pedro Raposo.

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Discussions. Photo: Klaus Staubermann.


Guided tour at the museum, including a peek through the observatory refractor. Photo: Johan Kärnfelt.


Gary Cameron giving a paper. Photo: Johan Kärnfelt.


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Comments from Simon Schaffer. Photo: Klaus Staubermann.

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Post workshop beer. Photo: Klaus Staubermann.

Photos: Klaus Staubermann.


Gustav Holmberg, Lund University, Sweden

Subcultures, ideals, and practices in Swedish amateur astronomy

While the love of the starry skies and an enthusiasm for the science of astronomy are traits that unite amateurs, there are also differences between various subcultures of amateur astronomy. Some amateurs take pride in contributing to science by making observations of variable stars and comets that are useful for professional astronomy, while others argue for the sublimity of observing nebulae and galaxies and doing it just for the fun of it. Amateur astronomy gives ample room for tinkering with telescopes, and many amateurs turn into experts in optics, mechanical engineering, and electronics in order to push their telescope technologies to the limit; they develop their photographic skills in their quest to capture the elusive celestial objects, while others extols the virtues of the visual observer, armed with nothing more than the human eye and modest optical equipment. This paper is an attempt to make sense of 20th Century Swedish amateur astronomy by discussing a number of its ideals, practices, and norms.

Charlotte Bigg, Centre Alexandre Koyré, France

The science of celestial portraiture

In both the history of astronomy and the history of photography, the central role played by amateurs has been underlined. In many cases, they are the same: since the early nineteenth century astronomy has provided particularly challenging issues for photographic research while astronomers were closely involved in the elaboration of “the idea of photography” (François Brunet). Conversely, the development of photographic techniques has deeply affected astronomical practices, conceptions and social organisation. Focusing on planetary and solar photographic topography, I explore this intertwined history from a technical, pictorial and social perspective, suggesting that the making of photography and of astronomy itself implies recurrent negotiations around the definition and place of the amateur.

W. Patrick McCray, University of California Santa Barbara, U.S.

Amateur Astronomy, Satellite Tracking, and Cold War Cultures

The organization and activities of amateur astronomers are best understood when considered in the broader social and national context in which they took place. The International Geophysical Year (IGY) presented amateur astronomers and other science enthusiasts with many opportunities for participation. One of these was Operation Moonwatch, a program astronomer Fred L. Whipple and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) organized in 1956. Amateur scientists and other interested citizens around the world soon formed scores of Moonwatch teams around the world and trained themselves to observe the first artificial satellites. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, this network of amateur groups was the only global system prepared ready to visually spot and track it. My talk explores the history of amateurs’ participation in the IGY via Moonwatch and pays especial attention to the establishment of satellite-spotting teams overseas and in the U.S. It explains how the Moonwatch program brought together different elements of Cold War culture: an emphasis on vigilance, a desire to participate in civic activities, and people’s broad interest in science and space. Finally, I will consider the tensions between the SAO and the National Academy of Sciences regarding the participation of amateur astronomers in IGY research and the international ambitions Whipple had for Moonwatch.

Augustí Nieto-Galan, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain

Amateur astronomy in the early twentieth century: The Sociedad Astronómica de Barcelona and its popularization programme

Inspired by Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), and with a strong amateur character, the the Sociedad Astronómica de Barcelona (SAB) disseminated astronomy to society at large in the early 20th century. It rapidly conquered the public sphere through well-attended lectures, exhibitions, observations, and publications. In the context of an industrial city, which at that time was suffering serious social tensions, the popularization of astronomy acted as a social balm. It created common ground between expert and lay knowledge, science and art (drawing and photography), the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’.
The local amateur culture helped to reinforce practices and ease of handling of objects, and amateurs became diffusers and audiences at the same time in a complex expository process. In that context, the popularization of astronomy became a tool for the democratization of knowledge, a stimulus for new scientific careers in a country, which perceived itself as backward, especially after the military defeat of 1898.

Pedro Ruiz-Castell, Universitat de València, Spain

Amateurs and aficionados in the development of astronomy in late-19th and early-20th century Spain

Amateurs played a crucial role in the development of astronomy during the second half of the 19th century. In the particular case of Spain, as in many other countries, a new and heterogeneous community of professional and amateur astronomers was formed during these years. Furthermore, the general public also became increasingly interested in astronomy, as the cases of the total solar eclipses of 1900 and 1905 and the visit of Halley’s Comet in 1910 prove. This paper will show some social and cultural dimensions surrounding these events, in order to underline the role played by non-professional astronomers in the development of the discipline in Spain. The paper will also explore some controversies in which several Spanish amateur astronomers were involved. In particular, it will focus on the important role of general-interest newspapers in relation with priority claims. As it will be pointed out, the non-specialized press played during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century an important role in providing social and scientific prestige, legitimacy and power to amateur scientists, in particular astronomers.

Wolfgang Steinicke, Vereinigung der Sternfreunde, Germany

Amateurs discover the Deep-Sky

It were observers not affiliated with professional institutions, who visually discovered most of the nebulae and clusters in the nineteenth century. Their idol was William Herschel, the German-born amateur astronomer, who had set an unrivalled mark of about 2500 new deep-sky objects, found between 1783 and 1802. What distinguishes the amateur and professional scene concerning these mysterious targets? No doubt, the early observers with their large, often self-constructed reflectors had and still have great influence on the amateur scene. The visual observations of illustrious men like William and John Herschel, Lord Rosse, Lewis Swift or the early Edward E. Barnard are an inspiring treasure. Their results were first popularized by books and magazines, supplemented today by star parties and the internet. However, professional nebular astronomy has taken a much different way. Actually some amateurs, like Barnard, later changed the camp, but they never disowned their roots. No doubt, the development of amateur deep-sky astronomy is an interesting subject, running over two and a half centuries.

Klaus Staubermann, National Museum of Scotland, Scotland

Engaging the amateur: Designing a tool-kit for the Prussian academy’s star-chart observers

When during the 19th century astronomers hunted for new planets they were aware that discoveries could only be achieved by means of new and more detailed star-charts. Such a large scale sky-survey required the support of all observers willing and able to contribute. It was the astronomer-turned merchant Friedrich W. Bessel, who designed a simple tool-kit that would enable private astronomers to contribute to this unprecedented astronomical enterprise. Drawing on the organisational support of the Prussian Academy in Berlin this tool-kit helped private astronomers across Europe to produce the observations and star-charts required for the discovery of numerous minor planets and eventually led to the discovery of the planet Neptune. This paper examines the role of Bessel’s tool-kit, describes its reconstruction and observations with the replica, and illuminates the challenges faced by contributing astronomers.

Pedro Raposo, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal

Amateur in uniform: Eugénio Conceição Silva (1903-1969), the Navy, and amateur astronomy in Portugal

Eugénio Conceição Silva (1903-1969) was a Portuguese naval officer, amateur astro-photographer, and founder of the Gulbenkian Planetarium in Lisbon. The Portuguese Society of Amateur Astronomers (founded in 1976) celebrates him as its forerunner, and the Portuguese Navy extols the ingenious officer who, with his skills in photography and telescope construction, made an international impact as a backyard astronomer.
However, Conceição e Silva was more than an accomplished amateur. A closer scrutiny of his career and activity reveals an elaborate persona, built in the intersection between the civil and the military spheres and the roles of military officer, lecturer, researcher, amateur and popularizer. He spent most of his career as a lecturer at the Portuguese Naval School (Escola Naval), where he taught courses in astronomy, hydrography, navigation and related subjects. In the late 1940s he established an optics workshop, which served both to promote optical research within the Navy and to boost his personal interest in telescope construction.

Moving between the classroom, the workshop and the backyard observatory appended to his residence near the Naval School, Conceição Silva still found the time to steer the foundation of the Gulbenkian Planetarium. Inaugurated in 1965, it has been displaying the heavens to wide audiences under the aegis of the Portuguese Navy and the name of the most renowned patron of the arts and sciences in Portugal, Calouste S. Gulbenkian (1869-1955). This dual form of civic-military patronage is significant. Naval officers played a pivotal role in the consolidation of professional astronomy in Portugal. And from the early twentieth century onwards, professional astronomers sought to spur the formation of an amateur community.

Particularly significant in this respect was the foundation of the Portuguese Astronomical Society in 1917. Under the symbolic presidency of Admiral Campos Rodrigues (1836-1919), director of the Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon, it aimed to bring professionals and amateurs together in promoting civic support to astronomy. However, the Society was eventually dissolved in the face of a longstanding absence of committed amateurs and keen patrons.

In this paper I will analyze how Conceição Silva contributed to change this picture by crossing boundaries between professional and amateur astronomy, and by mediating between military and civic interests, whilst pursuing his own amateur agenda.

David Aubin, Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie, France

The Trocadéro Popular Observatory and the Invention of Cinema

On 14 July, 1880, the Trocadero Popular Observatory officially opened in Paris. Founded by Léon Jaubert, who until then was an obscure instrument maker, this original institution welcomed observers who could use its telescopes and microscopes free of charge. Around the Observatory, a host of institutions were established by Jaubert including the “Popular Institute of Progress” which offered scientific conferences to the people. Young enthusiasts attracted by Jaubert’s personality also established a Speakers’ School where they developed skills for public speaking as well as technical and scientific expertise. Among them, was the young Léon Gaumont who would come to play an important role in the early history of cinema roughly a decade later. Now, the invention of cinema required the mastery of various technological skills in chemistry, optic, mechanics, electricity… It is interesting to examine how a man like Gaumont was able to acquire them in part through popular astronomy. In this talk, I will first reconstruct the history of the Trocadero Popular Observatory from a variety of scattered sources. Paying greater attention to some of the sources of the Gaumont archives I then aim at giving very concrete ideas of its activities.

Gary L. Cameron, Iowa State University, U.S.

“We’ve received a letter from…”: International Networks in Twentieth-Century Amateur Astronomy

Grassroots, internationally-networked, citizen science is not a new phenomenon. Since the earliest days of the Royal Society of London (1668), newsletters and journals were a key means of communication for those interested in science. As nineteenth-century science developed into professionalized disciplines, amateurs were often left behind. A common view among historians of science, that science popularization flows in a top-down direction from scientists to the public (e.g., O’Connor, 2009) often via controlled, formal routes of dissemination such as magazines like Sky and Telescope, is skewed by access to sources and historians’ a priori assumptions. When new amateur astronomy organizations formed, they usually created a journal or newsletter. Vast, but extremely dispersed, collections of informal, small-scale publications (e.g., astronomy club newsletters) are largely unexamined by the historians who describe the amateur astronomical community. The newsletters of an American group, the Great Plains Astronomical Society (1957–c1968), contain frequent correspondence from a diverse collection of amateur astronomers. Groups like the GPAS were by no means isolated; a substantial number of correspondents were from outside the United States, including Europe and Japan. Not only were members of the GPAS able to ask questions and update others on their activities and observations, but letters from non-members were also printed. My case study of this correspondence demonstrates that such publications created a direct, grassroots, international dialogue between relatively obscure groups of amateur astronomers like GPAS and fellow amateurs globally which circumvented the more formal and professionally-controlled route of popular science magazines.

Johan Kärnfelt, Gothenburg University, Sweden

Follow the Information: Comets and Communicative Practices within 20th Century Swedish Amateur Astronomy

The access to astronomical information is vital for amateurs of astronomy. The most basic example is the star chart needed to navigate the celestial sphere, but there are a many other more specialized types of information used by amateurs: variable star observers needs finder charts and data on comparison stars, deep sky observers needs access to different catalogues, comet observers needs ephemerides and so on. Amateurs also produce their own information in terms of qualified observation reports that one way or another needs to reach the professional community. The central role played by astronomical information has had as a consequence that amateurs always have been keen on establish access to professional astronomy and inventing new means of distributing information and submitting reports, in the process often taking advantage of new information technologies. The case for my presentation will be Swedish amateur-based comet astronomy during the 20th century, and I will argue that communicative practices are an important factor when we want to understand the development of amateur astronomy in general.


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