IAU Commission 41 : Newsletters




1997-2000 Triennium -- October 1998 -- Issue # 3

Commission 41 News

Steven J. Dick, President, Commission 41

IAU Colloquium 178 Approved

The Commission 41 proposal for a Colloquium on "Polar Motion: Historical and Scientific Problems" was approved by the Executive Committee of the IAU at their meeting in Paris. It will be held in Sardinia, September 27-30, 1999, and is also supported by IAU Commissions 19 (Earth Rotation) and 31 (Time), by the International Association of Geodesy (IAG) and the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS). A First Circular, with details of lodging and registration, has been issued. All C 41 members should have received a copy; it is also available on the Web at http://www.ca.astro.it/iau178, which may also be accessed from the C 41 Web site. A Second Circular will be issued in February, 1999, and abstracts are due no later than 10 April, 1999.

The year 1999 marks the centennial of the first observations of the International Latitude Service (ILS), forerunner of both the IAG and the IERS. The discovery of variation of latitude and its interpretation as polar motion are interesting historical problems, while continuing observations of polar motion using a variety of methods constitute a vibrant field of research that is important for the determination of time and geophysical research. The Colloquium will include the following topics:

History of early polar motion research
History of the monitoring service organizations
Evolution of astronomical observations
Mechanisms for excitation of polar motion
Secular polar motion
Chandler motion
Daily and subdaily polar motion
Modern definition of the celestial ephemeris pole
Outstanding problems in polar motion research

Invited, contributed, and poster papers will be considered, and the collected proceedings will be published.

The XXIVth General Assembly of the IAU

It's not too soon to make plans for the next IAU General Assembly, to be held at the University of Manchester, Manchester, UK, from August 7-19, 2000. Put it on your calendar. C 41 Vice President F. Richard Stephenson is assembling a proposal for a Joint Discussion on Applied Historical Astronomy, to cover the wide range of topics in historical astronomy that can be useful to modern astronomy. Following past tradition, there will also be a Business meeting and country reports.

Commission 41 also plans to propose an Invited Discourse on "The History of Astronomy in the 20th Century".

C 41 2000 and 2001 Time Ball Initiative

In conjunction with the arrival of the years 2000 and 2001, the U. S. Naval Observatory and Commission 41 are coordinating a worldwide time ball drop on New Year's Eve. The concept is that as the new year sweeps around the world, time balls will be dropped at midnight local time beginning in New Zealand, then Australia, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and the Naval Observatory in Washington. These are the currently active time balls that we are aware of. If you are aware of any others, please let me know.

As you know, time balls were historically an important means of time dissemination, and therefore an important part of the history of practical astronomy. At the beginning of the century, 19 were being dropped in the United States alone. We believe that this worldwide coordinated effort will not only draw attention to the historical importance of time balls and also to a small part of the history of astronomy, but also to the modern means of time dissemination via the Global Positioning System.

Each site will be responsible for any associated celebratory activities. At the Naval Observatory in Washington, we plan to invite the public to celebrate the beginning of 2000 and 2001 by watching the time ball drop from a mast near the dome of one of our telescopes. In conjunction with this we will offer tours of the Observatory and views through the telescope. These celebratory events will undoubtedly draw a good deal of publicity; in the United States a consortium of broadcast media is planning 25 hours of continuous coverage worldwide for the new Millennium.

Information on the first time balls, erected in Portsmouth and Greenwich, is found in Ian R. Bartky and Steven J. Dick, "The First Time Balls," Journal for the History of Astronomy, 12 (1981), 155-74. On the first North American time balls see Ian R. Bartky and Steven J. Dick, "The First North American Time Ball," Journal for the History of Astronomy, 13 (1982), 50-54; For the spread of time balls in the United States see Ian R. Bartky, "Naval Observatory Time Dissemination Before the Wireless," in Sky with Ocean Joined, Steven J. Dick and LeRoy Doggett, eds. (Washington, 1983), 1-28. The latter contains numerous illustrations of time balls, as does Bartky's article "The Bygone Era of Time Balls," Sky and Telescope (January, 1987), 32-35.

Actions on Resolutions: Archives and Struve Arc

Progress, albeit slow, continues on resolutions made at previous General Assemblies. Alan Batten reports below on efforts to have portions of the Struve arc declared World Heritage sites. The preservation and inventory of archives, which has been a constant concern of Commission 41, was the subject of C 41 Resolution # 1 at the last GA in Kyoto, as follows:

Whereas historical astronomical records are important to the heritage of astronomy and may be essential to applied astronomy, the IAU supports the recovery, inventory and preservation of astronomical archives of national and international institutions, including observatories, societies and other institutions.

Regarding the inventory of archives, I draw your attention to the web site for the Center for the History of Physics (CHP) of the American Institute of Physics, in College Park, Maryland, near Washington, D. C. The URL is http://www.aip.org/history/. The CHP maintains an International Catalog of Sources in the History of Physics and Allied Sciences, including astronomy and astrophysics. The papers are at some 500 repositories around the world. A large oral history collection is also part of this inventory.

I hope in the near future to send a letter to astronomical institutions urging them to make provisions to preserve their archives and to report their holdings to the CHP, noting that there is an IAU resolution supporting the preservation and inventory of such archives. Anyone who has a particularly urgent need to have IAU backing for the preservation of archives should let me know.

In addition, with this Newsletter we introduce a what I hope will be a series of descriptions of important archives, beginning with the archives of the Royal Astronomical Society. Thanks to Peter Hingley, the Society's Librarian, for giving us a good start. Anyone who wishes to contribute to this series, or who wishes to see a particular archive described in C 41 News and can give me a point of contact, should let me know at dick@ariel.usno.navy.mil.

C 41 (Still) On the Web!

Thanks to the work of C 41 OC member Wolfgang Dick, the C 41 Web page continues to be expanded, including the Bibliographies of Ruth Freitag of the Library of Congress. The address is http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~pbrosche/iaucomm41, which may also be accessed from the IAU home page at http://www.iau.org. If you have ideas for further useful information on the web, please contact Wolfgang.

Membership and Member Activities

C 41 membership now stands at 146 members and 19 consultants. We encourage other IAU members to apply for membership, and hope that each C41 member will encourage their IAU colleagues with serious historical interests to join. Note that the "three-Commission limit" rule does not apply to C 41. Requests for membership should be sent directly to me, for action at the next General Assembly.

There have been so many additions and corrections to the Membership list circulated with Newsletter Issue #2 that I now enclose a complete and updated list. Please continue to send corrections. I hope this list serves to increase communication among our far-flung membership.

This Newsletter serves to keep C 41 membership informed of member activities. Please send me information on your current activities and publications, which may be used either for the Newsletter, or for the IAU's triennial Reports on Astronomy, which are supposed to give an international overview of our field. Although not due until October, 1999, it is not too early to send news of your activities and publications now.

Member Deaths

Derek Howse

Derek Howse, author of Greenwich Time and the Discovery of the Longitude (1980), a biography of Nevil Maskelyne (1989), and other works in history of astronomy and navigation, died on 28, July, 1998. An obituary will appear in a future issue.

Heino Eelsalu

From T. Viik, Director, Tartu Observatory:

It is with deep sorrow that we announce the death of our long-time friend and colleague, Dr. HEINO EELSALU, who died on July 26, 1998, at the age of 68 in Tartu, Estonia.

Heino Eelsalu was not only an outstanding astronomer, but also a very active historian of astronomy. For some years he was a member of the OC of IAU Comm. 41 (History of Astronomy). Besides a large number of articles, he published two scientific books on history of astronomy: One on paleoastronomy (in Estonian, translated into German), and a biography of Johann Heinrich Maedler (in German, together with D.B.Herrmann). The above mentioned popular encyclopedia contains also many entries from the history of astronomy.

Struve Arc Update

A report on the present state of the move to have portions of the Struve arc declared World Heritage sites.

Alan Batten

In July, I took part in a meeting of the ad hoc Commission on the History of Surveying during the Federation Internationale des Géomètres (International Federation of Surveyors, or FIG) General Assembly in Brighton, U.K. I had been invited to present a paper on Struve's measurement of the arc of the meridian through Dorpat. Our former president Suzanne Débarbat was also presenting an invited paper. Contacts made during this meeting enabled me to bring myself up-to-date on the plans to have as many as possible of the sites associated with Struve's survey declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO. Members of our Commission will recall that we adopted a resolution supporting this during our meeting at The Hague in 1994, and that the General Assembly subsequently endorsed our resolution. So far, neither of the two General Secretaries who have held office since have felt that they had sufficient information to write a formal letter expressing the Union's support. The matter still has not progressed to that stage, but some progress has been made and more has occurred since I was in Brighton.

Apart from the session in which I gave my paper, I attended a small committee meeting devoted to discussing plans about the Struve arc and other plans to make the ad hoc Commission a permanent commission of FIG. The latter in fact was approved by their General Assembly the day after I left Brighton. I believe our Commission might well offer to cooperate with the FIG Permanent Commission. The presence of two of our own members in Brighton is sufficient evidence of overlap in our interests. Perhaps we could invite one of their officers to serve as a consultant to our Commission. Either Jan de Graeve of Belgium or Jim Smith of the UK, respectively President and Secretary of the ad hoc Commission, would be suitable. I went so far as to suggest that we might occasionally hold joint symposia which, if officially approved by the IAU, would have some financial support.

Documentation of the sites associated with the Struve arc is being assembled in the office of the National Land Survey of Finland, under the supervision of Heli Ursin-Iivanainen. She was present in Brighton and struck me as a competent and efficient worker, as well as being very friendly and approachable. I intend to put her in touch with our General Secretary, as she is the person who will know best when IAU official support is needed, and who will be able to give the necessary assurance that documentation is complete. My impression in Brighton was that this stage might not come within the tenure of the present GS, but I have since learned that a FIG representative is traveling to Helsinki and Pulkovo, and will meet someone from UNESCO in Finland. Things may move a little more quickly after that.

The aim is to preserve as many of the sites associated with the survey as possible, but not to interfere with any that may have fallen into private hands. The motive for all this is not simply historical pietas, there is a possibility, if enough sites can be preserved, that the measurements could be repeated very quickly with the help of the Global Positioning System. This would be a useful check on the precision of the original measurements, and, if the latter prove to have been accurate enough, could lead to the determination of real changes since Struve's time. There is doubt whether even Struve's work was of high enough precision for this, and the published results may not be detailed enough for us to tell, so the project involves a search for archival material that, I suspect, will be found somewhere in the St Petersburg Academy -- if it still exists at all. No-one at the meeting was sure that large relative crustal movements were to be expected along the Struve arc, so there are also plans to consult with geophysicists.

I was impressed by the business-like approach of the people spearheading this move to preserve the Struve sites. They are well aware that they must prepare a good case for UNESCO and stress the scientific importance of the sites as well as the historical interest. I do not think there is much danger that they will go to UNESCO with a badly prepared case, and I have no regrets at all that we have already associated ourselves with their initiative. They are in a better position than we are to pursue this matter, and we must be patient until the time for action comes.

The Royal Astronomical Society's Library and Archives

Peter D. Hingley, Librarian, Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society has been accumulating books and manuscripts since its foundation in 1820 February. Originally only a `box of books', it has grown to occupy quite a large proportion of the Society's premises in Burlington House, Piccadilly , London, and has an open shelf stock of about 12,000 `modern' books (i.e. post 1850) , about 4,000 books and pamphlets before 1850, and the remaining 16,000 volumes are bound periodicals, some of them of great age. The Library is primarily a research library dealing with modern astronomy and seeks to maintain a balanced, if not comprehensive, stock of books in the subjects of astronomy and geophysics. The majority of serious journals in astronomy are held from volume 1. Many journals are held dealing with the more theoretical aspects of geophysics but the monographs stocks in this field are less complete. It also has extensive collections for the history of astronomy, and some on that of geophysics.

The crème de la crème of the Rare Books is the collection bequeathed by the late Colonel E H Grove-Hills on his death in 1923. The Library has also subsumed the very interesting Library of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society (1717 - 1846) though alas quite a lot of their books were subsequently disposed of; we probably have about 800 left including journal volumes. The Archives were catalogued by Dr J A Bennett whose catalogue was published as the last issue of the Society's Memoirs in 1978 (Volume 85). They include both the administrative papers of the Society, and its correspondence with its members, from the first days of its existence onwards, (and although there are many famous names in those pages sadly this material can induce a certain ennui in the researcher as much of it is purely administrative). These are referred to as `RAS PAPERS' and `RAS LETTERS'.

Much more varied and interesting are the `RAS MSS', which are a wide ranging collection of deposits of papers from individuals and a few observatories . They include material from such interesting people as Sir James South, Francis Baily, William Lassell, the complete run of Heinrich Schwabe's sunspot observing books from which he derived his original results about periodicity, Madras Observatory, and many more. Overwhelmingly the most important group of manuscript material owned by the RAS is its manuscripts of Sir William, Miss Caroline, and Sir John Herschel. A microfilm of this is available (24 reels !) but until very recently it has been stored in the archives strongroom of Churchill College , Cambridge; it has just been returned to Burlington House.

The `ADD MSS' are an even more varied collection, including material in many formats and types. Due to constraints of time and finance Dr Bennett's catalogue was selective - generally the names listed of correspondents are only those important enough to be in `Poggendorff's Biographisch-Literarisches Handworterbuch...' , and, alas, there is no subject index. This has been partly addressed by having a scanned file made of the catalogue which has been proof-read by myself and the corrections inserted - though inevitably there are still some errors- so that simple searches can be done by names or subjects. As time has gone on more material has come to light, and a supplementary list is slowly being compiled, again in WORD so simple searches are possible, though alas due to time constraints progress has been painfully slow.

Numerous small manuscript items were discovered by searching through the Library's `Tract' collection and things get found or are donated. Interesting deposits of material added since Dr Bennett's catalogue have included proof and MS versions of George Bishop's `Charts of the Ecliptic', additional papers of James Glaisher, and observing material of the Revd T E R Phillips, the Revd T W Webb, and A G Shrimpton. Some work has also been done on the RAS's photographic holdings; the collection is strong in portraits and photographs of telescopes and eclipse expeditions; the collection of astronomical photographs is only now being explored; there are major deposits of prints by A A Common, George Bishop, Max Wolff and Paul et Prosper Henry while there are several thousand glass plates in many varying formats. At long last conservation enclosures and space are available for the sorting out of these but again time is very limited.

The Library is not actually a public one and is maintained for and financed by the Society. With a staff of only two it is difficult to deal with the many public enquiries from people wanting to name stars after their Granny (!) or see the next eclipse. We do however welcome many overseas researchers each year and as far as possible answer incoming research enquiries from non Fellows. It is really essential however that any non-members wishing to use the Library should make contact in advance by e-mail, telephone, or letter, especially if they wish to use special collections material. They should also be prepared to prove their identity with a University staff card or the like.

Other News in History of Astronomy

From New Zealand

Wayne Orchiston (New Zealand) reports that Nautical Astronomy in New Zealand, fondly known as the "Cook book", has been published. It is the first book published specifically on NZ astronomical history, and the first English language book on Cook voyage astronomy published since the 1780s.

Dr. Orchiston also reports that the second issue of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage will be out in December, and will include papers by Hans Haubold on "UN/ESA Workshops on Basic Space Science: an initiative in the worldwide development of astronomy", David Hughes on "The historical investigation of cometary brightness", and John Briggs and Don Osterbrock on "The challenges and frustrations of a veteran astronomical optician: Robert Lundin, 1880-1962". Also an obituary of Derek Howse (a member of the Editorial Board) by Patrick Moore; Ruth Freitag's bibliographies, and book reviews.

From Canada

Ed Kennedy reports that it the June 1998 General Assembly of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the National Council conferred on him a Special Lifetime Service Award, the first such award made in the 108 year history of the RASC. The citation reads as follows: "This award, made possible by special resolution of the National Council of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, is in recognition of Professor Kennedy's exceptionally long and devoted service to the Society, and for his untiring efforts to promote and preserve the historical record of the development of astronomy in Canada."

From UK

Peter D. Hingley Reports on several items as follows:


Astronomers visiting the West Country and the Channel Islands for the Eclipse of 1999 August 11 may like to note that there are at least three astronomical history exhibitions being planned to coincide with this, plus a major publication, for which see the item below. They will all include material from the RAS Library and Archives. The exhibitions are in the planning stages, and titles have not been finalised, but are planned to be:


Eclipses, Transits and other astronomical expeditions, plus some local connections. Will feature Guernsey born Warren de la Rue extensively.


Cornish Astronomers [we have found five and a half, so far !] and local astronomical connections.


Exhibition on Navigation and Astronomy, to coincide with major conference on this subject at the University of Plymouth.


To coincide with the opening of the exhibition and to celebrate the Eclipse the Royal Institution of Cornwall plans to publish early in 1999 the Manuscript autobiography of Edwin Dunkin (born in Truro in 1821, Chief Assistant at Greenwich Observatory, and died 1898). This has been in the RAS Archives since the 1970s and is being transcribed and edited by P D Hingley (Librarian, RAS) and Miss T C Daniel (Curator of Art and Exhibitions, Royal Cornwall Museum). Dr Allan Chapman has kindly agreed to contribute a preface. The text itself is about 58,000 words to which has been added a 12,000 word introduction and about 60,000 words in 11 appendices. As well as his work at Greenwich under Airy Dunkin writes of longitude determinations; the Harton Colliery pendulum experiments which he superintended; the commissioning of several major Greenwich instruments; Cornish lore, customs and antiquities; visiting Cornish copper mines; Travel by rail and sea between Cornwall and London; the 1850 Norway eclipse ; and the genesis of his wonderful book `The Midnight Sky' with its engravings of the Northern and Southern skies over Table Mountain, St Paul's Cathedral, and Greenwich itself. It appears that Dunkin was the first person to publish monthly articles with illustrations of the sky in a general circulation magazine.


There has never been a full biography of Webb; `Patron Saint' of the Webb Society and author of `Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes', he is regarded as an inspirational figure by many modern amateur astronomers and seems to have been a most lovable man. This attempt arose out of an exhibition held at Hardwicke, Herefordshire, the very rural parish in the Welsh border country of which Webb was vicar for many years, in 1990; in the last year I have donned my size 14 seaboots and started to kick people into activity!

The volume will be edited by Mark Robinson - Mark and Janet Robinson own Webb's former vicarage, which they run as an extremely comfortable country guest house, (highly recommended !), and P.D.Hingley, Librarian of the RAS. We are fortunate in that a most eminent panel of historians and astronomers have agreed to contribute and we are now at the stage of collecting summaries and biographies and looking for a publisher. There are a great many aspects to Webb's life and chapters are planned to cover all aspects of his observing, natural history and the countryside, seismology, family life, churchmanship and a major chapter on the Victorian clergyman as astronomer. There is a vague target date of mid 2000 for the publication but this is only an `Idea in the mind of God' at present. There have been several previous attempts to write Webb up and they have always come to a sticky end for various reasons. We have the impression that there is a Herefordshire equivalent of the `Curse of the Mummy' on the project, so we are working on the assumption that if there a lot of us it can't get us all; or can it....................??

From USA

Digital Publishing Project

Patrick Ames, the CEO of Octavo Corporation in Palo Alto California reports a new digital facsimile publishing project. Through partnerships with libraries and institutions, Octavo has recently published, in CD Rom form, several foundational works in the history of science, including Galileo's Siderius Nuncius (1610) in the original Latin and with commentary and an English translation by Albert Van Helden. In November they are releasing Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543) with Edward Rosen's English translation and commmentary by Owen Gingerich. Both editions contain searchable text in Latin and English. The Company intends to offer more than 100 titles by the year 2000. More information, including a list of current and forthcoming editions as well as downloadable samples, is abatable at www.octavo.com.


The Fourth Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop will be held July 1-4, 1999 at the University of Notre Dame. Co-Program Chairs are Michael Crowe and Steven Dick. Matthew Dowd will serve as local arrangements chair. Persons having suggestions or proposals should write as soon as possible to either

Steven J. Dick
U.S. Naval Observatory
3450 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20392-5420
E-mail: dick@ariel.usno.navy.mil
tel. 202-762-0379


Michael J. Crowe
Program of Liberal Studies
Univ. of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556
E-mail: Crowe.1@nd.edu
tel. 219-631-6212.

For Registration information, contact:
Center for Continuing Education
Univ. of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556
E-mail: cce.cce.1@nd.edu

For Local Arrangements information, contact:
Matthew F. Dowd
Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science
Univ. of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556
E-mail: Matthew.F.Dowd.11@nd.edu

Third International Conference on Oriental Astronomy, Japan, October 27-30, 1998

The Third International Conference on Oriental Astronomy was held in Fukuoka, Japan, October 27-30, 1998. The First Conference was held in Seoul, Korea in 1992, and the Second Conference in Yingtan, China in 1995. This year, the theme was "From Calendar Scholars to Telescopes." The program included sessions on calendar making, star catalogues and atlases, historical records of astronomical observations, instrumentation, observatories, and exchange of astronomical knowledge between Asian countries and Japan. Dr. Kwan-yu Chen may be contacted for more information at Dept. of Astronomy, University of Florida, 211 SSRB, Gainsville, FL 32611. Also see the web site at http://www.fukuoka-edu.ac.jp/meeting/ICOA.html, or e-mail ICOA@fukuoka-edu.ac.jp.

Future Newsletters

Items for future Newsletters should be sent to

Steven J. Dick
U.S. Naval Observatory
3450 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20392-5420

or (preferably) by e-mail to dick@ariel.usno.navy.mil

IAU Commission 41

HTML version: Wolfgang R. Dick, 17 Nov 1998